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The Bachelor isn’t a love story — it’s a comedy

After 20 seasons of “love,” the long-running reality series is better at humor than romance.

The season 20 Bachelor, Ben Higgins, surrounded by his harem of court jesters, errr, the women selected to compete for his affection.
The season 20 Bachelor, Ben Higgins, surrounded by his harem of court jesters, errr, the women selected to compete for his affection.
ABC

For the first time in 14 years, it's cool to watch The Bachelor.

The Bachelor has aired for 20 seasons since its premiere in 2002 (not counting 11 seasons of its spinoff The Bachelorette or a combined five seasons of newer franchise additions Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise). For a sizable chunk of that run, the series' largely female audience has faced the sort of stigma that typically banishes a TV show from water cooler conversations: one part, "You know reality shows aren't real, right?" to two parts, "That show with the fantasy suites?"

But in the past few seasons, the legacy ABC reality series has picked up some serious comedy cred — enough to raise its profile to the point that it's not only drawing new viewers but also becoming a regular topic in our ongoing cultural conversation.

The Bachelor's potential for comedic resonance emerged as early as 2012, with the success of the web series Burning Love, a star-studded satire that featured the likes of Ken Marino, Adam Scott, Kristen Bell, and more. The production ultimately made the leap to television, earning an Emmy nomination in 2013 in the Outstanding Special Class — Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment category. And last year, Rachel Dratch hosted a weekly Bachelor recap web series for Funny or Die called "The Dratchelor."

The comedy is also appearing onscreen within the franchise itself. In 2015, The Bachelorette featured an on-camera appearance by Amy Schumer, while Jimmy Kimmel appeared as a guest host on season 19 of The Bachelor. Season 20, which is currently airing, has welcomed Kevin Hart. Meanwhile, ABC has debuted a weekly Bachelor aftershow called Bachelor Live, which just a few weeks ago blurred the lines between commentary and sketch comedy when comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney appeared in character as their Kroll Show alter egos "George and Gil" to discuss the latest episode.

Bachelor contestant Rachel makes her grand entrance to season 20 on a hoverboard.
Bachelor contestant Rachel makes her grand entrance to season 20 on a hoverboard.
ABC

And this is all in addition to the alt-comedy that has begun to creep into the weekly adventures of a Bachelor looking for love amongst a gaggle of attractive women who are competing to provide it. Arrivals for the current season, which debuted January 4, included one woman in a formal gown riding a hoverboard, and another who freighted her innocent mini horse all the way to the Hollywood Hills Bachelor mansion from a ranch in Texas.

A few weeks later, the show highlighted a conversation between Bachelor Ben Higgins and a contestant named Olivia; he'd just learned that two close family friends had died in a plane crash, and her response was to tell him, while shedding actual tears, that she's insecure about having cankles. And during a more recent segment, Ben and the women went swimming in the Bahamas with a bunch of voracious pigs:

This increasingly ludicrous imagery has prompted hundreds of established and armchair comedians to live-tweet each episode and laugh at the contestants' various trials and tribulations. Yet the series simultaneously trumpets the same "earnest search for love" narrative that it first used to legitimize its titillating premise at the dawn of reality TV, insisting that the Bachelor has bravely stepped forward to seriously date 20 or so women in the very real hopes of finding a wife.

The idea that ABC is benevolently staging this spectacle just so two people can find love has always been a fiction, but in the past, viewers were addressed as though they believed it. Now the series is openly winking at its audience while pushing its more "idiosyncratic" contestants to the fore. And while the cynicism the production displays in inviting others to laugh at a dating pool it’s responsible for vetting would logically undermine its central premise, the audience is hardly tuning out.

Hate-watching a journey to find love

Hate-watching — the practice of watching a TV show in order to gleefully mock it — has always been part of the Bachelor viewing experience. Indeed, it’s a key element of the series' enduring popularity, and according to Jennifer L. Pozner, a media literacy advocate and the author of Reality Bites Back, the potential for hate-watching was baked in right from the start by showrunner Mike Fleiss. Pozner quotes Fleiss as saying, "'The most important thing is, the audience needs to ‘love the guy and hate the girls': Love the guy and hate the girls! Really! Is there a more textbook definition of misogyny than that?"

