Last man standing

Roses are red, Charlie is blue. Trista, the majorly stacked all-American dream girl of "The Bachelorette," chooses the shy fireman-poet over the charismatic Californian.

Published February 20, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Maybe it was the campy thrill of watching a bunch of men compete over one woman, or the fact that Trista seemed more genuine in her search for a partner than Alex or Aaron did, in their pitch-perfect blandness. Maybe it was the way the men of "The Bachelorette" managed to have a great time, giving each other shit, goofing around and drinking too much, instead of referring to each other's "pageant experience" or tearily confessing that they were madly in love after one brief encounter, the way the women did in their quest for "The Bachelor's" plastic replica of a heart. While Bachelor #1 and Bachelor #2 were amazingly lifelike, nodding and smiling insincerely through each episode, Trista was a genuine American dream girl: Petite, fun, straightforward, sharp and built like a brick shithouse. It's no wonder ABC received so many love letters from men pining for this woman after simpering girly-man Alex rejected her.

But if the best that can be said for "The Bachelorette" is that it was much more entertaining than either season of "The Bachelor," you really have to wonder why you wasted so much time watching it in the first place.

But then, that's the million-dollar question of reality TV, preferably posed with the raw vitriol of "Joe Millionaire's" Alison, who, lying prone on her bed in the castle, was heard to proclaim, "Continental breakfast is horseshit." If we hate it so much, why do we keep on watching? If it makes us sick and weak and queasy, like poor Alison after a cup of coffee and a stale cheese danish from some glorified craft-services table, why are we still hungry for more?

Because we're hoping for some sort of satisfying conclusion, and on that mark, at least, "The Bachelorette" definitely delivered. After the horrifyingly stilted finale of "Joe Millionaire," our expectations were incredibly low. But when Trista sent Charlie away stunned, and then Ryan got down on one knee and proposed with sincerity? The producers must've been pinching themselves -- you couldn't have scripted a finale any better than this.

Which was good, because after a relatively titillating start, with a lovely array of man-whores trussed up in tuxedos and arriving every two minutes with shit-eating grins on their faces like actors at a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo casting call, "The Bachelorette" slid downhill, slowly but steadily, over the course of its short season. Soon Trista began to try our patience, with her feigned squeals of delight and her prissy dislike of cold weather and cramped Manhattan apartments. How could she think Jamie was deeply insecure, when clearly he was just panic-stricken over spending time with her? How could she tear up over Ryan's atrociously juvenile poetry? How did she overlook Rob, the sweetly shy computer boy with the overstyled hair? How could she dismiss Bob, aka the fat guy, when he was the only one in the early episodes who seemed to have a pulse?

But "The Bachelorette" still managed to entertain us occasionally, thanks to the creepily aggressive Russ, whom Trista had to string along for half the show out of shame over their first dramatic tongue-hockey match in Las Vegas. Watching Russ become increasingly threatened by Trista's lack of interest was somehow a sweet revenge for the hours of reality TV devoted to women weeping and attacking each other over some deeply unsavory, badly cast Prince Charming. And for female viewers who rarely get a peak behind the curtain at unguarded male insecurity, there's nothing quite like watching a cocky guy get progressively more neurotic and defensive as rejection looms.

The pain of Russ' public humiliation apparently hadn't dimmed by the time "The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All" was recorded. Blatantly contradicting the (perhaps shrewdly edited) interaction we witnessed, he announced that he passed up the chance to spend the night with Trista because "romantically, I just wasn't into it anymore." Moments later, Trista emerged to set the record straight: You wanted me and you know it, jerk. Based on those glimpses of her in her bikini in the shower, it's tough to imagine otherwise.

And, spoiler gossip columns aside, you've got to hand it to the post-production editors of "The Bachelorette." They pieced together Trista's comments and the shots of her kissing each guy so carefully, it was really difficult to tell whom she would choose -- which was good, because without any suspense, those two hours of TV viewing would have ranged from grueling to downright inhumane. True, during the first few seconds of the show we saw Trista cuddling with a stuffed Shamu that Ryan got her. But after seeing Charlie interact with her family, it was tough not to think that fireman-poets were going to be the newest addition to the endangered species list.

