“Bet you can’t eat just one” may have entered the vernacular as the tag line for potato chips, but I have come to think of it as the slogan for ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchises. So long as I stay away, I could not be more indifferent to this long-running reality series wherein a man or a woman attempts to find true love by dating 25 people in a very short period of time, commits heinous crimes against the word “connection” (all apologies to E.M. Forster, but my other, alternate "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" slogan is “Only connect!”), deludes him or herself into thinking he or she is really in love, and then ends his or her relationship in the months after the cameras go off. Of 23 completed installments, "The Bachelor/ette" has spawned one marriage. But all my sanguine dismissiveness flies out the window whenever I actually watch an episode. “The Bachelor/ette” is one of the stickiest reality shows that exists. Due to some addictive alchemy of repetition, stupidity, hope and flashes of genuine humanity, it is impossible to eat just one.
This is all a roundabout way of confessing that I have somehow (“somehow”) gotten extremely involved with this season of “The Bachelorette,” which stars single mother Emily Maynard, who previously “won” an installment of “The Bachelor,” only to find out the bachelor in question was more interested in remaining a bachelor than he had seemed. It’s been a while since I watched a cycle of “The Bachelor/ette” from start to finish and as this season nears its conclusion (the finale airs in two weeks) I have been struck, again, by just how strange this show is about sex.
Last night’s episode of “The Bachelorette” was the de rigueur fantasy suite episode. On any season of “The Bachelor/ette,” toward the end, the show moves down to some romantic, tropical location and gives the main participant a chance to hang out with his or her suitors all night, in a fancy hotel room, without the cameras on. Presumably, on fantasy suite night, the inhabitants of said fantasy suite, a man and a woman who have been making out for weeks and weeks with all their clothes on like frustrated 14-year-olds, do the deed, or something approximating the deed. Insofar as “The Bachelor/ette” is actually interested in making sustained matches — and at this point, there’s no reason to think it is, as it has failed to do so somewhere close to 99 percent of the time— this seems wise. If you’re going to get engaged to someone, it makes sense to have had at least one honest, real, un-filmed sexual encounter with your fiancé before they become your fiancé.
But there is also something so untoward and gross about the fantasy suite. We watch as a man or woman has sex with two or three different people on consecutive nights, and this very carnal form of evaluating a partner is discussed only in terms of romance. “The Bachelor/ette” is basically pimping out a handful of people — one of whom is going to get dumped on national television right after giving it up — in the name of “forming a lasting connection.” Something stinks. As a way to keep the ickiness from entering the foreground, “The Bachelor/ette” is always extremely coy about what went down in the fantasy suite. The morning after, the bachelor/ette never talks about what happened in detail, how it was, whether it was good or bad. One of the most concrete events to occur on the show is left in the vaguest possible terms, lest we recognize how unseemly it is.
But the extent to which the fantasy suite night is all about sex, however many hot tubs and flowers and candles and other cheap signifiers of romance the set designers have tricked the suite out with, was made plain on last night’s “Bachelorette.” Emily forwent the fantasy suite with all her suitors. Her point was that as a mother of a 6-year-old and a role model, she really didn’t want to be seen shagging three guys in three days. Instead, she took two of the guys — Sean, who got booted at the end of the episode, and Jef with one F — to the suite, made out with them, talked about how great they were, and then sent them home. The last guy, Arie, whom Emily really loves making out with — she has told us so close to a dozen times — didn’t even get to come to the suite, the implication being Emily did not think she would be capable of kicking him out once she got him there.
Emily cried at many points in last night’s episode, but one of those times came as she explained that she wasn’t bringing Arie to the fantasy suite. Emily is cagier than almost all the bachelorettes who have come before her. She has one child at home and wants more kids “yesterday,” so she is a woman on a mission. She has been described as unemotive, but I have found her focus endearing: It’s made her a better judge of character, or at least a blunter one, than most contestants usually are. The bar on “Bachelor” bluntness, however, is set very, very low, so Emily still utters more than her fair share of sentences lacking all content. As she talked about Arie last night, the part that seemed meaningful was not her empty, filler words, but her tears — she was really sad that ... she was not going to be able to have sex with him? I suspect that is mostly because she knows she is never going to have sex with him, since she is soon to throw him over.
Arie is the man with whom Emily has the best chemistry, but having great chemistry with the bachelor/ette is extremely likely to make you the runner-up of this reality series. Often on this show, as the contestant narrows down the suitors, he or she will begin to talk about the finalists in terms of chemistry or values. There is the person whom the bachelor/ette is extremely hot for, and the person he or she can imagine “sharing a life” with. Either through editing or a sort of encouraged pattern of thought, the contestant begins to describe the last two suitors in terms of the virgin-whore dichotomy, wherein the person he or she really wants to have sex with is different from the person he or she thinks is most appropriate and likely to make a better wife, husband, mother, father.
This tension has played out in endless numbers of “Bachelors” (Andrew Baldwin’s season and Jason Mesnick’s both followed this pattern. Both ended up picking the “appropriate” partner. They both broke up with them, and Mesnick went back to his chemistry chick after the show ended. They are now married), and looks to be playing out with Emily as well. Arie, whom she is very attracted to, is a race car driver who doesn’t live in one place and has strange European parents. She may not want to make out with Jef with one F nearly as much, but he is sweet and thoughtful and asks constantly about her kid and seems — despite looking like he is 17 — much more emotionally prepared to start a family “yesterday.”
Because of the strangeness that is “The Bachelor,” its understanding of itself as a show about romance and not about sex, a show about lasting connections and not short-term entertainment, the contestant almost always ends up picking the appropriate partner, the values partner, the romantic partner, and not the chemistry one. I’m not sure that picking based on sex appeal would up “The Bachelor/ettes” success rare — though, both Trista and Ryan and Jason and Molly, the two successful “Bachelor”-related relationships, were chemistry matches — but picking based on values seems even sillier. If you’re attracted to someone through all the nonsense of a reality TV show, you are probably really attracted to them. When the cameras go off, at least you will have one thing to do. If you think you share values with someone based on spending a handful of on-camera moments with them, you are probably in for a surprise.
For all these reasons, I am rooting for Arie. But who knows. Jef with one F has very nice hair, a huge ranch in Utah, and parents with enough sense not to want to be on a reality show. Maybe, this time, there really is romance, not just lighting rigs, in the air.