"Bachelor" party hangover

Confused manchild Jesse Palmer fumbles his final play, leaving one girl swooning and another heaving at the side of the road.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published May 21, 2004 2:48PM (EDT)

"The best thing that could happen would be that after meeting the women, my family would either say, 'Jesse, we think Tara is unbelievable,' or 'Jesse, we think Jessica is the one for you.' That would be ideal." -- "Bachelor" Jesse Palmer on choosing his future bride

Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that masculinity is indeed in crisis, N.Y. Giants quarterback Jesse Palmer confessed to his diary this week that choosing between finalists Tara and Jessica -- two tall, pretty, camera-conscious blondes whose differences aren't visible to the naked eye -- would be super-duper tough, so tough that he wished that his mommy and daddy would pick for him.

So the fifth season's finale of "The Bachelor" began with Jesse urging his family to tell him which woman they liked better. No help there: Mom preferred Jessica, Dad preferred Tara. Then Jesse begged his friend Nick to tell him which woman he should choose. Appearing shocked and a little bit disgusted, Nick wisely refused, but his wife, Jenny, who served as a spy for Jesse during the course of the show, said that while she liked Tara best, she thought that Jessica would be a better fit for Jesse.

Maybe he should've just flipped a coin. Or maybe his parents should've chosen for him, or the rejected contestants should've selected the right girl, or America should've voted on who should be Jesse's bride. Watching another supposedly sure-footed, square-jawed hero suffer and sweat inelegantly over his final decision really makes you wonder why "The Bachelor" centers on one man's choice at all, particularly when you consider the drippy mouth-breathers ABC has dragged, kicking and screaming, into this damnable charade from the start.

Alex, the first Bachelor, was one of the most confused, oddly ineffectual humans ever to stumble across a reality TV casting director's cross hairs. Unable to express how he felt about what he ate for breakfast each morning, let alone which woman he preferred, Alex resorted to an age-old method of selecting dates: He chose the women who treated him with an appropriate degree of scorn. A sweet-natured but bland girl named Amanda slipped through the cracks nonetheless, and despite being far too easygoing and accepting to make Alex happy, she won his final rose with one well-timed remark about how she just loved to play dress-up. As Alex's eyes glazed over and his mind filled with images of dirty secretaries and naughty nurses vivid enough to incur the FCC's wrath, we discovered that Amanda was far smarter than she looked.

Played like a fiddle on national TV, Alex set the tone for the herd of hapless Bachelors to come. Bachelor No. 2 Aaron ("This one's rich!" the promos practically squealed), who had all the personality of a plate of pinto beans, had little beyond cash money to win over his gaggle of ladies. Luckily, passion was beside the point, since by the second round every current and former beauty queen in the country was angling for inclusion in this latest form of girly competition. Acting on pageant-circuit instincts from the start, the girls spent the season slathering Vaseline on their pearly whites and rehearsing their answers to the toughest interview -- I mean dream date -- questions without regard for whether Aaron was all that much of a prize.

I can't remember Bachelor No. 3, but I think his name was Andrew.

Bachelor No. 4, also known as "Bachelor Bob," was supposed to be the bachelor to end all bachelors. Smart, charming and full of well-nigh hilarious jokes, Bachelor Bob seemed destined to finally be a man-boy worth fighting for. Still, even during his initial stint competing for baby-voiced Trista Rehn on "The Bachelorette," Bob didn't have much personality, beyond a few self-deprecating asides and a couple of hammy pranks. Of course, compared to the dry wheat toast pretty boys he was up against, Bob looked like a cross between Jon Stewart and Viggo Mortensen. But once Bachelor B had his very own show, he followed in Alex's self-conscious footsteps, performing the obligatory "It hurts me so much to kiss the girls and make them cry" act while keeping his real desires a secret.

While weakly attempting to conceal the outcome is part of the program on "The Bachelor," Jesse Palmer seemed to find his final decision just as arbitrary as the viewers at home did, taking this fine tradition of gun-shy, weak-kneed Bachelors to new heights. But that's to be expected, since Jesse has offered little new territory for "Bachelor" fans from the start, beyond the jaw-dropping eeriness of telling every single woman that they look great in the same exact tone of voice, then kissing every woman in the same creepily matter-of-fact way, mumbling as he leans in for some tongue-play.

But then, can we really blame him? After all, quarterbacks are trained to run the same patterns over and over again, and when you have a lot of success with one set play, it probably feels pretty risky to mix things up. Plus, given his lack of spontaneity and difficulty conjuring up the liquid intelligence required to think on his feet or interact with different women in different ways, it makes sense that Jesse would rely on his parents and peers to make his big decision for him.

