The New York Times has a chilling article today about the strangely renewed success of ABC's romance nightmare The Bachelor. After a few seasons of fading ratings, the fiance competition show has surged back, the current season (which ends tonight) posting seven percent growth in the all-important 18-49-year-old demographic over last year. This upswing has been happening since 2009, when Bachelor (and former Bachelorette mantestant) Jason Mesnick dumped his initial choice on air and ended up running off with the runner-up. Something about that dreadfully public display of the human heart in capricious motion re-sparked interest in the show and it's been gaining steam since. Lord help us all.
As the Times points out, it's exceedingly rare, especially these days, for a show to have a resurgence so late in its career. The Bachelor has been on for ten long years and has had a whopping seventeen suitors find their dream girl. And that's not counting the seasons of The Bachelorette! For the show to pick back up with its thirteenth Bachelor is impressive, and that it's going even stronger on its seventeenth is truly remarkable. So while some of us may dismiss the show as crass and manipulative and maybe even boring, it must be acknowledged that they're doing something right there. They may be doing a bad thing well, but they're still doing it well. Maybe it's time we all accepted The Bachelor?
I for one have never gotten the appeal. Sure some of the intrigue is fun — I did watch in slack-jawed horror as Bachelor Jake Pavelka and his chose- one Vienna fought awkwardly in a bizarre reunion episode (was it a reunion episode?) — but so much of it seems so depressing. Any time I've tried to watch a season of the show, which I have once or twice because people seem to be having so a good time with it, I can't get past the hideous awkwardness of that first episode. For those unfamiliar, the first episode of The Bachelor or Bachelorette involves our Fimo-sculpted hero standing outside the show mansion and greeting each of the contestants. Everyone tries to do something distinctive, like a little trick or bit of flair to catch the person's eye, and they're almost always horrifically embarrassing. Last season of The Bachelorette one guy came dressed up like an old lady. The guy who won the whole season rode up in a skateboard and then tossed it in the bushes before saying hello to his lady love. I heard that this season a woman fell down while introducing herself with a gymnastics move. Nope! Sorry! It is funny in retrospect, I guess, but that segment of the show is simply too cringeworthy on first airing. I've already had a season's worth of embarrassment and no roses have even been handed out yet.
And yet so many of you can stomach it, and more. The Times describes two types of Bachelor viewer: "fans who still get carried away by the romantic promise every season and the viewers who typically get together to watch, whether in person or online, to enjoy the comedy and follow favorite characters." The former I really cannot fathom and think those people should maybe go out and take a walk and look at the trees and breathe in the near-spring air, because that is really depressing. But the latter group? OK, I can maybe understand that. The show is huge on Twitter, with people cracking jokes all episode long, week after week. And friends get together in person and guzzle wine and shriek at whatever awful things are happening on screen. That all sounds fun. But you can do that with a lot of shows! Why The Bachelor in particular? Why not Smash? At least there's less secondhand embarrassment when it's completely fake, right? I guess something like Smash, while silly and scream-worthy, just isn't broad enough to appeal to everyone. Aren't there other reality shows though? Or is The Bachelor simply the glossy-finish culmination of all other things reality, a grand competition where there is also embarrassing human stuff and maybe the actual hint of romance? Oh, plus muscly oiled-up hunkeroos. Those probably matter somewhat too.
Maybe The Bachelor is the apotheosis of a certain kind of reality show and that's why, despite a dip there a few years ago, it has failed to go completely go away, and is now picking up momentum again. It could be possible that The Bachelor is something cyclical and forever. After all, the formula is simple and repeatable, so long as they find the right guys, and girls. Tying Bachelor and Bachelorette together in an unending swap of contestants was a particularly genius idea, building interest in both series and preserving a sense of narrative continuity that rewards regular viewing but doesn't alienate potential newcomers. They've formed a complete ecosystem that could keep feeding itself for years and years to come. They've got a good generational span of viewership too, so it's not like everyone's going to outgrow it anytime soon. So long as wine and Twitter holds out, maybe we've just got to get used to this thing. I mean, it's been around, whether we like it or not, for ten years. We probably should have accepted it long ago. And maybe started watching it. Or at least not being kneejerk repulsed by it.
It is of course possible that this is simply the show's dead cat bounce, that The Bachelor really is on its way out as we once were convinced it was, just a bit more slowly than anticipated. But, it's been almost four years of resurgence now, so our hopes for The Bachelor's demise — it's just so exploitative and miserable isn't it?? I'm sorry, wine girls, but it is — may be in vain. This just might Chris Harrison's world after all and we just live in it. With seven billion other potential suitors, of course.