By Alison Lanier | TV | March 28, 2023 |
By Alison Lanier | TV | March 28, 2023 |
Last night on the live, three-hour finale of The Bachelor, this season’s premise was confirmed in earnest: a group of absurdly beautiful, gracious, and professional women being taken for granted by a milquetoast mediocre pseudo-cute white dude with all the personality of an Ikea coffee table.
But first, some context: I watched The Bachelor this season as nature intended, in my local village bar surrounded by fellow lesbian couples and Rhode Island party pizza. Our superhero of a bartender had organized a bracket on Bracketology, and each week we all got mildly competitive about which contestant would kiss Zach (the said milquetoast bachelor) while in water (that’s points) or make another contestant cry (that’s negative points) or tell Zach they’re falling in love (that’s lots of points), or a host of other point-impacting behavior.
So before my tone makes you think I’m going to be dismissive about the cultural phenomenon that helped define our media landscape for better or worse, just know I was there every week, cheering, commentating, and losing my money.
Let’s get this out of the way: Zach is one of, if not the, worst bachelors the show has ever seen. I watched that whole damn season and I have no idea about who he actually is. Like, what the hell does he do for work? Does he have hobbies? Who knows?! Is he smooth? Charming? Hell no. Never in the history of reality television has there been a man who doesn’t know when to shut the hell up as much as Zach. Even when a woman is standing in front of him in tears begging him to stop talking.
The best that can be said for Zach was that he was, for the most part, inoffensive. For the most part.
Last night’s finale was one of the most brutal the show has ever seen. The show opened with the far-too-cool-for-Zach second-runner-up Ariel appearing to be interviewed live, looking superhumanly beautiful and composed as ever and not mincing a single word. This New York princess calmly eviscerated Zach and then took off, back to her much cooler and more interesting life. This kind of set the tone for the whole night.
But the true horror hit when Gabi, one of the two women waiting to see if Zach would propose to them in Thailand, stepped out of the van, towering stilettos on a sandy beach, and immediately turned to the driver and told them not to stop in the same muddy spot when “it matters”—that is, when Kaity, the other finalist, came to the beach—with true “my friend is getting engaged, don’t screw this up for her” energy. With the implication that Gabi is fully aware that she’s just an emotionally manipulated prop in a reality TV plot.
And Gabi proceeds to get emotionally wrecked. Wrecked isn’t even a big enough word. She was humiliated and emotionally devastated on TV. She was the most vulnerable and earnest of the final contestants; most of the other women have at least a semblance of a TV personality in place between themselves and the camera, in the same way most of us have a public and a private persona that gets deployed at the socially appropriate times. Gabi literally stopped Zach as he was breaking up with her, made sure she got back to the van first so he couldn’t pretend to be chivalrous and get the door for her, and tore off her stilettos before embarking on a heartbreaking monologue about being “wrong” and “unlovable.”
It was at this point that another avid viewer at the bar next to me said, “Well, this show is monstrous.”
Gabi was interviewed at the live finale, clearly deeply wounded, while host Jesse asks massively insensitive questions all framed by “I want to be very sensitive here.” This poor woman deserves a medal. The amount of pain on screen was heartbreaking. Oh, and did we mention that directly before this all happened she got thoroughly sex shamed for sleeping with Zach on fantasy suite week? She has really been through it. And the show just did not let up, milking her pain for every ounce of airtime pathos it was worth.
Making it truly, truly difficult to be happy for Kaity when Zach does propose to her, when she joyfully accepts, and when they appear together for the interview about how excited they are for their future.
“They’re going to go off and have vapid little babies,” said another bar patron, who had baked rose-topped cupcakes for the finale. And thus ends the saga of Zach. Good riddance.
Let’s get this straight: The American Bachelor franchise is one of the most normative, formulaic, and conservative visions of life there is. It is a place where beautiful Americans come together, don’t talk about politics, and pursue the one singular meaningful dream of hetero marriage leading to beautiful American children. There are plenty of media studies and sociological papers waiting to be written about this scripted and edited safe haven of cookie-cutter “normalcy.”
It’s hard to find another facet of American media that has so thoroughly refused to change with the times or reflect its viewership in terms of race or sexuality. It’s a problematic guilty pleasure, and one that I get genuinely invested in each and every time because, in the magical ingredient of reality television, the personalities of the people involved are engaging and the drama is insane. And thus “Bachelor Nation” lives profitably on.
Obviously the personality point doesn’t hold for Zach. Or Kaity, really, who honestly was kind of a doe-eyed blank slate for 90 percent of the season. But clearly, the formula is working. Each and every time another patron came into the bar while we were watching, their response was unfailingly “I can’t believe you’re actually watching this.” And unfailingly, a bit later and after a bit of alcohol, said patron was commentating along with the rest of us and promising to be back to keep watching next Monday.
Reality TV is an easy and popular punching bag. It’s been at the bottom of the media-prestige pile since day one. But each and every time, I watch it draw people in. The social energy around The Bachelor is powerful. The entertainment value is high. And the franchise lives on in triumph to see another decade.