It’s a swimming pool at the edge of the world. At least that’s what it looks like — the camera gazing over the lip of a poolside perched too far out on a cliff, like the steep drop-off to the ocean happens here, maybe right under our feet.
This is the first shot of the first episode of The Bachelor. It’s brief, just a few seconds fixed on a schema of layered water and light — the up-close, unreal blue of the pool picked up in the ocean and bolted at a shimmer, heading for the horizon to collide with the preposterous, unbroken blue of the sky. The beauty is willful, boggling, engineered for optical illusion. Even if you’ve never been to California, you know this is California. Every element — pool, ocean, sky — flattens with an eager camera-readiness that makes you think maybe people build mansions and pools in places like this not to look at the view, but to be in it. And the error of thinking the cliff drops off below us — maybe that’s the idea. Maybe it’s a kind of true. Like there are places where the whole point of beauty, of nature, is to condition us to get something wrong.
It’s just a few seconds. The camera swings to left, and standing on the pool deck there’s a man in a summer suit that looks like millennium-era Gap khaki taking a crack at formalwear. “Hi,” he says, “I’m Chris Harrison. And no, I’m not the Bachelor.”
When The Bachelor debuted in 2002, it was hardly a latecomer to the reality TV party, but it also wasn’t leading the vanguard. In summer 2000 when Survivor — with its safe, silly contrivance overlaid with the dark exposure of bare life — turned out to be an explosive ratings-gobbler, it appeared that something about the palate of twenty-first century TV viewers had either exposed itself or been whetted. When a glut of turn-of-the-millennium reality TV followed up, The Bachelor was solidly in the middle: after Big Brother and Fear Factor, before America’s Next Top Model and Simple Life, in just about the same breath as American Idol.
By virtue of its subject (hetero dating), The Bachelor also has ancestral roots reaching back to the late-mid-twentieth century with The Dating Game: that game show classic where Bachelors numbered one through three (sometimes gender-reversed) compete with ice-breaking trivia for a chance to take a prize woman out on the studio’s dime. The Dating Game ran for a decade in the mid-’60s and then, like the matchmaking undead, was revived three times between the end of the late ’70s and late ’90s. Without the seriality of The Bachelor, Dating was pure game show, suffering no fuss over “reasons,” right or wrong, to sign up as a contestant. A common gig for struggling actors, Dating Game archives are a real treasure trove of before-they-were-famous footage.
There are also Bachelor relations among its own reality cohort, kissing cousins (maybe more like drunk make-out cousins?) like Blind Date and Temptation Island. Blind Date, which ran from 1999 into the mid-aughts, set couples up on multi-part, multi-drink dates then glossed the footage — often pretty dull on its face — with cheeky cartoon thought bubbles. Temptation Island was a kind of false rumspringa, bringing four committed couples to a resort, splitting them up, and surrounding each with a cast of (tempting, hence the name) professional bods of the opposite sex. Temptation was sort of The Bachelor’s inverse — an experiment in romance-busting rather than building — but tapped the same fears and longings around romance. It also, in its own way, held up monogamy as an aspirational, self-improving end.
Finally, the closest comp by virtue of its shared paternity is Bachelor executive producer Mike Fleiss’s first televised matrimonial extravaganza Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? — homo habilis to The Bachelor’s erectus. A single two-hour special aired in 2000, Millionaire was a classic, fifty-state American beauty pageant with a shadowy sugar daddy (literally: he was only visible in silhouette) serving as both judge and winner’s crown (no “scholarship program” here). Twenty-two million people tuned in to watch Miss-turned-Mrs. Millionaire claim her prize of on-the-spot wedlock to the moneybags. Just as soon as the couple had honeymooned-slash-met, it came out that FOX had done poor vetting on their “millionaire next door” (as Fleiss has called him), who had a restraining order from an ex-fiancée on the grounds of domestic violence. He’d also fudged his professional creds, his name, and quite possibly the barely plural millions for which he’d been cast. Whoopsie-daisy! Better background checks next time.
