Welcome to this week’s “Cringe or Binge,” an ongoing series in which media critic Jennifer L. Pozner guides you toward intriguing media… and saves you from the rest.
CRINGE: “The Bachelorette,” ABC
“Who here thinks she’s going to end up alone?” host Chris Harrison asked the studio audience on Monday’s live finale of “The Bachelorette,” handily summarizing the lurid theme of season nine. The camera flitted from one uncomfortable giggling fan to another as Harrison, with his patented blend of smarmy charm, added, “Now you can’t really clap for that, can you?”
Except that’s exactly what ABC has been goading us to wonder all season. Ever since Desiree Hartsock became the franchise’s latest head husband-hunter in May, promo ads, bumps to commercial, and “tune in next week” teases have been drenched with leading-lady tears and hints at her heartbreak. These marketing devices, like most of the episodes themselves, were edited to emphasize her miserable desperation: Will she find her “Prince Charming” (roll supercut of Des snogging a dozen suitors in hot tubs, oceans, and alleyways) or will she spend three months dating twenty-five dudes and still end up the same sad, unwanted, broken babe she was when Sean Lowe, the 17th “Bachelor,” dumped her (cue footage of Des crying, “for me, it’s over!” as she’s rejected by various men in one exotic locale after another)? Tune in!
By the time we reached the cold open at the start of the second installment of the two-part season finale, the narrator’s dire query solidified the frame: “Will her dream of love be crushed forever?” That’s right, forever—because a primary through-line over 11 years and 26 seasons of the “Bachelor/ette” franchise (17 Bachelors, 9 Bachelorettes) is that women who don’t find their life partners on reality dating shows are doomed to die alone.
A big part of media literacy is learning to separate text from subtext. The text of “The Bachelorette”—its stated meaning and purpose—is that this series is a sincere quest to help a beautiful woman find “true love” from among a litter of “Prince Charmings,” so that they can live “happily ever after.” On the surface, everything seems to support that premise: Host Chris Harrison’s repeated promises that nearly every episode will feature “the most romantic [dates/European adventures/rose ceremonies/fantasy suites] ever.” Narration about Des’s “perfect fairytale” underscored by product-placement-soaked scenes set in a bridal shop, where Des and a dude she’s known for roughly fifteen minutes don a poufy wedding dress and designer tux and then hop into a $224,215 Bentley convertible to play pretend bride and groom on their first date. Cinematography that dwells on stunning mountains, oceans, and quaint village streets, with natural and architectural beauty subbing for emotional depth. Make-out scenes scored with sweeping instrumentals and sappy love songs; otherwise average dinner dates punctuated with fireworks bursting overhead.
Yet underneath the pretty princess fantasy, the subtext of “The Bachelorette” – just like its “Bachelor” progenitor – is carefully crafted and edited to reinforce ugly, regressive ideas about who women and men are supposed to be, what we’re supposed to want, and how we’re supposed to be treated. First and foremost among the franchise’s many damaging social constructs? Single, heterosexual women are pathetic losers who can never possibly be happy, fulfilled or successful without husbands, and no amount of humiliation or mistreatment is too great a cost for the chance to snag a blood diamond from some bloke with a firm ass, a fat wallet, and a relatively empty personality. And second? That we should revel in women’s humiliation because, according to series creator and executive producer Mike Fleiss, “It’s a lot of fun to watch girls crying. Never underestimate the value of that.”
