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Splendor in the Crass: Finding Soul Mates on a TV Show

I cringe at the sight of stupid human tricks: boob and ass flashes at Mardi Gras; jackass stunts; wet T-shirt contests.

But nothing stirs my inner television critic more than the melodrama of reality dating shows, especially the breed that has become pervasive in the past two years: Warner Brothers' elimiDATE, Universal Worldwide Television's Blind Date, MTV's DisMissed, Sony Pictures Television's Shipmates and FOX's Temptation Island.

Each new dating game is a near-copycat version of its predecessor, from Dating Game to Warner Brothers' Change of Heart, which specializes in this sort of dialogue: "But honey, I didn't mean to kiss her, I just leaned in and it just sorta happened."

The stupidity that saturates each show ensures its longevity in the television universe. We may never comprehend why a woman would shove her blind date's face into her crotch (Blind Date). Or why a woman would pledge undying devotion to the boyfriend who has just been gyrating like a Chippendale dancer and sucking alcohol out of other women's navels (Temptation Island 2). Or why seemingly bright women would want to marry the fugly Rick Rockwell on FOX's Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? But it happened.

Rockwell chose Darva Conger among 50 participants to wed at the conclusion of the two-hour show that aired Feb. 15, 2000 in Las Vegas. The glitz died quickly and the marriage was annulled when it was discovered that Rockwell had threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend who obtained a restraining order against him. Oops.

The dramedy however, opened the door for more tasteless, vacuous dating shows, with the most extreme example ABC's newest reality dating show, The Bachelor. In the course of six weeks, 25 women compete to win a marriage proposal from 31-year-old management consultant Alex Michel. It's the kind of show in which everything from what the women wear/say/do to crush their competition and collar their man-whore makes me want to egg my television. But I can't stop watching, no matter how much I want to yank these Tiffany bracelet-wearing women by the wrists and says, "You dummy! Can't you see he's shopliftin' the pootie?"

Apparently viewers can't stop watching either; 8 million tuned into the premiere episode March 25, solidifying it as ABC's breakout hit.

Eight million of us are privy to the bachlorettes' most humiliating moments. When they feel stupid, anxious, too cocky, have a cow lick, have bad skin, are too geeky, too fast, too slow, have big boobs, have no boobs, have big hair or no hair -- we are witness and company to their misery. The horror of putting up with a woman who can't shut up about how she's into Freud or the guy who can't stop insulting his date ("So are those real or store-bought?") is our collective dating horror. We've all been there. And why venture into the world of actual dating when it's just a remote control click away? Their pain is our safe, voyeuristic, virtual pleasure.

Dirty Laundry

Dirty laundry makes good television. So it's no surprise that The Bachelor is going to pull the kind of audience that tuned in to Multimillionaire. (Mike Fleiss, Madam Heidi's cousin, created the show and produced Multimillionaire.)

Here's the play: Bachelor Alex Michel will go on group dates to get to know the women in his harem and weed out the duds. As of episode two, the field has already been narrowed from 25 to eight, and eventually down to The One. Following the conclusion of the dates is an event called Invitation Night.

The women dress as if it's cocktail hour except there's no horny happy hours corps, just Alex in his gray financial district suit. During this time, he talks to some of the gals. Shannon, a brunette Texan looker who's been cheated on, gets his attention. She and Alex clicked during the Vegas excursion, and Shannon thinks she'll be picked. But the chat at the Ladies' Villa -- that's the name of the Malibu mansion where the women are talking smack about one another, exchanging Alex dating stories and sunning poolside -- reveals that Shannon isn't as special as she thought. It turns out duh Shannon -- Alex made all the girls feel special.

"I don't feel special," Shannon says, with Alex's suit jacket draped on her shoulders.

"You're special in my book," Alex says to her.

Cheese! And she's buying every word!

Back inside, it's cut time. I imagine this is what a sorority Bid Night is like. Pretty girls dressed up waiting for their name to be called. Eight long-stemmed roses rest on a table. How very Gamma Zeta Phi, no?

"You're all amazing people," Alex tells his harem. "You've also told me to follow my heart and that's what I'm going to do."

He takes one long look at the party assembled and starts the bidding.

