It’s amazing what lengths we, the single population of America, will go to in order to find true love, or at least a close approximation of it. There are the apps, of course, and then reality-TV shows like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette that make dating seem as easy as a series of cutesy group dates, some heartfelt one-on-one dinners, and a few strategic roses. Sometimes, though, you just want to get engaged to someone without even meeting them beforehand—and that’s where The Proposal comes in.
ABC’s latest show can be thought of as The Bachelor on steroids: ten “eligible daters” compete in a series of “pageant-style rounds” to woo a “mystery suitor or ‘suitress’ whose identity is concealed from them,” reads the press release, as if this was a totally normal thing to do.
The four rounds are relatively basic—first, a series of introductions; then, the beachwear round, where the contestants supposedly bare more than just their bodies; after that, the mystery suitor gets a chance to ask some hard-hitting questions; and finally, a trusted friend or family member of said suitor interrogates the remaining contestants until only two remain. Then, only then, does the mystery suitor reveal him or herself and make a “romantic proposal” of their choice—but not necessarily a marriage proposal, the show is quick to emphasize. It’s unclear what else the suitor would propose, but perhaps asking for a second date that’s free from the confines of a reality-TV soundstage would be a good start.
This episode’s mystery suitor is Mike, a 29-year-old police officer from California who seems gamely up for the challenge. In a somber early segment, we learn that Mike was involved in a motorcycle accident several years ago that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. The network spares no effort to keep Mike’s appearance hidden, even obscuring his body with a white anthropomorphic blob during the intro segment. While this makes him look eerily similar to a Westworld host, his appearance is indeed a mystery, and remains so even as he enters his “pod,” a sequestered compartment that allows him to see and hear everything that happens onstage during the show.
Once Mike is settled, it’s time for him to get his first glimpse at his potential partners. “Let the soulmate pageant begin!” host (and ex-Bachelor) Jesse Palmer gleefully exclaims, with an equally enthusiastic announcer introducing each of the women as they come on stage. Their bios range from the truly ridiculous to the marginally amusing, with tidbits like “she loves the beach, but hates parades” and “when she’s not writing, she’s tending to her massive collection of dolls!” sprinkled in for character, apparently.
Of the ten women, there are a few clear favorites from the start. There’s Jessica, a giggly thirty-something in medical sales; Morgan, the self-proclaimed “Jennifer Aniston of Long Island”; Kendall, a blonde baton twirler-cum-neuropsychologist; and Monica, an avid bedazzler and realtor from Los Angeles. Once all the women have strutted their stuff, Mike sends three of them home—a bit soon, yes, but he does have to find a fiancée in less than an hour, after all. And while the “blue-ribbon panel of matchmakers” for the show has selected a wonderfully diverse group of women to compete—ranging in age, shape, race/ethnicity and profession—Mike unsurprisingly selects only the younger, conventionally-attractive contestants to move on.
Next comes the beachwear segment, where, Palmer announces, the contestants will “bare their souls and their bodies” in an effort to continue their quest for Mike’s love. Equally as stilted as the introductory round, but ten times more uncomfortable given the outfit change, we learn some fun facts in the beachwear round, like that med student Riona has never had a boyfriend and her grandpa offered to have her eggs frozen, or that Morgan suffered from anxiety and depression but is now in the throes of a bona fide glow up (“I’m better now,” she says, gesturing to her svelte bikini-clad body). At the end of the segment, Mike selects only Monica, Kendall, Morgan, and Jessica to move forward, while everyone continues to pretend like this is a totally normal thing to do.
Once the women are fully clothed again, Mike gets a chance to ask some “dealbreaker” questions of his own. These could be about anything, Palmer explains earnestly: past relationships, views on marriage or “even sex.” Mike asks Morgan how she feels about dating an amputee (“I believe the, um, soul is what matters, not the physical appearance,” she manages), after which he opens up to all the women about his accident. In his final question, he bizarrely quizzes Kendall on how “physically adventurous” she is when it comes to sex; citing her profession, she declines to answer. After a brief moment of thought, Mike sends Morgan home, leaving Monica, Kendall, and Jessica still in the running.
In the final round, Mike’s best friend Andrew takes a turn interviewing the women. He asks Monica and Jessica to open up about their best friends and perfect Sunday mornings, but Kendall is stuck in the hot seat again when Andrew asks her if she wants kids. She’s refreshingly honest and says no, that she’d prefer to travel and spend time with her husband, but that appears to be a dealbreaker for Mike and he eliminates her. This leaves Jessica and Monica to proceed to the final part of the show, when Mike will emerge from his pod for the first time and make a romantic proposal of some kind.
When Mike finally does emerge from his pod, he’s… surprisingly normal-looking! Handsome, even. You can almost see Monica and Jessica breathe a sigh of relief. Mike makes a heartfelt speech about true love, claiming that for him, the feelings are real—even though he’s had no prior contact, physical or otherwise, with these women. They play their parts willingly: Jessica asks her father, already in the audience, for permission to marry Mike, and he gives his tearful assent (whether he’s crying from happiness or utter despair is unclear). Then comes arguably the best part of the entire show, when Monica’s dog, dressed to the nines, appears in the audience along with her mother. After listening to both women’s incredibly earnest appeals, Mike asks Monica to marry him; while down on one knee, he says that he was smitten with her from the first time she stepped on stage—a mere hour or two ago.
As the newly-engaged Mike and Monica share their first-ever (!) kiss to cheers and applause, Jessica sulks offstage, clearly disappointed. After nearly an hour of speed-dating madness, this first episode ends with an entreaty to the single people of America: always be ready to take a leap of faith, because your soulmate could be just around the corner!
While both The Proposal and the Bachelor franchise have a similar premise—you can find true love while starring in a reality-TV show with strangers you’ve never met!—it’s pretty clear which one is more fun to watch. The Bachelor et al. succeed due to the overall tone of the shows. While every contestant is, in theory, there to find true love, no one really takes themselves too seriously, and there’s plenty of juicy drama, petty fallings-out, and steamy makeout sessions to keep things interesting.
The Proposal, however, has none of these things, and instead takes a rather self-righteous approach to the whole “speed-dating on reality TV” shtick, amplified here to an insane degree. For a show with a premise this crazy, there are no fun moments, no GIF-able quotes—only ten people desperate enough for love that they’d marry someone they’ve never met, let alone seen, before. Lacking the sexy, campy fun of The Bachelor, The Proposal is just a depressing reminder of how us single folk are expected to take any chance at love we can get—and it comes off more bleak than binge-worthy. Let’s just pray that this season’s Bachelorette gives us more interesting Twitter fodder.