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'The Bachelorette's' new wrinkles are worth smiling about

The ABC series has tossed out tradition this season and is better for it. But there are still tweaks to be made.

July 27, 2009|Jon Caramanica

On "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," the hotel room that serves as the locale for a sleepover date late in the competition is called the fantasy suite for a reason, but not the obvious one.

Sure, it's sensuous, in a romance novel way -- candles, rose petals, high-thread-count sheets -- but the idea of fantasy has as much to do with the viewer's imagination about what might be happening behind those closed doors as with the level of intimacy actually achieved.

Or, in the case of Ed, one of the final suitors on this season of "The Bachelorette," what's not achieved.

Earlier this month, after a busy day frolicking around Hawaii, Ed and Jillian, this season's Bachelorette, retired to the fantasy suite. Typically at this point in the show, subsequent scenes involve a tight shot of the room's door closing, a long shot from outside of the lights being extinguished and a bright, over-saturated shot of the morning after, featuring looks of conspiratorial bliss on the faces of both parties.

Not this time: Cue a bewildered Ed, a tearful Jillian and the most direct acknowledgment of what does (or doesn't) happen behind closed doors in the 18 seasons of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette."

This implosion of fantasy was damaging to Jillian and Ed -- though not so much that he wasn't selected as one of the two men Jillian will choose from in tonight's finale (ABC, 8 p.m.). But it turns out, it was a boon to viewers. As well, it was one of several moments this season to unravel the show's narrative mythology and shift it into a new realm: the postmodern "Bachelorette," operating on multiple timelines at once, with a completely disrupted mono-story.

Violations of tradition were plenty this season. On several recent episodes, Jillian openly wondered if the men she was favoring actually, you know, liked her. Of Kiptyn, the other one of the finalists she'll be choosing from in tonight's finale, she wondered if he was out of her league, something that's never before happened, as the attractiveness of the chased has always been presumed to be greater than that of the chasers.

Additionally, all season long, host Chris Harrison has been blogging on the website of Entertainment Weekly, delivering behind-the-scenes tidbits and also his own sometimes foul-mouthed opinions on the show's participants, a clear break from above-the-fray-host tradition.

Most notable has been the complete undoing of the show's forever-marching-forward direction. First, Ed left the show, fearful for his job, and then returned a few episodes later, asking to be readmitted to the fold. Later, the righteous Jake -- the self-righteous Jake, that is -- returned after being eliminated to warn Jillian that Wes had a girlfriend, something that Tanner P had hinted at earlier in the season but hadn't had the gumption to follow through on. (In last week's preview of the finale, Reid, the last man eliminated, appears to return, ring in hand, for what will surely be another rejection.)

Wes, of course, has been this season's true trickster, the first contestant in the show's history to openly discuss his ulterior motives.

During his uncomfortably long run, he'd been maintaining an apparently open conversation with the other suitors about his desire to promote his music career (as he was eliminated, his song "It Don't Take That Long," ostensibly written for Jillian, was already available for sale on and about his girlfriend at home.

During an interview on the show, Wes once referred himself as "hidden-agenda guy," a nickname-archetype so robust it should be used in all subsequent castings for reality shows.

Except for one small thing: Everyone is hidden-agenda guy. Long gone is the day of the un-self-aware reality show participant. Those who sign up to woo on "The Bachelorette" invariably understand they're doing more than trying to impress a girl. They're also characters in a meta-melodrama that exists in multiple spaces, unfolding in real time in addition to TV time, and on the pages of tabloids in addition to on the screen.

But the unpacking of "Bachelorette" mystery is an asset in disguise, a chance for some rewriting of the show's narrative. Now, participants who seem interested only in finding love will seem tame and dull in comparison to Wes. Moving forward, the more people telling the Bachelor (or -ette) one thing and the cameras another, the better: There's no reason the show can't be a little more like "Big Brother."

On his blog, Harrison said that he often had long discussions about the men with Jillian off-camera -- why? Weaving his skepticism into the show would make for more compelling viewing. In fact, weaving in any skepticism would go a long way, dashing the dreams of only the few who believe that this show actually results in true, lasting love, a contention that empirical data just can't support.

And while we're here, how about some other changes. Let contestants get kicked off at any time, for any reason. Stop perpetuating the Brad-DeAnna-Jason-Jillian lineage by starting fresh -- the reliance on familiar faces underscores an insecurity about the show's continued vitality.

And finally, this. We have a black president -- is it too much to ask for a black Bachelor or Bachelorette? Latino? Asian? Or maybe more than a couple of suitors of color?

The persistent lack of diversity of this show says far more about the vision of the producers than about the reality of this country. It's a fantasy worth upending.


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