On “The Bachelor,” one (always white) man chooses from twenty-five (mostly white) weepy waifs who alternately throw themselves at the lackluster bachelor du jour and cry, cry, cry about their fears of growing old as spinsters when he inevitably rejects them. Yet as I noted in my book, "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," though “The Bachelorette’s” pilot claims to flip the script to give women “all the power” “for the first time in TV history,” the show normalizes female submissiveness just as thoroughly as “The Bachelor” does. Despite her status as star, the Queen Bee always cries excessively; often speaks in grating baby talk (Desiree, thankfully, did not); and waits nervously to find out if the man she selects will or won’t propose to her, rather than taking the initiative to propose to the person she chooses. These representations are structurally imposed, a result of intentionally casting for people whose ideologies producers can rely on to make them behave in certain ways. They’re also aided by Frankenbite editing that creates master narratives about women’s desperation and men’s dominance, and storytelling arcs created to imply that dating, relationships and marriage haven’t much changed since “Father Knows Best.” Male stars of “The Bachelor” are defined largely by their careers and their wealth, while female contestants discuss giving up their jobs to be wives and potential future moms, with producers preferring to focus on their beauty, their fun-loving natures, and their devotion to friends and family. These patterns persist on “The Bachelorette,” where the genders of the star and contestants are swapped but the gendered expectations remain the same, including the explicit assumption that the women of both series will always be willing to leave their lives, jobs, friends and family behind to move across the country to follow a man. The franchise’s men, for their part, are rarely ever even asked if they’d consider doing the same (and with only a few exceptions are edited to appear stoic, angry or largely unfazed when they’re rejected).
And so it went in the finale, when eventual fiancé Chris asked if Desiree would move to Seattle to be with him because he likes his job there. Though “there hasn’t been anywhere else I feel at home” besides California, Desiree said she’d be open to Seattle because “when I’m in love I…sacrifice, because I’m willing to make things work.” So much for woman having “all the power.”
That subtext is key to why season nine played out like the opposite of "Thelma and Louise," which drove its protagonists off a cliff to their deaths in the final scene after the bulk of the film celebrated how badass, empowered, and unruly they were. In contrast, executive producer Fleiss saved a conventional marriage proposal for the last few minutes of the four-hour, two-part season finale, a perfunctory bit of happy tacked on only after viewers watched the titular bachelorette being put through the wringer for three months, suffering one romantic near-miss after another. If making the Worst. Rap. Video. Ever (“All The Right Reasons”) with 19 awkward men under the smirking direction of Soulja Boy in episode two wasn’t cringe-tastic enough, producers cynically milked the outrage and shock of a minor scandal of their own making in episode three, when the girlfriend of one of Desiree’s suitors showed up to tell her that Brian, a lying liar who lies, wasn’t single and wasn’t there for the right reasons at all (as if Next Entertainment didn’t cast him exactly to stoke that kind of drama). By week five, a dater named Bryden tells Des he’s just not that into her and, buh-bye, he opts off the show. That’s followed by a couple of episodes consumed by mangry (man+angry: can we make this a thing?) outbursts among the contestants over dude-bro James crowing that he didn’t care much about Desiree but he was sticking around in the hopes of becoming the next season’s “Bachelor,” you know, for the fame and the chicks. Each of these cynical “controversies” were annotated with an endless river of tears and heavily edited “why won’t anyone loooooove me?” voiceovers from the lovelorn lass.
Yet all that paled in comparison to the producers’ choice to let the audience know early on and in nearly every episode that Desiree’s front-runner – the tall, dark, and fickle Brooks – would likely break her heart. Producers were so invested in making viewers believe this woman would remain the same jilted, miserable wreck she was when we saw her booted off “The Bachelor” that they split the finale into two parts, just to devote the bulk of the first two hours to Des saying “I’m in love with Brooks and I miss him every day I’m not with him,” calling him “the man of my dreams” who “doesn’t have to tell me he loves me for me to know, because it’s unspoken,” and admitting that she couldn’t wait for him to get down on one knee. The audience is meant to laugh and wince at her naivete, as these confessions were juxtaposed with numerous scenes in which the Harlequin cover look-alike tells his mom, his sister, host Chris Harrison, and eventually Desiree herself that he doesn’t love her and he doesn’t want to marry her, ‘ksorrybye. If fans had been playing a drinking game with any permutation of the phrase “my heart is broken” as the chug line, their options would have been stomach pump or death.
Part 1 of the finale ended with Desiree sobbing in a heap, as the narrator promised yet more tears and a “shocking” conclusion next week, “the live television event of the summer you don’t want to miss.” (Denial isn’t a good look, ABC—we all know the actual TV event of the summer was Netflix’s release of “Orange Is the New Black.”)