This formula would certainly explain The Bachelor's central contradiction of a host who continually informs a harem of 20-somethings — with all the seriousness of a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis — that the Bachelor is on a journey to find his wife ... all while the production staff encourages those same women to swig shots and put on a unicorn mask before meeting him for the first time.

It also explains the burgeoning sarcasm the show uses in revealing the contestants' real-life "professions." Since the beginning of The Bachelor, contestants have been identified by their name, age, and job — but in the past few seasons, what constitutes a job has become laughably abstract. For example, at the beginning of season 20, the cast featured a so-called "chicken enthusiast" and a pair of identical sisters whose respective professions were simply listed as "twin."

Tiara, an apparent "chicken enthusiast," makes her entrance to season 20 of The Bachelor.
Tiara, an apparent "chicken enthusiast," on season 20 of The Bachelor.
ABC

However, the "love for the guy + hate for the women = invested viewers" equation does not fully explain the self-aware posture assumed by Bachelor Live, which invites comedians to discuss the women as if they're part of an emotional NFL team that's passed, fumbled, or spiked the Bachelor like a passive pigskin. Nor does it explain the complete tone shift of spinoffs like the now-canceled Bachelor Pad and the more recent Bachelor in Paradise, where, through the power of editing, former contestants from both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are portrayed as either conniving, mercenary villains or so naive that they cartoonishly appeal to raccoons and crabs for relationship advice:

The franchise's editors clearly have a wry sense of humor, and as of late, they've been taking more advantage of the hundreds of hours of raw footage at their disposal, using B-roll to spackle a pastiche of audio clips and hard cuts into a narrative that frequently drifts into the surreally absurd. In season eight of The Bachelorette, a male contestant who insisted on wearing a mask so he’d be judged on his personality was continually intercut with a cawing, sinister raven. In season 19, a two-on-one date (where the Bachelor goes out with two women simultaneously and then eliminates one of them from the show) ended with Bachelor Chris Soules zipping off in a helicopter and leaving both women alone in the middle of the Badlands. The ensuing zoom-out shot, in which both women stood in a static tableau, arms crossed, framed them as having been abandoned in a barren wasteland after chasing away the Bachelor with their crying and bickering.

Meanwhile, earlier that same season, contestant Ashley Salter earned plenty of screen time with her erratic, out-of-context one-liners, which The Bachelor underscored with lilting musical flourishes and intercut with talking heads of the other girls describing her as crazy.

The "onion girl" — so named after a particularly memorable testimonial involving both a metaphorical onion and a literal pomegranate — became a fan favorite, enjoying long segments of airtime despite very little actual interaction with the Bachelor himself.

#RatingsClimb: the role of Twitter

After a ratings dive in 2008, ABC reality execs lauded the 2009 Bachelor, season 13's Jason Mesnick, as the magic feather that saved the series and launched a Bachelor renaissance. Mesnick was the first Bachelor to be selected after appearing on the franchise as a contestant on The Bachelorette, and during his season's "After the Final Rose" post-finale special, Mesnick did an about-face, dumping the woman who "won" his proposal to reunite with the runner-up on air.

And indeed, 2009 kicked off the beginning of a ratings resurgence that culminated in a three-year high with the season 17 premiere in 2014. However, if we were to compile a Homeland-style conspiracy web, we'd see a much bigger factor driving both the ratings climb and the self-conscious shift in The Bachelor's tone: the arrival of Twitter. Since late 2009, Twitter has elevated hate-watching to an art, and The Bachelor offers a uniquely perfect setup for 140-character punchlines: The show is overlong, relentlessly dramatic, and charged with that most relatable nervous energy, the fear of rejection.

"I think the advent of social media and the increase of what is called 'hate-watching' has absolutely helped the dynamic of this show," says Steve Carbone, a.k.a. Reality Steve, who has covered The Bachelor exhaustively since its debut and is perhaps the show's best-known commentator. "There's a reason why this show is trending on Twitter every Monday night. You think those tweets are people saying how wonderful the show is? Of course not. They're making fun of it — but they're watching, and that's the key."

