'The Bachelor's' Real-Life Soap Opera

The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise—now in its 20th season—came back from near-death when the show's cast became tabloid celebrities. Joyce Tang examines its unlikely resurgence.

06.24.10 10:11 PM ET

Audiences cringed last season when square-jawed pilot Jake Pavelka proposed to villainesse bachelorette and ex-Hooter's waitress Vienna Girardi on the final episode of The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love. The tabloids predicted the matchup would never last, and just a short three months later, they’re getting their wish. A rep for the couple confirmed the split Saturday. And, as if on cue, Us Weekly, TMZ, Life & Style, Extra, and all the other cogs in the celebrity gossip machine have pounced on the story this week.

Why do they all care, eight years after the show debuted? Twenty combined seasons and counting of ABC’s The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise, not much has changed from its over-the-top beginnings: long-stemmed roses, fantasy dates, Champagne that never stops flowing, a heavy dose of old-fashioned romance—and couples that just don’t last. But the show’s ancillary dramas—scandals about the contestants, spoilers about future episodes—work perfectly for the ever-churning gossip media.

“The news cycle is so in-your-face in the sense that we’re covering it online, in real time,” Us Weekly senior editor Lindsay Powers said, which feeds into people watching the show.

A few years ago, news of Jake and Vienna’s breakup would have inspired collective eye-rolling, given the show’s track record. But a recent string of surprises upending the traditional, though short-lived, happy endings have given the show a second life, fueled by obsessively devoted blogs and tabloids desperate to uncover the “real” stories behind the manufactured relationships. The franchise is stumbling upon its best ratings yet since the shows first aired, and has long outlasted its mock-tastic spinoffs by remaining steadfast in its unwillingness to venture into camp and in its sincerity about love—an oddity considering that the show's premise includes brothel-like settings and asks viewers to embrace a narrative of true love based on a two-month courtship.

In an era that's calling for women to get real about romance, love, and marriage (see Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed or Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him!), The Bachelor and Bachelorette's comeback seems to go against the grain. It displays arguably antiquated notions of chivalry and gender roles, while also managing to be unrepentant for (or at the very least unaware of) its promotion of traditional family values and homogeneous parade of WASPs; few daters of color ever make it through central casting.

Recently the show has come around to embracing its serialization, a strategy that has boosted its ratings. With recycled cast members plucked from among the most favored and willing rejects, there hasn’t been a fresh bachelor or bachelorette in six of the past seven seasons. In other words: The current Bachelorette is 25-year-old Ali Fedotowsky, a girl-next-door, Converse-wearing blonde, who stepped out early on last season's bachelor, Jake, when her real-life job at Facebook called her back to work. Jake had been a castoff from the Jillian Harris season, who was third runner-up in the Jason Mesnick season, who was rejected by Deanna Pappas, who was one of the two jilted bachelorettes from the Brad Womack season.

In repurposing its cast of characters, the show has, for the most part, abandoned its original premise of "high-concept bachelors," who in the earlier years were successful entrepreneurs, Firestone heirs, Italian princes, and the like.

Jason, who captured the affection of female viewers while pursuing Deanna, was a single dad with a job in insurance, of medium build and height, and arguably the most average-looking bachelor in the show's history. And Trista Sutter, née Rehn, the first Bachelorette, said in an interview that she credits her lasting popularity to being "someone that people can relate to. I am that kind of nobody from Middle America."

These days, show creator Mike Fleiss concedes that more important than owning a winery or being an almost-professional athlete is to cast someone "really looking for love.... If your title character isn't really there for that, you're doomed."

In this season's opening episode, Ali vowed never to put work before love again. “I think the biggest mistake I made that night was choosing a desk, a computer, and keyboard over someone who could be the love of my life,” she said remorsefully, against a sweeping San Francisco backdrop. (When Facebook eventually goes public, will she feel otherwise? Time will tell.)