Despite this unalloyed failure, Fleiss remained convinced that America was thirsty for reality-TV-made marriage. (After all, twenty-two million had tuned in to watch his wayward liability pageant in the first place.) After striking out at a couple of other networks, Fleiss sold ABC on another show about dozens of women pursuing a single man’s hand. This time the pitch was less beauty pageant and more true love on crack: the usual beats from meet-cute to matrimony cranked up by the presence of rivals and the fantasy-making efforts of TV production. A competitive fairy tale. The Bachelor was signed for six one-hour episodes and given an eight-week, shoestring shoot in which to make Mike Fleiss’s dreams come true. It was, for Fleiss, a second chance at (producing) love.
Unscripted dating shows that came before The Bachelor generated the standard reality TV goodies: embarrassing moments, interpersonal drama, the ups-and-downs of competition. But they had a common failing: prodding at schadenfreude under the auspices of dating made dating look bad. Though these shows were allegedly about romance, none was actually romantic.
So, yeah, uh, The Bachelor doesn’t really have that problem. A many-candle-lined, rose-petal-strewn, sunset-lit journey to find The One, the Bachelor’s romance is pitched to take your breath away, suck oxygen, smother. The show has never been coy about its ambitions. In the very first episode, Chris Harrison tells us: “This is not an ordinary relationship show — the stakes are considerably higher here. This is about something real. Something permanent. You know, the whole ’til death do you part thing?”
It may have been joining the spate of crass, human spectacles hurled up in TV to ring in the 21st century, but The Bachelor parades shamelessly into lofty rhetoric past centuries have left to their poets. From the beginning, the show asserted its right not to choose between high and low, professing to expose the drama of real people acting out of loneliness and fear, then pull it together for the payoff of happily ever after. And with this blunt promise, The Bachelor reassured viewers that it was okay for us to want it both ways.
At its beating, rose-red heart, The Bachelor is basically just two things: it’s a game show, and it’s a love story — more particularly, a marriage plot. And before you think about it too hard, the pairing sounds so natural that it’s hard to believe someone even had to think it up. Like, wait, was that not already a thing? After all, the game show and the marriage plot are, arguably, the defining innovations of middle-class entertainment of the 20th and 18th-into-19th centuries, respectively. Both genres are so endlessly popular and endlessly replicable that the twain shall meet seems more like a command than a proposition. The Bachelor as inevitability.
But if public competition meets love-’n’-marriage Romance sounds like a populist twinning as harmonious as, I don’t know, beer and wings, that impression of affinity belies a fact that is obvious the moment you think it through: namely that the genres are bent on mutual exclusion. Though both game shows and love stories offer a fantasy of delivery from regular life, they propose that different forces compel the ascent. The game show publicizes the ordinary individual as a competitor who channels luck and skill to author their own fate. The marriage plot reveals that even the ordinary individual may be chosen and moved by the authority of a fate beyond their control. So on the one hand The Bachelor is a competition, and it’s anyone’s game. On the other hand, it also purports to be an expression of romantic destiny: a series of turns plotted to reach a preordained end.
That illogic isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. In fact, it’s the very locus of The Bachelor’s tenacious, addictive endurance. Because in its refusal to choose between a game show’s effort and a love story’s kismet, I argue that The Bachelor is the ultimate specimen of American entertainment, mimicking a similar refusal to choose between foundational myths at the heart of the nation’s identity and self-image. The show presents as an open playing field, freely available for any individual to enter, meet, and conquer. Then when someone actually wins, their victory is recast as the inexorable allotment of fortune. Differently put: for weeks the show dramatizes the pursuit of individual happiness, only to claim in the end that it was manifesting destiny all along. And so The Bachelor delivers that oxymoronic, impossibly American dream of working hard for your innate exceptionalism, of pulling yourself up by the boot straps to step into your fate.