And it's not just your average viewer who's tweeting about the show; celebrities and comedians are on that hashtag every Monday night:

Comedy writer Leila Cohan-Miccio suspects Twitter's confessional nature is a key reason for this. "I do think Twitter has made it more acceptable to own your embarrassing habits," she says. Cohan-Miccio is one half of the writing team that created a parody show called The Bachelor: Romance, Roses, and Romance for New York City's UCB Theatre. "I don't even know necessarily that it's that many more comedians watching as just unapologetically tweeting about it."

What attracts The Bachelor's audience?

"The Kardashians are really into The Bachelor," Caitlin Bitzegaio, Cohan-Miccio's writing partner, points out. "The people who know better than anyone how the sausage of reality TV is made are still invested, which probably speaks to both the humor and romance aspect, that they get sucked in."

And here we have the crux of the matter: People are tweeting about how ridiculous The Bachelor is, but the show isn't perceived as manufactured enough that people should stop watching. Even the most knowing and critical viewers still respond to something at the core of The Bachelor that feels true; its dual nature is mirrored by the audience, who watches for the LOLz while simultaneously relating to the participants.

Erica Oyama, who wrote and created Burning Love, is perhaps a perfect example of this viewer dichotomy. She is more aware of The Bachelor's foibles than anyone (as her scathing satire made clear), but she's also an enthusiastic, unapologetic fan: "I knew someone who worked on the show who estimated half the people watched to make fun of it and half took it seriously," Oyama told me via email. "I don’t know anyone who watches it sincerely, but I’m sure they are out there. I would have to admit I’m somewhere in between these two categories. I watch it because it’s ridiculous, but I do get sucked in and become weirdly emotionally invested."

Cohan-Miccio backs up this impression. "I would think 95 percent of the audience is LOL at this point, but to varying degrees," she estimates. "A friend of mine came over once to watch Ashley and JP's wedding [Ashley is Ashley Hebert, a former Bachelorette who married the "winner" of her season on air; the couple now have a son together], and we definitely approached it with a spirit of, like, 'LOL Bachelor wedding' and we definitely all cried."

But Reality Steve has a much grimmer estimate of how much of the audience is taking the show at face value: "I wanna say not many, but then if you go to the Bachelor fan page on Facebook and read some of the comments on there, you find yourself saying, 'Damn, I can't believe how clueless these people are.' If I had to assign a percentage to it, I'd say 80 percent still take it at face value, and that's 80 percent too much."

Jennifer Pozner's assessment is even more damning: "You know the show is in on the joke, but the problem is the audience is the real joke. The women on the show are the real joke. Because it's not campy. [The producers] haven't changed the framing of the show. They still want us to believe that single women are pathetic, desperate, man-hungry losers who can never possibly live full, happy, or successful lives unless some dude they've known for five minutes chooses them. They still want us to believe that."

But while it's clear that The Bachelor thrives on some of its viewers collectively rolling their eyes at its hopeful single lady contestants, it's also true the eyes doing that rolling are predominantly female. The franchise's core audience has always been female, just as the heroes and villains of its flagship series, however manufactured, have always been female.

The Bachelor's focus is squarely on a group of women competing to win a male prize — and that man is framed as being in constant danger of getting fooled by women who are far more interested in promoting themselves as a brand than actually marrying the Bachelor. Or, in the parlance of the show itself, the women who are "not here for the right reasons," meaning they hold an astonishingly naive belief that they can somehow establish an authentic relationship with a relative stranger that can transcend the polyamorous dating cycle and tabloid media circus to land them in real-world marital bliss.

However, in light of the increasingly unflattering pall that The Bachelor and its spinoffs have cast upon the pool of potential mates — which, again, producers have cherry-picked for their Bachelor — it seems facetious to claim that anyone who shows up at a casting call for the franchise is there to find love. And that's true no matter which side of the camera they’re on, as the show now puts so much focus on dramatic arcs and contestant hijinks that it's become virtually impossible to take any of so-called heroes or villains seriously.

The Bachelor's exploitation of its cast has been brought into the limelight with Lifetime’s excellent scripted drama UnReal, which debuted in the summer of 2015. Co-created by former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnReal uses a thinly veiled Bachelor analogue to show how much pressure reality producers are under to get dramatic moments out of their contestants, no matter the means.