"Shannon," he calls out. She gives him a pleasant smile that tries to hide the joy she feels in her insecure, fragile heart. Shannon gets up from her seat and strides toward Alex, who asks. "Will you accept this rose?"

"I will," Shannon says, indicating her consent to continue the dating process. "And I believe you now."

Sure Shannon. We all do.

Some of the girls are clearly shattered when they are not chosen.

"If I have anything to say to Alex, it's 'Why did he first pick me?' says Katie, a girl who has less polish and cosmopolitan flair than the others. "Why did he not try to get to know me in the first place?"

Girrrrrl, we feel you. He's a dog, a dirty dog.

Melissa, a photographer from Arizona, is among the eliminated. At the conclusion of the Palm Springs group spa date, she plants herself on his lap. She wants to know if she will be advancing. Alex whispers an inaudible response in her ear, but she brags to the camera that Alex will keep her. Being cut on Invitation Night then, is a shock.

"I thought for sure I had it in the bag, but I was so wrong," she sniffles. "This whole situation has been difficult -- more than you can imagine."

I'll give it to Alex -- the guy is smooth. He knows how to cover his bases. One of the girls' eyes gets infected and he calls her from one of his dates to see if she's okay. Of course the girls bite; they think the gesture is sweet and secretly wonder if infected-eye girl is his favorite. Alex's game is to pretend to care and listen. There's that glint in his eye that makes the girls he talks to smile wider, lean in closer and bat their eyelashes a little faster.

I can already see the Maxim article: "How to Get Some Tail Like Alex Michel."

Caricature Dates

Dating game shows wouldn't have half the allure if it weren't for their characters. You know the ones: Slutty Guy/Girl, Serial Dater, Emotional Wreck, Zero Confidence, Looking for The One, Man/Woman Hater, Shameless Self-Promoter and Clueless, to name a few.

Take for instance MTV's celebrity edition of the hit dating show, DisMissed. Two girls are slated for a date with the rapper Ludacris. Each will have her turn to impress Ludacris and try to capitalize on first impressions by using Time Out cards. When a player presents the red card, the other player must leave the couple alone for 20 minutes and then return. The 20 minutes are crucial -- and the players do everything and anything not to be dismissed. That definitely ups the ante -- and the number of stupid human tricks.

In the Ludacris edition, the women conveniently shed their jumpsuits (they've just finished racing cars on a SoCal raceway) to reveal gold-tone, almost nude string bikinis. One contestant is even wearing those Lucite platforms that strippers parade in. But wait! It gets better. They're going to wash a car in their bikinis!

Then Ludacris takes it to another level; instead of choosing one of the girls, as is the norm on the show, he chooses both.

"Yee-a, yee-a, get friendly, get friendly," he says approvingly, after the girls proceed to kiss and make up after an all-day dis fest. "We menagin' it."

Blind Date is considerably more low-rent than DisMissed or The Bachelor, but it is just as entertaining and shocking since the daters are older, and their sins aren't as easily forgiven. And who thinks of these dates? Learning how to make chocolate-dipped bananas? Trying on lingerie at Frederick's of Hollywood? Wrestling your date? Whatever happened to dinner and a movie? 

Is it possible to find love among the dating show ruins? Good luck. It may happen, but only a few of the dating shows do updates anymore, which seems to indicate that the pairings may have been strictly for the cameras. One need only look at Rick and Darva. What's compromised when fools try to fall in love on dating shows? Standards, respect and most importantly, time. The games cook up insta-relationships that inevitably spoil when the cameras disappear. How well can you know someone when you're so focused on winning the game that you don't think about the prize?

Wedding Bells

Caricature daters I can deal with -- it's the sexism that prevails in The Bachelor that bothers me. Nearly all the other dating shows -- DisMissed, Change of Heart, Shipmates, elimiDATE, Blind Date and Temptation Island -- are gender equitable. The premise behind The Bachelor is wildly unfair. One man gets to choose from a field of 25 women. Oh sure, the women can refuse to advance within the game, but who wants to be branded a quitter?

To make matter worse, the Ladies Villa has the feel of an old West saloon -- albeit with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Then there's Alex Michel, wining, dining and pimping his prosties on ABC's tab. Watch Alex's expressions closely -- they reveal much more than what comes out of his mouth.

