Why you should care
Because we all watch bad TV. Some of us a little more than others.
”That people can find nothing more to do than to watch this nonsense is truly pitiful,” posted a smiling gray-haired commentator on nytimes.com named Carole, from San Diego, whose authority is kind of undermined, I feel, because in her photo she is holding a cat.
Still, the Nonsense to which she is referring is The Bachelor. The long-running reality series about “finding love,” which wraps up its 27th season this week and which the New York Times magazine recently featured, in a Q&A with its affable, even-keeled and now-divorced host, Chris Harrison.
Some Times readers might have smirked at seeing such a lowbrow reality star in its highly esteemed pages, but this one found solace in it. A kind of redemption, in a way. Like, See! I’m not a total loser for watching this dumb-ass show. The Bachelor is approved pop culture!
But on par with Breaking Bad it is, of course, not.
Except I wouldn’t really know that firsthand — because I haven’t yet watched Breaking Bad. Or House of Cards. Or The Wire. (I know, I know…) Not even The Sopranos, I’m ashamed to admit. Especially at dinner parties, when critiquing quality TV among friends is as common as grandparents talking about the weather. Oh, sure, I can chat Girls or Homeland or Newsroom (Newsroom, anyone?), but otherwise I am typically reprimanded from all corners of the table with, “Seriously, What Have You Been Doing?!”
Is it because I don’t get enough relationship drama from my married friends?
OK, I’ll, uh, tell you what I’ve been doing: Spending two hours a week — since the franchise first launched in 2002— watching The Bachelor, and its slightly lesser evil, The Bachelorette. That’s right, each episode is 120 minutes long. As a reluctant but committed member of the “Bachelor Nation,” I drew the line at that raunchy, short-lived spin-off The Bachelor Pad, in which castoffs compete for money and meaningless sex partners; and for some reason, I’ve deemed the very rare (but always televised) Bachelor/ette wedding specials too dumb (or too happy?) to bother.
But 2002. It is totally pathetic and not something I’m proud of. That’s 12 freaking years of fake boobs and fantasy suites; “amazing” journeys and alcohol-saturated sobs; cat fights on polygamous group dates and first-kiss serenades by country singers.
I started watching The Bachelor when I was a swinging single of prime contestant age, and now, like Season One’s Trista Sutter, I’m a married, wrinkling mother of two. Who is wondering: What Is Wrong With Me?
I mean, I’ve never seen the Housewives of Any City. I don’t subscribe to US Weekly. The last book I read was Art of Fielding, and Pella was hardly the perky Ashley Hebert type. Yet still, come Monday eve, I settle into my couch for two full hours of bad, absurdly repetitive, totally anti-feminist TV. Why?
Some psychologists have theorized that we are wired to feel empathy, and like the contagion of a yawn, we want to share in the pain of social rejection that these contestants endure. Maybe … I really did feel badly for Desiree when Brooks dumped her. Or is it because I find the cattiness entertaining? I don’t know women in real life who bitch each other out like that. Is it because I don’t get enough relationship drama from my married friends? Is it because I wish I could go on far-flung travel-destination dates? With my husband? Because I’ll tell you: It’s not because I want to tuk-tuk around Vietnam with these bachelors in tight V-neck T-shirts. (Jake Pavelka made me physically cringe.)
I briefly turned to academia looking for answers. A 2011 paper entitled “The Irony Bribe and Reality Television: Investment and Detachment in The Bachelor,” by Dana Cloud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains the attraction to viewers like me as an “irony bribe.” It “wins viewers to participation in an ideological discourse by tempting them not only with the fantasy, in this case, of mythic romance, but also with the pleasures of the reaction against taking the fantasy seriously.” As Cloud puts it, I can “regard the program as ‘real’ and ‘not-real’ and therefore worth viewing and worthless at the same time.”
Except I don’t actually consider it worth viewing at all; I just watch.
Along with 8.6 million other people. The “Juan Pablo” premiere in January reached a three-year high for The Bachelor, beating out NBC, Fox and CBS ratings. It was the highest rated non-sports telecast of the night in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old adult demographic — but it also came in second in total viewership.
Doesn’t matter that the current bachelor, the hot, Venezuelan, single-father soccer player has since fallen from grace in the eyes of the media and the 23 women he has sent home. People still want to know whom he’ll pick: blonde Nicki the pediatric nurse who is doing a good job pretending she’s ready to be a stepmother, or blonde Clare, the hairdresser who purses her lips soap-actress-style.
And so America will tune in tonight for “The Most Dramatic Season Finale in Bachelor History,” which Host Harrison says every time, almost with a wink in his eye, acknowledging how silly it sounds.
Instead, I just lie there on the couch with a cup of tea and watch, occasionally while searching online for flights or folding laundry, feeling a little like a struggling alcoholic who knows she shouldn’t be drinking. And shushing my husband, who pops into the room to ridicule both the show, and me — and then lingers a little longer than he intended to.Myself included. And if I stick around for the “After the Final Rose” episode, that’ll be a total of THREE HOURS. Three hours in which, Commentator Carole, I realize I could be doing better things: like watching the second season of Downton Abbey. Or reading The Goldfinch, which sits un-cracked on my nightstand. Or, I know, putting my own wedding photos into an album— six years after I found love, without ABC’s assistance.
This damn show seems to know no demographic bounds. It’s a wide-ranging bunch: tweenage girls and breast-feeding moms; entire living rooms of squealing single ladies; frat guys who could be watching football; ER doctors who should be sleeping after their 24-hour-shifts; bakers and bankers; lawyers and social workers. I’ve overheard gray-haired fathers at the grocery store rehashing who looked “smokin’” with their high-school-aged sons, and I’ve met divorced mothers who watch with their 9-year-old daughters.
But it’s the long-married moms who seem to love it most. My mom watches. So does my mom’s mom. “Sean is a very good-looking blond man,” my then-94-year-old Jewish grandmother told me last year by phone from Florida. “And so nice.”
And so, as baseball bridges generation gaps for some, The Bachelor actually brought my grandmother and me closer together. When this season got underway, I called her, soon after her birthday. ”Are you watching?” I asked. “Can you believe that woman’s profession is ‘dog lover?’”
“I tried,” she said. “No more, I’ve had it.”
Well, looks like age 95 is my cutoff.
“Meanwhile,” grandma went on, ”It’s been so muggy here.”