Last Monday, the 11th installment of ABC’s The Bachelor came to an unexpected and riveting conclusion: After whittling the field from 25 nubile women to his final two, Brad Womack — the rugged Texan bar-owner and self-made millionaire — dumped them both. In his break with tradition, the Southern beau laid bare the folly of this preposterous program.
The following day, ABC aired “The Bachelor: After the Final Rose,” wherein the snubbed ladies returned to face the man who sent them home. Though such piggyback specials are typical — a way to squeeze another night’s ratings out of the finale — this one was unusually awkward. Judging by the booing, grimacing and head-shaking in the studio audience, Brad’s choice was unpopular indeed.
It’s easy to see why viewers feel violated: Brad broke the rules. At its core, The Bachelor is implicitly a contract. We the public anoint one man, and give him a stable of beauties from which to select his mate. In return, we demand to be entertained: he shall slowly pare the field down to one, and there shall be True Love. Nothing shall interfere with this hallowed process, and in no event shall he be so ungrateful and so arrogant as to look beyond his women.
In other words, rejecting 24 ladies means love; rejecting 25 is a drink in the face of a benevolent public and an affront to romance in general.
For a series that matches dozens of beautiful, pre-screened women with one successful and ostensibly desirable man, the show has a remarkably poor track record in fostering real relationships. Of the 10 previous Bachelor installments, all but two unions have ended in breakup and only one has yielded a lasting engagement. The franchise’s lone and oft-touted success, the televised marriage of Trista and Ryan Sutter, is in fact drawn from the companion series The Bachelorette, which turns the tables and puts a single woman among two dozen men.
It’s no wonder the show rarely succeeds. It is unlikely that any one group of 25 women — even when screened for age, looks and relationship status — will include a given man’s future wife. People are too picky; marriage sets the bar too high. Even if by a fluke a good match is formed, the swift early eliminations — 10 girls are sent home on the first night alone — make short work of the pack. Very early on, the bachelor is forced to choose one of only a handful of women, with no credible guarantee that any were right for him in the first place.
This is not to say it’s impossible to find one perfect match in 25. But we should not expect to see this outcome with any substantial frequency. The problems don’t end there: if two people on the show truly are destined to marry, they might gravitate to one another very quickly — effectively excluding others from the game. Since this would make for boring television, the bachelor is compelled to avoid playing favorites and to date several girls at once — a dilution that, if he were truly smitten by one, might well prove repugnant.
In the end, the series is a corruption of the dating process: a saccharine but soulless love virus that hijacks the hearts of a few dozen people, jerks them around for six weeks and spits them out, single and abused.
One might expect a show so hopeless to flounder, but somehow it’s stayed afloat. Viewers rush to the trough year after year to watch artificial romance unfold on screen, choosing to ignore the obvious truth that any relationships thusly born are ersatz facades doomed utterly to failure.
This makes The Bachelor a strange hybrid: “Eternal Sunshine” meets “Mulholland Drive.” We know the relationships will fail. No matter: we want to be deceived.
Brad Womack refused to play out our fantasy. He stole our happy ending.
In reality, Brad just remembered what The Bachelor asks us to forget: that love is irrational, bilateral and can’t be forced. That the show’s history of happy endings is a charade. And that six weeks in a rented mansion dating several women at once is not a good foundation for a relationship. Brad showed America the rats in the kitchen, and with any luck they’ll be tough to forget this time.
Of course, the franchise will recover — presumably returning with a new, ironclad contract to ensure one woman is chosen in the end. With this loophole closed, viewers will again be treated to escapist fantasies and insulated from the unpleasant truth about televised romance.
But for now, we can enjoy Brad Womack’s legacy. This scruffy rake didn’t just reject two pretty girls on national television: he derailed the network’s ham-fisted attempts to cram courtship into a prime-time format. He laid bare the perverse truth behind the rose ceremonies, the soft-filter camera work, the ever-cheery bachelorettes and the hammy host. For a few short moments, he stripped the whitewash from reality TV.
Michael Seringhaus is a first year student at Yale Law School. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.