While channel surfing the other day I came upon a show that lingered on a shot of an idyllic beach at sunset. Aflame in romantic amber accents, it was as idealized as a scene from an illustrated bible, or the airbrushed mural on one of those Don’t-Come-A-Knocking vans from the ’80s. Well, as it turned out (and I should have known this immediately) the show I was watching was “The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love.”
Now limping along in its 14th season, “The Bachelor” — a mini-soap opera embedded in a reality show — serves up a confection of desperation, humiliation and insincerity, all the while trying to fob itself off as a chivalrous quest for love.
“The Bachelor,” who has 25 women that all pretty much look the same to choose from, comes in the form of Jake Pavelka, a failed actor (a credit in “Walker, Texas Ranger” back in 1999!), and a failed contestant on the 5th season of “The Bachelorette.” His presence on this show also suggests that he’s failed at love, too, but no matter, he’s still considered a catch because he’s a commercial pilot who looks dashing in uniform.
Handsome in a characterless way, Pavelka projects an uncomplicated affability that compels you to think of some lily-white suburb. It’s worth nothing that “The Bachelor/Bachelorette” franchise has stubbornly refused any meaningful ethnic representation. Season after season we get a ceaseless parade of neurotic white people, all untied by the love of publicity, but never do we get to see anything reaching out beyond the banal mainstream.
The most recent episode of the show saw Vienna, a 23 year-old blonde whom all the other women on the show despised, find out that Jake had selected her for a very special one-on-one date. When she heard the news, she got all misty and began to wave her hands about like she was drying her nails.
This made all the other women hate her even more, particularly Michelle, who appeared to be insane. Death rays beamed out of her eyes and her thin, reptile lips formed a menacing frown.
It didn’t matter! Jake took off on a motorcycle with his date clinging to him, while all the other women huddled in a doorway, staring, hoping that Vienna’s hair would get caught in a wheel and she’d be thrown to her death.
In short order they were at a bridge, ready to bungee jump. However, in spite of the fact that Jake was a pilot, he was actually scared of heights and needed a woman from whom he might draw strength. And as he sat there, trembling like a handsome pilot kitten, Vienna smoothed his hair and filled him with strength, and together they took the plunge! As they bounced up and down at the end of their bungee cord, triumphal rock music blared, and we knew that a deep and abiding love had been born.
We then watched as the two of them, perfectly lit, ate sushi, drank a glass of wine the size of a basketball and then made out, causing Vienna to giddily proclaim, “I’m on cloud Jake, right now!” Naturally, he gave her a rose, and everybody hated her with just a little bit more intensity.
We were then taken on the group date, where Jake took a bunch of the ladies to the Jon Lovitz comedy club. All the women squealed when they heard this is where they were going, but it was pretty obvious that none of them really knew who Lovitz was. When they got there they saw Lovitz, dressed in white pants and an un-tucked shirt that was designed to look slimming, waddling about like a creep-show recycling all his old shtick.
In spite of this rather large deterrent, the women still had to get up on stage in front of an audience of bused-in and disoriented tourists and perform a minute of stand-up. It was actually kind of perverse, as if the willing humiliation of all these crazy women was some sort of turn-on, which I guess it was, for Jake. As you might imagine, it was all very awkward and unfunny, kind of pathetic, in fact, like “The Jay Leno Show.”
Pathos is a huge component of “The Bachelor,” and what ultimately drives it. I mean, nobody is actually rooting for a love story, but are instead cashing in on a sort of revenge fantasy. Vienna, who is pretty and clueless, sobs as the mean girls attack. Emotionally underdeveloped, she writes a letter to Jake in the girlish script of somebody in grade seven, all the while delivering an affirmation to herself about how she deserves love, even though she clearly doesn’t believe it.
Michelle, who seemed unbalanced from the get-go, declared that, “it’s my time to have a baby!” As alienated and angry as an assassin, she scared the hell out of everybody before eventually exiting into a lurid, green cab, her stay in prime time finished.
Elizabeth, who was not as smart or as lovely as she hoped she was, was also eliminated when her transparent manipulations were frowned upon. Tearing up she defiantly shouted, “I am not just vanilla, I am all different colors of the rainbow. I’m 29 and I could have a husband by now!”
And Valisha, also eliminated, musters all the grace and dignity she can before bursting into tears. Wiping them away, she says that she’s “used to things not going my way, it’s something I’ve just learned to deal with.”
“The Bachelor” takes vulnerable and insecure women and makes sport of their hopes and desires. It’s not exactly misogynist, but it’s close. The very presence of these women on a TV show in which they’re purported to be looking for love is laughable, but this is poignantly amplified by just how far the reach of their need exceeds their grasp. They seem to want to win the lottery, to go on a TV show and then have their lives radically altered, if not with love, then with opportunity. And then each one would become a star, just as she always knew she should, and she would live happily ever after.
But this doesn’t happen.
Instead, they fight amongst themselves as they try and become something that they think will win them attention, love or fame. But it never works, and we see in them only the reflection of what we never want to become.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.