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'The Bachelor'

The embarrassing uncle of reality TV adds a single-parent twist.

February 01, 2009|Jon Caramanica

"First of all, yes, I realize I'm a loser for doing this."

That's YouTube user handsomepete, in voice-over, introducing a new two-minute video last month. Thanks to some eagle-eye sleuthing, handsomepete seems to have discovered who wins this season of "The Bachelor" -- no, you won't get a spoiler here -- and he appears to be on point.

If this is viral marketing disinformation, it's self-aware and brilliant. (The clip has remained on YouTube, as of this writing, for three weeks.) And if it's just a guy in a room with a flat-screen TV and a webcam, it still serves a function. With what sounds like an embarrassed shrug, handsomepete closes the clip with empathetic self-loathing: "I've just saved you now from having to watch this horrid TV show."

He seems reasonable and unremarkable enough -- he's got a heavy Canadian accent; from other clips on his YouTube page, he's a fan of the Dave Matthews Band and large whales. And he knows "The Bachelor" is rigorously uncool.

Now in its 13th installment -- 17th if you count the spinoff "The Bachelorette" -- this show has become the slightly embarrassing uncle of reality television. It has, by and large, not changed with the times, though with its particulars -- the bestowing of roses, the preposterous fantasy dates -- it can sometimes seem like the show was conceived in the 1920s, especially up against any number of more modern, and more gauche, dating competitions on other networks. And yet the charms of "The Bachelor" persist. It is pure myth -- no bachelor has yet married the woman he chose on the show -- but no one seems to have told the contestants, who remain some of the most appealingly credulous on all of reality TV.

This time, "The Bachelor's" concession to the times is its star, Jason Mesnick, a 32-year-old single father with a 4-year-old son. He was the last contestant eliminated on the most recent season of "The Bachelorette," even going so far as to drop to one knee in the finale before DeAnna Pappas saved him from himself, and from her, by rejecting him.

"The Bachelor" rarely strays far from anodyne interpretations of handsomeness and flat displays of emotion on the parts of its protagonists. And while there has been a slightly rugged hotness to some of the men, Jason is a throwback to the dweeby anti-swagger of the original, 2002-vintage Bachelor, Alex Michel. When called upon to be dashing, he invariably undermines himself. A couple of weeks ago, when arriving in Las Vegas with Natalie, one of the perkier suitors this season, he said, "I felt as cool as I've ever felt in my life walking into the restaurant with Natalie," and he meant it.

Last week, before he and the women acted out kissing scenes on the set of "General Hospital" -- an admittedly brilliant stroke of dating-show jealousy generation -- he stared into the camera and insisted, "I'm definitely ready to play doctor," with what he thought was irony but was actually genuine giddiness.

When squeezing the women for their emotional truths, Jason often slips and says something inappropriate. Last week, when Shannon, a genial stalker, finally broke down her facade and collapsed into a ball of tears, Jason struggled for the right tone: "Wow, you finally proved you're human, huh?" Even though this picked up on a theme she'd introduced, it was still a shockingly ill-conceived thing to say to someone at their most vulnerable, as if he were missing the gene for good sense.

To Jason's credit, though, he's learned to a tee the patronizing doublespeak of the dating show. Last week, he told Naomi, who is still on the show, "You're one person that I will always want the best for, whether it's with me, which it could be, or if it's not with me. I don't know why, but I do believe that we'll be in each other's lives for a long time, if not forever." In the real world, such a proclamation would invariably be met with a slap, but here it earns a kiss.

At least part of that has to do with the nature of reality show dating, but Jason is also given a great deal more latitude, it seems, because he's a father: Parenthood becomes a stand-in for purity of intent.

In the first episode this season, Ty was a heavy presence, almost to the point of discomfort, his use as a signifier at times outweighing his role as a child. Thankfully, he's largely been absent from the show since then, though he'll return in Monday's episode and will meet the final two women Jason will choose between. (Ty also met Deanna before she dumped Jason.)

"I really made sure my son was going to be OK," Jason told the Seattle Times last month. "I checked with the child therapist. I checked with the pediatrician." But while it's one thing to use your own child to your advantage, what about someone else's? In a concession to Jason's single-dad status, four single mothers were among this season's contestants. A couple of weeks ago, Jason took Stephanie, who lost her husband in a plane crash, and her daughter on an all-day date to the beach and to Legoland. "Where one family was broken, one could be made," Stephanie says.

But they're jarring, these scenes of instant family bonding, and potentially irresponsible. Put another way, here's Jason with the blunt-force observation, saying in voice-over, "No matter what happens, Stephanie will always have this, and that's just awesome." An online petition to make her the next bachelorette already has 75 signatures.


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