Despite my severe misgivings about ABC's decision to rename the first month of 2014 "Juan-uary" in honor of Juan Pablo Galavis' season of The Bachelor , the Jan. 6 premiere can't come soon enough. I'm ready to see the stream of women in slinky gowns pour out of a limousine and into Juan Pablo's heart. I'm ready to see one woman bring her grandma (or her horse, her son, or maybe her best friend from high school who's now a professional contortionist) along to impress the former soccer player. I'm ready to see the awkward things these ladies do to stand out in a crowd of 26 other beautiful women. And because of that, I'm probably going to hell.
Okay, maybe not hell — I didn't kill anyone or commit any mortal sins, but I am starting to think that the things I enjoy about The Bachelor might make me a terrible person. Like many Bachelor viewers, I don't buy into the celebrity of the folks on the show (many of whom go onto grapple for more fame on Bachelor Pad and various other reality TV-inspired publicity events) and I certainly don't buy into the romance. Unless you're Trista Sutter, you're not finding true love on television. Yes, there are moments in which real emotion is expressed (like when Brooks left Desiree during the finale of 2013's The Bachelorette) and I accept that in the moment, the contestants really feel the things they say they feel, but ultimately, there's a reason most Bachelor and Bachelorette marriages don't last: reality TV isn't actually real.
If you think that Chris Harrison is the only person asking the Bachelor or Bachelorette du jour questions to steer him or her towards one contestant or another, you're hopelessly naive. First, reality TV series have writers to guide the story (just check the credits of any "true life" tale) and it's common practice for producers to prod stars during their confessionals in order to get the right sound bite — a practice exposed beautifully during a 2011 episode of This American Life called "Gossip." Whether or not the folks on the show realize what's happening, the entire world inside a show like The Bachelor is a construct — even when solely considering the fact that they're holed up in a special mansion and their "dates" take place in desolate locales rented out specifically for the cameras.
The Bachelor (and Bachelorette) are not, by practical standards, real, so as a viewer you have two options: ignore that notion and get into the gooey goodness or accept it and enjoy the series for the ridiculous mess it really is. For my money, irony is the way to go. That generally means settling in with a few like-minded ladies, cracking open wine because we are a cliche and we like it, and breaking out our snarkiest commentary like my apartment's own Mystery Science Theater: Reality TV Edition. It's fun and it helps to make you forget that January is a miserably cold month without tinsel or twinkle lights. But is it also making us craven lunatics who enjoy the pain of others?
Maybe. On one hand, it's easy to giggle at the woman who cries in the courtyard at the first elimination ceremony because after two minutes of conversation she "thought he was the one," because it's inconceivable to think that any one in their right mind would think, let alone voice out loud, something like that when walking into a show as well-worn as The Bachelor. For a moment, we consider that maybe this woman is having a really difficult time, but then TV magic whisks her away and we forget about it.
As the season goes on, we marvel at the ability of these men and women to turn vicious in the name of "love." Some make up lies or exploit drunken conversations among "bros," like the men on the Desiree Hartstock's season of The Bachelorette; some "fake" injuries, like one contestant was accused of doing on Sean Lowe's season of The Bachelor; some exhibit some truly erratic behavior, like Courtney Robertson throughout her time on Season 16. It's train-wreck TV at its finest.
And when the disaster phase fades, and all that's left are the more serious parts of the journey (as Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants are contractually obligated to call their three-month love excursions) the ironic viewer's delight comes in the form of a combination of schmaltzy fantasy music draped over declarations of "maybe falling" for the object of that season's affection. The Bachelor or Bachelorette may say they're "floating on a cloud" and mean it, but on our end, all we can hear are potential lyrics for a badly-written '90s pop song. And while this all still sounds like endless fun, there's a slight problem with taking so much joy from it.
Whatever mentality these contestants for love originally start out with must eventually fade as the season goes on — it's human nature. Year after year, you get folks who start the season saying they're not sure about this process — they're uncertain that competing with 26 other people is going to yield anything. But by the end of the show, even those folks are caught crying in limos or declaring their emotions to their suitors. The people enlisted for The Bachelor and Bachelorette live in a bubble for three months; there's no work, no family, no friends. All they know for that time is that in order to get out of that fabulous mansion for a day, they need a date with the attractive star of the show, who's sweet and takes them on fabulous excursions orchestrated by P.A.s and producers.
These people have their world downsized to revolve around one person completely, so of course their emotions follow suit. Through the sheer manipulation of location and interaction, they are forced to truly, deeply care about the potential for romance before them — there's literally nothing else present in their existence that could distract them from vying for the love of one person.
This manipulation is cruel. Contestants are forced into emotionally vulnerable places and then exploited for our viewing pleasure — or my case, laughter-riddled viewing parties. The series demands emotional connection and gives us little more than a few sound bites by which to judge these folks, so viewers come to hate certain contestants for superficial reasons: comments like "I don't know, her face just bothers me" are commonplace and sometimes even make into ABC's on-air Twitter scroll at the bottom of each episode. Still, mocking someone who chose, knowing full well how reality TV and this 11 year old series work, to expose themselves to the masses feels a little less terrible since their participation was a choice. While laughing at the girl who got wasted on the first episode of Lowe's season doesn't say too many good things about your personality, but it also doesn't make you a sociopath.
But as the men and women are sent home in tears week after week, we're forced with the reality that this show creates real pain. Whether or not the world in which these people are living during the filming of the series is real, the emotions it renders are real in the moment. The premise of the series is literally to break 25 hearts in order to unite two people.
It's why the finale of Hartstock's season of The Bachelorette was so fascinating: the guy she fell for, Brooks, realized the fact that the series construct made it impossible to form a real connection with someone. He often commented on the way in which having to watch Hartstock go on dates with other men made cracks in his relationship with her. He recognized the absurdity of taking her home to meet his parents when they'd really only been on a couple of one-on-one dates; he saw the way the series construct had manipulated him and Hartstock into believing in a fantasy. The sad part is that he didn't escape without emotional damage — even the guy who could see through the series' facade was seen crying like a baby in his last scene.
By the time The Bachelor is packaged and ready for consumption, it's a silly reality television romp and we gobble it up readily. But unlike reality shows that offer some other benefit to contestants (Project Runway or American Idol) or a learning experience for viewers — even Honey Boo Boo offers us the chance to see that familial love takes many forms, however shocking — The Bachelor offers only a few things to the ironic viewer: ridicule and judgement of the pour souls who signed up for it.
Now, this dissection of The Bachelor may not keep us away from what ABC is calling a "Juan-derful" premiere on Jan. 6, but it may force us to turn down the snark for a second and let our cold, hard hearts thaw enough to enjoy the series with a little more sentimentality than our cynical brains might have previously allowed. But don't worry, my fellow cynics. If anyone teases you, you can just blame it on the wine.