The onslaught of clichés uttered by the cast, which leaves many viewers cringing, is also what makes them stay—the audience can consider itself in on the joke. Because for all its earnestness, The Bachelor and Bachelorette are also abysmally cynical about love and marriage in the way they reduce the two to a game-cum-reality show.

But the show has done best when it has actually successfully made a match, as in 2003, when Trista fulfilled the dreams of producers—and fans—by marrying the man to whom she had given her final rose. Seventeen million viewers tuned in to watch the couple's ABC-sponsored multimillion-dollar wedding.

"People had their fairytale ending from me and Ryan," Trista said of her very public union to Colorado firefighter Ryan Sutter. Fans were satiated—and skeptics debunked—by the storyline's conclusion. They now have two children.

When the unlikely fairytale narrative faltered in subsequent seasons, audiences began flipping the channel. More often than not, couples settled for the vague, unsatisfying promise to continue on their “journey,” what Fleiss refers to as “the turd.” Season after season delivered eager, telegenic singles failing to find love, exposing the show for what viewers had known all along—as a sham. Where viewership soared to nearly 14 million in the show’s first year, it dropped to almost half that by the third season. Three years ago, it was on the verge of being canceled.

Its second marriage, bachelor Jason and Molly Malaney, occurred in February (and was also broadcast on ABC), which bumped the show’s marriage rate to 10 percent. (Not bad, considering's self-reported success rate for dates leading to marriage is 1 in 1,369.)

Though the Jason-Molly wedding was replete with all the fairytale ingredients—a Monique Lhuillier wedding gown, Neil Lane jewelry, and white doves—it didn't arrive without controversy. One year earlier, at the "After the Final Rose" reunion show, Jason flipped the script by dumping his original pick, Melissa Rycroft, and asking Molly for a second chance—all on television.

Bachelor Jason Mesnick dumps Melissa Rycroft on "After the Final Rose" ceremony

The scandalous mishaps have certainly helped with the show's “realness” appeal, said Rachel Dubrofsky, a communications professor at the University of South Florida. “People watch to see what's going to happen that's going to break the veneer of the show.”

“When Jason wanted to switch girls, those things didn't conform to the initial format of the show,” Fleiss said. But veering off script has worked. “When you go straight at what is really happening, you're able to tell a much stronger story.”

And the tabloid circus has been right there to pick up that narrative. Leaked emails between Jason and Melissa alluded to producers orchestrating the indecorous dumping on national television, but the episode quickly landed Melissa—the sympathetic, bruised heroine—a spot on Dancing With the Stars, and, soon after, the cover of People magazine ( Melissa’s Revenge! read the coverline).

“Us Weekly has been covering [the show] because it makes for relatable drama,” said that magazine’s senior editor Lindsay Powers. Since news of the Jake-Vienna breakup, the magazine has leaked a steady stream of updates about the details behind it, including spoilers for the current season of The Bachelorette. “The news cycle is so in-your-face in the sense that we’re covering it online, in real time,” Powers said, which feeds into people watching the show.

Even reliable spoilers by blogger Reality Steve haven’t deterred fans, who, as Steve Carbone told Entertainment Weekly, “are still watching because they want to see it play out.”

The media focus has, naturally, turned the ex-contestants into personalities beyond the show. Jillian Harris has made hosting appearances, Jake was also cast in the most recent season of DWTS, and Melissa has gone so far as to parlay her sympathy card into a gig as a Good Morning America correspondent. Later this summer, she will also co-host The Bachelor Pad, the show’s spinoff that premieres Aug. 9—former contestants will live in a house, compete for money, and, inevitably, hook up.

“We’re doing a spinoff now because the real-life soap opera has taken root over the last couple years,” Fleiss said. “The story continues after the series. People continue to pursue relationships. Some of them are getting married, engaged. There are rumors of a pregnancy.”

Then, summing up the reason for the show’s fluky long life, Fleiss said, “It’s a real-life, real-world soap opera.”

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Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.