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'Bachelor': A Little Sweet, a Little Bitter

Series * Despite claims that the show is selling female sexuality, it's a hit with women viewers.

April 22, 2002|JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tiffany Anderson has a confession. "I love 'The Bachelor.' I never miss it," says the 28-year-old cable network publicist. "It's like watching a train wreck. You want to turn away, but you can't help wanting to see."

Anderson is not the only one who likes to watch ABC's voyeuristic dating series. And among women, she is just a small part of a much larger audience.

The show, which premiered last month with 25 women vying for the affections of a 31-year-old San Francisco management consultant, is the second highest-rated midseason program among women 18 to 34 years old. Last week, the series was No. 1 in its time slot in that demographic and, according to a network release, has better than doubled ABC's rating among young women in that hour.

Considering the pervasiveness of melodramatic "reality" matchmaking shows such as the syndicated "Blind Date," MTV's "Dismissed" and Fox's "Temptation Island," it's not surprising that "The Bachelor" has done as well, even without the kind of controversy showered on Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," which, like "The Bachelor," was produced by Mike Fleiss.

Like "Multi-Millionaire," arguably the most distasteful aspect of "The Bachelor" is the idea that a large group of beautiful, intelligent women--in this case all under 35--would compete to win the approval of one guy.

"If they were 40, I could understand it better," says Dennis Prager, the nationally syndicated radio personality heard locally on KRLA-AM (870), whose frequent focus is morality and ethics. "But there is no more valuable commodity on Earth than a beautiful 24-year-old woman, so that is the perplexing element."

As absurd as it may be, some women find it "interesting to see to what extent these women will go to get his attention," says Amy Nixdoroff, 38, a retail sales associate. "It's hard to step into these women's shoes, but I am so on their side. They've stepped out on a limb for love, and I know I could never do that."

Even Prager admits that he was "fascinated" by last week's episode. "You're sucked in because the people are nice," he says. "These are not the morons of 'Temptation Island,' where the people were so vacuous it was simply boring. These are your sweetest fellow Americans."

For fans of the series, the show plays like a real-life soap opera--following the escapades of handsome Harvard and Stanford graduate Alex Michel as he loves up, then winnows down, his adoring harem to a select few. Viewers are privy to the intimate conversations, cat fights, awkward sex talk and miserable rejections. (The woman left sitting without a rose at the end of the episode is expelled.)

"For a female audience, this show rings true," says series co-producer Lisa Levinson, who selected the bachelorettes. "So many women go on blind dates or are single and looking for love. They like seeing that there is a possibility for true love and that they're not the only ones being dumped by their boyfriends."

Marathon dumping is another thing. "The producers are creating tension for ratings by building up as much cattiness as possible, building in as much potential for distress and people getting hurt as possible," says Jennifer Pozner, media critic for the feminist monthly Sojourner, who calls the show a "dangerous" step backward for women.

"It reinforces the worst of these dating shows, with the values of 'The Donna Reed Show' and 'Leave It to Beaver' era, when women were supposed to be valued for being pretty and prim and funny but not in a threatening way," she says. "Smart, but not smarter than the guy. Engaging, but not in a way that draws too much attention to herself."

Fleiss, however, maintains that too much shouldn't be drawn from the show, which he says "is about entertainment. It's a weird, freakish social experiment. It's not meant to be anything more than something to watch on television. We just wanted to see if we could get a love affair to unfold in front of the cameras. Wherever that goes, that's fine with us."

"We're not suggesting this is how the real world should work--that 25 to one is an appropriate ratio," adds bachelor Michel. "Critics are looking to put a lot of meaning into this show that's not there. There hasn't been a dating show like this where you have recurring characters that you're getting to know each week. That's unique, and people are strangely fascinated by it."

In tonight's episode, Michel will take his remaining three favorites--Shannon, 24, an operations assistant from Dallas; Trista, 29, a Miami Heat dancer; and Amanda, 23, an event planner from Kansas--on individual romps to Reno, Hawaii and New York, respectively.

Under the show's structure, in Thursday's finale, Michel, who appears to be most enamored with Shannon, selects his Mrs. Right. (Producers say Michel was under no contractual obligation to make a marriage proposal.)

"The woman who wins will ultimately be the loser," wrote one woman on the show's Internet message board.

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