But with Mom and Dad in disagreement and Nick and Jenny sending mixed messages, how would Jesse ever choose? Well, why not do what so many men have done before when they couldn't decide between two women, and take both women shopping for engagement rings?

That's how we found ourselves squirming through identical scenes of giddiness and glee, as both button-nosed blondes giggled and gushed about what a big moment it was for them and then -- big surprise -- chose the exact same ring.

Jesse responded to his ambivalence -- how else? -- by playing his part so well that words like "commitment" and "big decision" and "the rest of my life" became placeholders for real expressions of fondness. So we spent a good hour hearing Jesse pound home how significant and life-altering each moment with each woman was without actually hinting at what, specifically, he liked about either woman or really any of the factors that might go into his decision. Most of all, he seemed to want to know that neither woman would turn him down if he proposed.

Likewise, from the empty scenes we were treated to, Tara and Jessica didn't seem all that curious about Jesse's personality beyond the camera or what life as a third-string quarterback's wife might look like (third-string if he makes the team, that is -- the Giants just traded for No. 1 draft pick Eli Manning, Peyton Manning's little brother). No discussion of this arose at all, even when Jesse warned Jessica that, as his wife, she'd be in the stands while thousands of people were booing him.

"The point of a relationship isn't to be there only through the good times," she says, and any minute we expect the camera to pan over to a Dr. Phil-penned teleprompter.

And so, there's champagne and flowers and almost no passion in the air as Jesse leans in for stiff, camera-ready kisses again and again, reminds us again how great both women look, how really special they each are, and how he has to make "a really big decision" about which woman he wants "to spend the rest of [his] life with."

Strummy strum strum goes the weak "Bachelor"-style guitar. Jesse is overwhelmed and he's confused and he really doesn't know what to do. The girls, meanwhile, are scared and nervous and sad. It's stunning, really, that the producers bother casting new women and men each season, considering that the scripts for the finales are identical to each other, and that the protagonists so rarely venture far from the script.

"I think tonight, above everything else, the best thing that would happen is for me to hear Jesse say that he loves me," Jessica tells us, but it could just as easily be Tara or Trista or Meredith or any of the hopeful brides, past, present and future.

"I think we both came here for the same reasons, we're both looking for that person to spend the rest of our life with. And to hear that would just solidify everything for me." Even if he's reading from a cue card?

But then, at the last minute, Tara starts acting unexpectedly human. "I don't care about a proposal or anything like that," she says through tears. "I just want to be with him." And the next thing you know she's projectile vomiting by the side of the road.

See what happens when you go off-script?

But Jesse knows better than to improvise. Now he's reporting that he's completely sure about which girl to choose, in fact, it's been obvious all along. He wants to spend the rest of his life with this gal. He's always known that, really. Did he know the minute he saw her? It sure seems like it now.

While Tara's arrival is delayed by her vomiting, Jesse is spitting out lines from "Jerry Maguire," telling Jessica that she makes him a better person. "I believe that you and I were meant to meet each other." Amazing, how quickly we emerge from chaos, into the loving arms of fate!

"I will make you the happiest woman in the world," Jesse says, but we're less convinced. What if you get cut by the Giants, Jesse? Can you make Jessica the happiest woman in the world in Cleveland? Houston? Buffalo?

Finally, Tara arrives, showing the severe side effects of having cast out her script hours earlier. She asks for a minute to gather her nerves. She stumbles to the Proposal Area and asks for tissues because she's crying and flipping out. Then she makes "Bachelor" franchise history and tells Jesse that she's been having extremely bad feelings all day -- that's right, extremely bad feelings -- and she's not sure if it's because he's not going to choose her, or if it's because her friend Jessica is going to get hurt. But either way, she says, this whole thing is wrong.

"Wait!" Jesse's face seems to say. "This is not your line! This is the part where I'm supposed to reject you gracefully!" So he tells her that she can get all negative and psychic and human on her own time, because he's already told Jessica -- you know, the other one -- that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her.

Tara is angry. "Jesse did a lot of things that were completely inappropriate if he was going to end up with another girl," she tells us on the white limo ride to hell that follows. Like what things? Dirty things? Things involving butter knives and plastic twine and ripe fruit? Please be more specific.

But it's too late. Tara is no longer woozy, so she's reading straight from her script again.

Back at Proposal Alley, Jesse gives Jessica the final rose, which really makes him seem manly and decisive after all, at least until he announces their breakup on "The Today Show" a few weeks from now. Jessica, for her part, says she feels like the happiest, luckiest girl in the whole world.

Almost exactly like that, in fact.

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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