What would motivate an AARP member (male) with a graduate degree in Cinema Studies and an active cultural life to spend an inordinate amount of time in the world of The Bachelor? It wasn’t enough, apparently, to watch the recently-ended season where Arie, a dry slice of poundcake that took human form, chose the plucky gal from Minneapolis – Becca could be Mary Richards’ granddaughter – then reversed course, broke off that engagement and subsequently proposed to Lauren, the artificial dessert-topping of his dreams, all played out in excruciating detail during hours of ABC prime time. No: I also had to watch The Bachelor’s Winter Games spin-off, listen to the podcast Here to Make Friends, and read Amy Kaufman’s book Bachelor Nation. This is not what anyone would consider normal behavior, and yet it was all exceedingly entertaining, despite the fact that this season’s “lead,” the aforementioned Arie, offered up nothing in the way of personality, and promised what looked like an utterly stultifying life in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It was fascinating to watch how completely smitten – a word the competitors for Arie’s attention used quite a bit – these women became. What on earth did Becca (or Bekah, or Sienne, or Kendall) see in him? (As for Lauren, well, it seems they both like having coffee in the morning, then walking the dogs, going to work…the bar is pretty low.) Of course, the women are programmed for instant infatuation; they’re cooped up in the house most of the time, cut off from all communication with the outside world, including social media, and the only diversion they have to look forward to is being selected for a “romantic one-on-one” (or a “group” or a “two-on-one,” which is not as sexy as it sounds) date. If you hail from, as Tia did, a town called Weiner, Arkansas, and your mating prospects are limited to the fine gentlemen of Weiner, Arkansas, going to Paris or Tuscany with Arie might raise your pulse enough to consider a move to Scottsdale with an expressionless real estate salesman who was a so-so professional racecar driver as a “fairy tale.” That is one sad fairy tale ending, if you ask me.
It’s all very strange, because you find yourself rooting for the women who have some personality, who don’t seem bland and generic, because you think that’s who you’d be drawn to if you were in Arie’s shoes, but what you really want to do is yell at your television and tell Becca and Bekah and Sienne that they’re being idiots, that no matter where they’re from, they could throw a rock down any street and randomly hit some guy who would be more fun than Arie. How can you simultaneously want them to get the roses – you want to see more of them, so you don’t glaze over from the surfeit of Laurens – and also want to tell them they shouldn’t be so invested, that it’s all a trick? When Bekah – the one who was “too young” at 22, which is hilarious because none of the finalists was over 26 – and Sienne went home, it was like if David Miscavage had told Leah Remini, “You know what? This Scientology thing really isn’t working out. Pack your bags and go. By the way, you’re amazing.”
The Bachelor is called a dating show, but it’s more of a social experiment: what if you have a bunch of attractive women (or men, on The Bachelorette) and one guy who would be unimpressive in the real world – on almost every season of The Bachelor, the women are far more vivid and engaging than the lead – and convince them that at the end of this process (sorry: “journey”) they will be deliriously in love, and engaged. By now, since the show has been on since 2002, the women know just how ridiculously unlikely that scenario is. In the back of Kaufman’s book, there’s a list of all 21 pre-Arie Bachelors, and exactly one (someone named Sean, Season 17) is married to the woman he selected on the show (another married the runner-up, which must have been “the most dramatic” outcome ever until this season’s turnaround). That doesn’t seem to matter: they see themselves being proposed to on a windy cliff in an exotic locale. When you see them on The Women Tell All post-mortem, the women who were sent home along the way are clear-headed in a way they rarely were during the show: they’ve snapped out of a trance. “What was I THINKING?”
Another way this is not a dating show: the dates. The group dates are nonsensical competitions: bumper cars, bowling, dancing in skimpy outfits and “Can I steal you for a second?” Because that’s the way we all choose our partners. Can they climb rocks? Check. Will they throw a hissy fit because the losing bowling team ALSO gets to hang out at a crowded cocktail party (Krystal literally stormed off at the audacity)? Dealbreaker. What you never, ever see on any of the dates is any discussion of anything except the “relationship”: the conversations are about the conversations they have about the conversations they have, and whether one or the other is or isn’t “opening up.” Do they ever talk about movies they like, or music, or books that moved them, or an article they read in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or a Modern Love column? Does politics matter at all? Or religion? What if you move to Iowa to be with whoever had the farm (Chris?) and find out that his CD collection is all Kenny Loggins and Journey? NOW you’re stuck.
And yet, I’m glued to all of it, and I was somewhat comforted by the short fan-essays in Bachelor Nation by the likes of Joshua Malina, Nikki Glaser, Paul Scheer, Allison Williams and Amy Schumer. And even Arie’s clunker of a season was enlivened by the women, like when Becca was genuinely baffled by how he could be so torn between her and Lauren; they couldn’t be more different, she mused. They were like an apple and a starfish. Yes, they were, and now Becca is The Bachelorette. Aim high, you lovely starfish. I will be watching.