Then, in the cold open of Part 2, emotional vampire Chris Harrison framed the ‘sitch this way: “Last week… left Desiree devastated and virtually hopeless… Is her dream of finding a husband turning into a nightmare? Will she be the first Bachelorette in history to leave this show alone?” After a season’s worth of emotionally sadistic depictions of Desiree’s misery, viewers were supposed to get the warm-fuzzies about a rushed rebound relationship with even-keeled runner-up Chris—whom Des suddenly called “the greatest man I’ve ever known”—during the finale’s last half hour. Chris’s grain-of-salt marriage proposal and her teary “Yes! A thousand times yes!” acceptance allowed Desiree to appear happy at the tail-end of her “romantic journey,” providing the disingenuous cover the series needs to maintain it’s fairy tale façade. After all, ABC had to give jeweler Neil Lane his money’s worth during the requisite dude-shops-for-product-placement-wedding-ring scene, with dialog straight out of a Valentine’s Day commercial: “This is the greatest gift that I can give to somebody. This is not just a promise but a commitment that I will be able to care for her, provide for her, and be there for her. This symbolizes a union together that can’t be broken.” (Yeah, good luck with that platitude: only two of the previous eight “Bachelorette” couples are still together, and only two of the first seventeen “Bachelor” couples are married.) More importantly, without the cheap romantic gloss of that last-minute “I do!” the series’ cruelty and misogyny would be a lot harder to swallow, even by an audience without media literacy skills.
Mike Fleiss never originally wanted to do a “Bachelorette” spinoff, reluctant to give women the appearance of any real power. So when demand rose for a woman-in-the-driver’s-seat spinoff, he finally relented, creating a series that pretends to “empower” women while treating them like crap. It’s backlash fare, and it’s not worth your time. Skip the next round.
And PS: Skip the next installment of “The Bachelor,” too, despite the announcement at the end of the finale that season 18 will star Venezuelan athlete Juan Pablo Galavis as the first person of color to head a Bachelor/ette harem after 26 previous white stars. The safest choice Fleiss could find, Galavis "has a look which fits right in with the show's long line of blue-eyed, scruffy-faced Caucasian hunks," as media critic Eric Deggans notes. A bit of a screw-you from producers to last year’s race discrimination lawsuit, perhaps.
BINGE: “Hollywood Game Night,” NBC
Admit it, you want to play souped-up charades with Amy Poehler. You know you do.
And if you’re one of those rare, soulless zombies who doesn’t harbor deep romantic or platonic affection for the “Parks and Recreation”-starring, UCB Theater-cofounding, “Smart Girls At the Party” advice-doling, Sarah Palin-rapping comedian, then perhaps you’d prefer to hang with Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow as your “Friends” attempt to correctly identify a bowl of Funyuns. Or maybe you just fantasize about Jane Lynch playfully berating you alongside her “Glee” costar Matthew Morrison.
“Hollywood Game Night” indulges that pop culture pleasure, bringing together some of tinsel-town’s funniest players (and a few honorable mentions straining to keep up, cough Patricia Heaton cough) for an evening of boozy hijinx. Each episode pairs six celebrities with two “normals” – insurance salespeople, SAT tutors, doulas – who serve as team captains. Cocktails and laughs flow freely as the contestants try to best each other in games such as “L’il Picassos” (guess if that awkward portrait by an eight-year-old is supposed to be Simon Cowell or Angelina Jolie) and “Picture Purrfect” (name a movie based on a photo of an iconic scene—even though the Breakfast Club cast’s faces are replaced with cat pics). The goal of “TV ID” is to get your teammates to come up with a show title in as few words as possible: Valerie Bertinelli says “quack,” her team gets points for “Duck Dynasty”; “meth” begets “Breaking Bad.” And in the most entertaining contest to watch, “How Do You Do,” folks like Maya Rudolph and Yvette Nicole Brown sing tunes like “This Love” and “Killing Me Softly” using only the words “do do do.” (When Amy Poehler mistakenly hummed Billy Joel’s version of “Just the Way You Are” instead of the Bruno Mars track the show intended, she immediately led a tutorial – “gather round, kids!” about the olden days.) The winning team’s captain gets to compete for $25,000, and their celebrity partner tries for ten grand for a charity of their choice.