On UnReal, the producers are not above leveraging the contestants' psychological triggers to incite juicy breakdowns. Meanwhile, the drama showcases elements that characterize The Bachelor behind the scenes — namely, sleep deprivation, unlimited alcohol, and lack of contact with the outside world — as high-strung women come for a cocktail party in UnReal's premiere, are met with flutes of champagne, and finally stagger out of the first rose ceremony in the first light of dawn. Thanks to UnReal, the psychological stressors of The Bachelor have never been more transparently on display, and the show has served to tweak The Bachelor from fairy tale to dystopian survival saga: The Hunger Games in formalwear.

As the fantasy of The Bachelor erodes, it's easy to see why the laughter swells, the hashtags balloon, and the buzz grows — and thus, it's no wonder earnest viewers have become much less valuable to the franchise than people who look to the show for joke fodder. Or, as Oyama puts it, "The show grew from a sincere soap opera, just for ladies, to a more self-aware, fun show for everyone."

However, it's worth noting that despite the influx of comedians chiming in and the show's explicit encouragement of their hate-watching, without fail the highest-rated episode of every season is the finale — which is always the least funny and most sincere episode.

The Bachelor is ultimately about ritualized heartbreak

As each season of The Bachelor draws to a close, a curious gravitas descends as the final two contestants each walk to a flower-strewn altar in real time — background music dropped out, throbbing hearts captured by remote mics — and one or both of them gets dumped on national television. Witnessing this kind of public rejection is perhaps the most gut-wrenching viewing experience possible that doesn't involve bloodshed. There are consistently tears, certainly more tears than proposals, which suggests happy endings are not the point.

The audience is watching not for the possible happy ending but for the certain rejection, the single uncut moment of honesty in a sea of manipulated footage. The pain of rejection is the consistent, gleaming grain of authenticity around which the rest of the Bachelor enterprise has structured itself — and one of the most fundamental and universal pillars of comedy.

Indeed, there is scientific evidence for why we laugh at others' pain and misfortune. Recent research says one of the elements that affects how and why humans laugh is a "play frame," something that puts a "real-life event into a nonserious context" and allows us to laugh at it. Scientific American explains:

Play frames explain why most people will not find it comical if someone falls from a 10-story building and dies: in this instance, the falling person’s distress hinders the establishment of the nonserious context. But if a woman casually walking down the street trips and flails hopelessly as she stumbles to the ground, the play frame may be established, and an observer may find the event amusing.

The Bachelor, one could argue, presents a play frame for one of the most shattering and universal human experiences: being rejected by a potential romantic partner. When we watch The Bachelor, we watch events unfold in a setting too ludicrous and fabricated and monitored to believe any real damage can be caused, and we get a chance to laugh at something that might have devastated us if we'd experienced it firsthand, along with multitudes of beautiful and funny people onscreen and off who relate to it as well. We find a catharsis for rejection and a support group for it in The Bachelor, whereas in real life rejection is too often nebulous, open-ended, and endured in solitude.

"People aren't watching this show anymore hoping for a love story," says Reality Steve. "And if they are, I feel sorry for them. This show isn't about love. Far from it." Agreed; most Bachelor viewers know better than to expect a happily-ever-after tale. But maybe it's the opposite that's true. Maybe the real narrative of The Bachelor is not about how people find love, but about how they don't, even when they're good and beautiful and deserving.

That's a much more believable and consistent narrative, and the show's practice of choosing its Bachelors and Bachelorettes from the franchise's ever-deepening pool of rejected contestants completes a cycle of emotional justice in a way that undermines the supposed "winner" and provides an actual, authentic catharsis: The real winner of The Bachelor is not the woman who is chosen by the bland, vanilla hunk; nor is it the hunk himself. It's the woman who gets rejected, laughs off her heartbreak, and rises triumphantly to go after what she really wants — or at least agrees to go through it all again — on The Bachelorette. It's a narrative that, compared with the falseness of the final couple, is the kernel of truth at the center of the joke. Tragedy, plus time, equals comedy.

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