Well, excuse me for coming late to the party, but it took "The Bachelor" to seduce me. Until Alex Michel, the highly eligible, soul mate-shopper of ABC's hit "reality" show came along, I was a confirmed hater of the unscripted programs that surfaced on television a few seasons ago.
Without ever having seen "Survivor," I decided it was stupid, contrived and boring. When "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was on at the gym, I'd leave the room. I feared that those relentlessly hyped phenomena and their sorry offspring would elbow out the unreal series I enjoy: well-crafted fare like "The West Wing" and "Six Feet Under."
I wish I could say I would have spent this spring's Monday evenings rereading the complete works of Virginia Woolf if I hadn't been flattened by a nasty bout of pneumonia. But, if truth be told, I didn't tune into "The Bachelor" just because I was weak and feverish. About halfway through its six-week run, in which 31-year-old Michel fishes for Mrs. Right in a pool of 25 carefully selected women, I began hearing murmurs from smart, sophisticated, highly evolved female friends. "I know it's sexist and ridiculous, but I'm addicted to 'The Bachelor,'" they confessed.
So I watched Episode 4. Ensconced in a Malibu mansion that is to the new millennium what the "Dynasty" homestead was to the '80s, Michel had winnowed the group down to a quartet of beauties. In a hometown-hopping hour, he met each of their families. Then, in the show's final minutes, one of the hopefuls was eliminated. Oh, my God, I thought. This is stupid, contrived and often slow enough to be boring. I was addicted too.
The scholarly component of my fascination stemmed from analyzing how cleverly a drama was constructed from the basic one-man, 25-women premise. "The Bachelor" (and for all I know, its unscripted predecessors) is a triumph of clever editing. The most romantic, amusing or titillating moments from hours of undoubtedly tedious encounters are shown. I write nonfiction for a living. Why wouldn't I be transfixed by the show's skill at spinning a compelling narrative from the dross of life? Part of the fun is busting the essential manipulativeness of the format.
For example, Michel has a wonderful time with Trista's family in St. Louis. They're warm and welcoming. Talk flows, laughs come easily. When he meets Shannon's parents in Dallas, the atmosphere is so chilly it's a wonder he didn't put on a parka. Were the good times in Texas edited out? Were the conversational dead ends in Missouri trashed? Call me cynical, but I think so.
In a "reality" show, reality is plastic. The players' appeal, their vulnerability and even wit can be adjusted as deliberately as a TV set's volume control. Michel would have been insufferable if he'd been too perfect. Thus the decision to show him losing his lunch, as he and Trista hover above Hawaii in a helicopter, only made him more endearing.
Enough intellectual rationalization. There's much more to a "Bachelor" fixation than a desire to bust the show for being faux. Millions of women, and some men, have become obsessed with the program, whose audience and media presence steadily grew. As Diane Sawyer said on "Good Morning America" after admitting she'd fallen under "The Bachelor's" spell, "It's a strange thing we're all doing when we watch, but we are watching." Inquiring minds wonder why.
Everyone's a voyeur. With the exception of Monica Lewinsky and her married boyfriend, we don't usually become privy to what goes on between men and women behind closed doors. But we are curious. "The Bachelor" is part of a genre that finds sport in the brutality of modern courtship. It's less cheesy than "Blind Date," "Shipmates," "Temptation Island" or "Change of Heart." Michel is a poised, personable management consultant with an MBA from Stanford. The show's bevy of bachelorettes is uncommonly telegenic, outgoing and seems to have triple-digit IQs. "The Bachelor" lets us see the sort of genetically blessed population you'd think would be immune to the more barbaric aspects of singlehood being humiliated. There's a certain wicked comfort in knowing no one is safe from the dating jungle's hazards.
Shallow is good. We come to know the characters we care about in dramatic series over time. We know their back stories and idiosyncrasies. If "The Bachelor" moved at a more leisurely pace, it would have more depth. Yet its effectiveness is in direct proportion to its shallowness. Its cast is reduced to archetypes. Michel is the catch, choosing among the good girl, the ditz, the hottie, the mystery woman and the neurotic handful. By skimming the surface, the show lets the audience fill in its many blanks, sparking the sort of debate that fueled its popularity.
Pass the popcorn. Let us not underestimate the howl factor. It's so easy to mock Michel and the girls for their verbal tics, hairstyle goofs or awkward giggles. Nothing like sitting in front of the TV feeling superior to cap off a hard day.