That’s the question. This week, as I watched an episode from the 17th season of ABC’s “The Bachelor” (2002), all I could think about is the improbability of this show doing so well. But is it on its last legs?
When “The Bachelor” premiered in 2002 with single man Alex Michel, the format of the show seemed pretty revolutionary, but was actually just more of the same in a sense. Dating shows are nothing new after all. In 1965, “The Dating Game” became one of the most popular game shows ever and recurred in various installments until 2000.
The concept of the show was simple – a girl would pick from three male suitors who she wanted to go on a date with, and the catch was that she couldn’t see them. Audiences were delighted to be in on the secret, and kept returning for more as the male companion’s antics were almost sure to make you laugh.
Fast forward about 40 years though, and the television landscape was a completely different place. MTV’s “The Real World” had debuted in 1992 and set off a thirst for more realistic television. It wasn’t enough to see people talk about their dates, you wanted to watch them go on them.
Thus the reality dating show emerged. The first major example was Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” (2000). If you can’t remember the show, consider yourself lucky. It was a complete atrocity – rampant with sexism and a would-be husband who was later found to have a domestic violence record.
Another attempt by Fox, “Temptation Island” (2001), fared similarly. This show put couples on a remote tropical island filled with single people to see if they would remain faithful. Some did, others didn’t – the show though was not a success. It seems if audiences wanted to watch people frolic about in the middle of the ocean, they turned to CBS’s “Survivor” (2000).
So when “The Bachelor” arrived on the scene, it was a breath of fresh air – sort of. Unlike its predecessors, the people on the show truly seemed to be committed to finding a soulmate. Now, ten years since the series premiered, it continues to pull in very high ratings and has spurred two spin-off series for ABC, “The Bachelorette” (2003) and “Bachelor Pad” (2010).
Besides these related shows, the success of this dating series also created a greater push for similarly styled shows that always featured a twist. On Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” (2003), the lothario in question was posed as an heir to a grand fortune, despite being a construction worker. The CW entered the fray with “Beauty and the Geek” (2006), which paired model-esque singletons with very stereotypical nerds. And who can forget VH1’s many hilarious entries, such as “Flavor of Love” (2006) and “Rock of Love with Bret Michaels” (2007), which reinvented the format by choosing B-list celebrities as bachelors.
With all of this fervor, it seems that “The Bachelor” is here to stay. Well, as long as there are single, attractive white men in America anyway. And that’s part of the problem – “The Bachelor” is no stranger to controversy, and in its 17 seasons it has never had a person of color play a romantic lead.
What’s more, these series actively promote heteronormative perceptions of romance. A few exceptions aside, such as MTV’s “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” (2007) and Bravo’s “Boy Meets Boy” (2003), there has rarely been an LGBT presence on any of these series.
Perhaps most upsetting is the fact that by now it’s become abundantly clear that many of these shows are actively scripted by producers. Numerous “Bachelor” contestants have come forward to say as much, and the shows’ many twists and turns have become all too predictable.
So why does “The Bachelor” live on? Our friends in Germany would probably say its schadenfreude. We can’t help but delight in other people’s romantic misadventures. There is an obvious thrill in watching a bachelorette go in for a kiss, only to be rejected. Better yet, when it comes to the show’s famous rose ceremony, it’s great to see the rebuffed contestants make their way down the stairs as they slowly come to terms with their “heartbreak.”
It definitely makes us feel better about our own loves lives, especially when they’re less than thrilling. So while I can’t deny my own enjoyment of these shows, I continue to question how strong the forces of schadenfreude can be in the face of self-evident bias. Perhaps “The Bachelor” could use a facelift because, while the roses may always be red, the world is not always so white.