Oddly enough, soon-to-be-rejected Charlie's session with Trista's family was probably the highlight of the whole finale. From the second he walked in, Trista's mom and stepmom were drooling over him in the kitchen.

Stepmom (lustily): "Makes me wish I wasn't ..."

Mom: "I know, I wish I was 30!"

Next, they pull out an awful photograph of Trista just to embarrass her, and then start grilling Charlie with dorky but hilarious questions they wrote on little slips of paper and picked from a bowl. "What is under your bed?" (Dustbunnies, says Charlie.) "Besides your face, what other part of your body do you shave?" (Charlie admits to "clipping" his chest hair.)

My God, forget Charlie. I want to marry into this family!

But then Ryan shows up and ruins the fun with his overly earnest stuttering.

Ryan: "There was a moment in Vail when she was sitting on my couch, after my parents had just left? And she was just kind of, kind of almost sleeping ..."

Trista (using the baby voice): "Snuggling!"

Ryan: "Sleeping ... on my shoulder? And we weren't saying anything, and it was kind of a turning point for me? Because it was ... I had sat there on my couch millions of times, watching TV, like, wishing I had someone sleeping on my shoulder, just like that?"

Trista: "Awww!"

Cut to dad's face, looking skeptical. So my daughter is that special throw pillow you've been dreaming of, huh?

Ryan: "You know, she was there, and it was kind of like, the realization of all of this, that I had always hoped for? So, that's kind of when I really started to say ..."

Mom: "I need that rose!"

Trista's family appears to need some comic relief, after that lengthy bit of heartfelt fumbling. Still, they can see that this weird guy is sincere, particularly when he insists on isolating Trista's dad in order to ask him for his daughter's hand in marriage. Come on, I thought this show was supposed to be role reversal!

No such luck. Both men pick out rings, Charlie proclaims his utter confidence in himself and the universe, and then Trista gives him the heave-ho. It's almost exciting to see such a studly charmer get the shaft, except for the fact that we liked him much better.

So Charlie is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as he rides away in the limo, and we feel really crappy and full of sympathy and raw lust for him. But then Trista explains that Charlie was sooo great, but Ryan was really, truly in love. And we believe her -- based on all that bad poetry he was writing, his heart had to be on fire, because the smoke was cutting off the oxygen to his brain.

But by the time Ryan gets down on one knee and proposes with tears in his eyes, we've all but forgotten about stupid studly Charlie. Clearly, Ryan is the one for Trista, from the very start! From that first date with Shamu! Who cares if he's just a fireman who writes crappy poems? He looks really good in his boxers!

Maybe the real triumph of "The Bachelorette" was that, by the end of the season, we felt like we knew Trista pretty damn well. In contrast to Alex and Aaron, who seemed progressively less knowable and less human each week, until, by the finale, it might as well have been Max Headroom proposing, Trista's reactions to these men were real. From the way she sighed and slouched when she was bored and sexually uninterested, to that smirk that said "Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?" to her rapid blinking, signaling her frustration with whichever numbskull was misinterpreting her pure intentions at the time, Trista played the role of high-maintenance princess with stunning conviction. By the finale, you had a sense of who Trista really was, warts and all. Whether her ability to reveal herself while the cameras rolled makes her America's sweetheart or a complete freak is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.

As for Ryan, given his fawning demeanor, he seems poised and ready to give baby Trista all the pandering and pampering she deserves. Happily ever after? Maybe not, but at least they should last long enough for next year's special, "Trista and Ryan Tell All." After a year of waist-high snow and bad poetry, Trista might look less like America's dream girl and more like the wife in "The Shining." But what could possibly make a better tell-all than a wild-eyed Ryan, hissing, "Put the bat down, Trista. Trista, give me the bat."

Here's hoping!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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