That one has a nice rack but no brain. Good body, but her face. Hooters waitress. Hmm. Won't be able to bring that one home to mom. Stop. Right. Now. Damn. Miami Heat dancer.

"I'm surprised at the extent to which I'm evaluating who would make a good wife, rather than who would be a good person to date," says Alex in a voiceover in episode two. Herein is why The Bachelor is pushing the reality dating boundaries. Not only do women have to be sexy, gorgeous, bright, loveable, independent and witty -- but they must also be wife material, whatever that means.

Alex so far has not revealed his wife specifications, unless you count his knee-jerk assertions. During the Palm Springs spa date, he's showering the bath mud off of a Kansas blonde named Amanda, who apparently isn't "aware" of her "killer body." When Alex does spot wife potential, we're flabbergasted by his decision. He's pegged Rhonda from Texas, who has been seen doing nothing but shooting clay pigeons from a yacht during the Santa Barbara group date, as "the best wife material." 

"I can see her as my wife, as my life partner for 50 years," Alex says.

From what we can deduct so far, he wants to marry a blonde Annie Oakley.

And remember poor Melissa? Well, we were lucky to find out why she got the boot. "She didn't jump out at me," says Alex in a voiceover. " I can't just be playing to other people. I've got to ask myself, 'Which one of these women has the most potential as a wife?'"

And there you have it.

Never have feminine wiles and ruthlessness been so exhausted in the name of matrimonial ambition than in The Bachelor. Since one-on-one time with Alex is so coveted, the women compete for each precious private moment, whether it is sneaking in a quick kiss on the cheek or whisking him away from the group for 10 minutes -- much to the chagrin of the other participants. Many of the women are torn when this happens -- they don't know if they should kill the woman who has taken their Alex, applaud her audacity or kick themselves for not thinking of the idea first.

Alexa is not one of the assertive types and clearly cannot stand the way Rhonda has elbowed her way past her and everyone else by announcing she is going upstairs to talk to Alex.

"Rhonda was the aggressive one," Alexa says. "She was definitely looking out for herself."

And why shouldn't she? These women have already learned from the first round of elimination that to outplay, outlast and outwit the competition, a woman must make herself the most eager, most available and most eligible bachelorette in Alex's domain.

That may well be the reason why ABC would likely reject out of hand the concept of "The Bachelorette." Are there men under 30 with serious husband potential? Maybe, but odds aren't good. Or is the idea of a woman proposing marriage too much to handle for a network recently purchased by the Walt Disney Company?

Visualize The Bachelorette's tagline: "Twenty-five men. One woman. Will true love be found? Only if the men don't kill each other first."

The role reversal would break two very important, unwritten Alpha Male, Super Macho myths. 1) men don't want marriage, they want sex without love; 2) a good wife is a chaste wife.

No man wants sloppy twenty-seconds. Judging from the progress that Alex is making, he will have smooched and groped at least eight women by the time he chooses The One. A bachelorette with 25 men would undoubtedly have to test the waters too -- with much harsher public criticism than our man on the prowl, Alex. Women are perceived to be far less predatory -- more often the hunted than the hunter.

Want to win at DisMissed? Be prepared to do anything: gearing up for girl-girl or boy-boy kissing at the request of the DisMisser, doing a strip tease or getting funky in the Jacuzzi. It's predictable, we understand, just like how we all know what happens when a piranha joins an aquarium, but that doesn't mean we don't want to witness how it all goes down. We relish when they mess up on Temptation Island, feel glee when some boyfriend is caught making out with someone else on Blind Date and moan when a DisMissed contestant drops trou to "impress" a date.

We want to see them wiggle out of their predicaments, explain and defend themselves, beg forgiveness, shout at their partners, say boorish things, cry on camera, plead for forgiveness, cast their scorn when they are rejected. As witnesses, we commitment-phobes relive our singledom, our spring break moments, our dating shortcomings. Tied down or not, we like to watch. We like it a lot.

Why can't I stop watching? Because I can't wait to see what stupid human trick they'll do next.

Genevieve Roja is an associate editor of AlterNet.org.

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