Jane Lynch is the perfect choice of quippy host. When Anthony Anderson spectacularly botches the singing game, Lynch’s ad-lib is perfectly timed: “The teleprompter says, ‘not bad.’ That was BAD!” In the pilot, where one team captain is a drug rehab counselor, she tells the audience, “If you want to play along at home, take a drink every time they get something wrong that you would’ve gotten right. Or if you’re rooting for Team Amy, stay sober and apologize to everyone you’ve ever wronged. Fourth step!”
The cast is stocked primarily with people from improv, stand-up comedy, or comedic acting backgrounds, inherently intelligent and quick-witted folks who give good banter. The first four episodes stacked the deck heavily with current or former “Saturday Night Live” players: Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, and Martin Short. There are no sulking Kristen Stewarts throwing too-cool-for-school shade in this bunch, no empty-headed Ryan Lochte types more equipped to rock an ab workout than a lightning round. Instead, each celeb so far has been down for a good time, and we get to watch. Some, like Martin Short and “HGN” creator and executive producer Sean Hayes, are constantly “on,” hamming it up in that way that the loudest friend at the party always does. Others, like Daniel Dae Kim and Jason Sudeikis, are laid back, enjoying the parlor tricks as they come, while Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard (the it couple appeared on separate episodes) are amusingly competitive.
It’s not that there aren’t some cringey moments – really, Anthony Anderson, other than “’American Idol’ winner,” you couldn’t think of a second clue to conjure Kelly Clarkson besides “chubby girl”? And no one wants to hear Tom Arnold tell Patricia Heaton that he bets she “looks good naked.” Happily, those are rare for this generally upbeat shindig.
The beauty of this fluffy summer series is that it gives the viewer the feeling that this is exactly the kind of party you’d throw if all your funniest, most creative, sometimes persnickety pals got together at once. The stars don’t showboat or treat the “normals” with anything other than friendly, collegial gamesmanship. The team captains represent the audience: in their place, we hang with our Hollywood crushes as if they were our celeb BFFs, and it’s exactly as we envisioned in our cheesy Us Weekly fantasies.
Even the product placement isn’t particularly obnoxious, as product placement goes. There’s no obtrusive interruption of storytelling via product pitches, as on “America’s Next Top Model,” and no emotion-manipulating scenes in which a cell phone or a car or a diamond ring provokes tears, fights, “undying love,” or the destruction of anyone’s self esteem. “HGN’s” version of embedded advertising plays out in a non-narrative “Price Is Right” sort of way, with segments like “CBI: Candy Bar Investigation,” where contestants have to ID a Snickers or Payday by looking at it’s inner filling, or tell whether something is a Red Hot or a Jolly Rancher sans wrapper. While this is still free advertising for branded goods, it’s hardly as harmful as product placement has traditionally been.
I literally wrote the book on how exploitative and all-around damaging reality television as a genre has been over the past 13 years. But it’s not the format of unscripted programming that’s the problem; the trouble is what producers and networks too often choose to do with it. Resurrecting regressive tropes about gender, race and class as if 1950s ideology still reigns supreme in contemporary American life. Frankenbiting bits of dialog to mislead the audience into believing the veracity of conversations that never actually happened. Editing real people into stock stereotypes: the desperate bachelorette, the slutty bitch, the appearance-obsessed model-wannabe, the shallow housewife, the Angry Black Woman, the drunken douchebag, the gangsta (nearly always a man of color). Yet once in a while, a show comes along that proves that reality TV can be effective, enjoyable and fun – all without relying on any of the lazy manipulations and cynical production tricks that typically govern the genre. “Hollywood Game Night” disproves the networks’ go-to justification that they just have to populate reality programs with table-flipping housewives, sobbing single women, and minstrel show tropes based on the disingenuous notion that no one will watch anything that doesn’t contain that slim version of “drama.”
Is “Hollywood Game Night” frivolous? Sure, but so what? This is silly, witty fun that, for once, involves humiliating a total of zero people, ever. Laughter is the point, and it works—and it’ll inspire you to play more than just “Celebrity” at your next dinner party. Here’s hoping NBC will give us many new seasons to binge on.
For more from Jennifer L. Pozner, check out her book "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," and her Web series, "Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn."