Why 'The Bachelor' Is the Smartest Show on TV

Perhaps 'The Bachelor' has more to do with the Stanford Prison Experiment than we thought.

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Jul 28 2014, 6:06pm

If you had to pick the smartest show on TV, you’d probably go with something that like House of Cards (though technically on Netflix) or Modern Family, or any number of things on HBO—shows that are smart in that they showcase dynamic writing and complex characters, and offer a fresh perspective. But the smartest show on TV has none of these traits; it’s smart because it’s fooled you into thinking it’s something that it’s not. It’s smarter than you— The Bachelor.

While often dismissed as trashy television, The Bachelor simply can’t be ignored, if for no other reason than that it’s on a fairly unprecedented run. Since debuting in 2002, the franchise has enjoyed a remarkable thirty-one seasons in primetime—eighteen of The Bachelor, ten seasons of the spinoff, The Bachelorette, and three of its second spinoff, Bachelor Pad. And there’s no signs of slowing down—last year’s The Bachelor finale drew over 11 million viewers and this season’s The Bachelorette (whose finale is today) consistently ranks #1 or #2 in the Nielsen nightly ratings.

What’s more, the show’s formula has remained virtually unchanged in its 12 years: Twenty-five or so single women vie for the heart of one eligible bachelor, who ultimately chooses and proposes to one of them after eight weeks of gradually narrowing the field. The bulk of the show is a whirlwind journey of four-star resorts, exotic locales, extravagant dates across the globe, with all the tears, fights, and secrets—better known as “drama”—you might expect when a couple dozen women simultaneously date the same man and live under the same roof. However, the heart of the show, quite literally, is the narrative of two people falling in love and eventually finding their way to each other.

Photo Courtesy ABC/Javier Pesquera

Put simply, The Bachelor is many things at once. It has the love triangle (and rectangle, pentagon, hexagon, etc.) intrigue of a soap opera, the voyeuristic appeal of a reality show, and the competitive draw of a game show. But what it really is underneath all of that is something completely different: a carefully devised, high budget social experiment—one that would make Stanley Milgram jealous.

Here’s the founding question: Can you make a large group of women fall in love with a man they’ve never met in two months time? (You can reverse genders in the case of The Bachelorette.) The answer, as has been proven over the course 27 seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, is yes. Each season at least four of the contestants tell the bachelor they are “falling in love” or actually utter the words, “I love you”—the bachelor cannot reciprocate until the proposal—and a great deal more display strong feelings for the bachelor and express real sorrow at being eliminated; it’s a near inevitability that they too would’ve expressed such emotions had they been chosen to stick around. In fact, it is so rare that a contestant does not take a liking to the bachelor that it made “Bachelor history” (a term they like to use) when two women decided to leave on their own on the last season of The Bachelor, including this year’s bachelorette, Andi Dorfman. Needless to say, the formula works. The more interesting question is, how?

The first trick of the Bachelor Experiment, as we’ll call it, is to put the bachelor on a podium. The main way this is done is by limiting the contestants’ exposure to him. When they meet for the first time, the women are brought out of a limo one by one and are afforded a greeting of about thirty seconds. Throughout the first night, and for much of the remainder of the show, the interactions continue to be brief. While the women may “steal him away” from the group for a few minutes of private conversation (besides the cameras, of course), it isn’t long before another contestant does the same. After a while, it begins to look a lot like a meet-and-greet at a mall or a bookstore, where people line up for hours just to shake the hand of a celebrity. Only in this case, it’s not the celebrity that creates the long line, but the long line that creates the celebrity. After being in this environment for enough time, the bachelor looks a lot like a star, always in town for one day only. So when a contestant is given the chance to spend the day with the bachelor on a “one-on-one date” (a normal date) as opposed to a “group date” (something that, to my knowledge, does not yet exist in the real world), it’s a little like Leonardo DiCaprio just asked them to prom. More importantly, after being in a constant state of pent up emotion—not just because the conversations are mostly short, but because they sometimes go days without seeing the bachelor—the release is so great that it accelerates their feelings towards him. But, just as quickly, the date ends and they go back to being part of the group. Only now, after having advanced the relationship—or, in Bachelor parlance, “getting that one-on-one time”—they are left wanting even more, forever in the uncritical honeymoon phase.

Inevitably, this type of dynamic breeds a sort of inferiority complex. Something that’s amazing about the show (which you can easily become conditioned to as a viewer) is how quickly the contestants become grateful for things that they would normally expect when it comes to a relationship. When the lucky woman is informed that she will be taken on a one-on-one date—via a “date card” delivered by the show’s host (once again, the bachelor doesn’t appear more than he has to)—she feels fortunate to have the bachelor’s undivided attention for a few hours, and the other women feel as though they’ve been rejected. As a result, the bachelor’s position as the prize of the show is further reinforced and unquestioned, and the power differential grows. Of course, just about everyone who signs up to go on a reality/game show has to expect that there will be a few differences between the show and everyday life. But unlike other shows of its kind that also create a distorted reality, like Big Brother or Jersey Shore, the stakes in The Bachelor are serious—the only prize for winning is marriage, and the only goal is love—and the contestants are making decisions that will, hopefully, drastically affect their real lives.

Photo Courtesy ABC/Matthew Putney

How the show reminds the contestants that they are “there to find love” and correspondingly “there for the right reasons” (two quotes you’ll hear almost every episode) is perhaps the most important part of the Bachelor Experiment. From the moment the contestants step out of the limo, they are surrounded by extraordinary luxury, most likely completely unknown to them. The swanky hotels and the paradisiac destinations are just the beginning—it’s the access that’s nearly unparalleled. Any given date might include scaling a 40-story building, taking a helicopter to a private island for the day, having dinner in a castle, or performing onstage with a popular band—all things that happened this and pretty much every season, and aren’t even really “for sale” normally. But so intertwined are the extravagance and the idea of falling in love that they become one and the same. To partake in the decadence of the experience (and it’s impossible not to) is to at the same time believe that it’s also the narrative of your own love story.

The show doesn’t just rely on a fairy tale narrative to make their contestants feel like they’re falling in love, though. In fact, The Bachelor relies on a healthy dose of overt contradictions to warp reality. To name a few: The bachelor is there to find his one true love, but he makes out with half a dozen women in a given night; He’s ready to get down on one knee at the end, but the woman he proposes to is probably not the last person he’s had slept with (the final three are allowed to spend one night with the bachelor in “the fantasy suite”); He wants to build a life with someone, but spends all his time getting to know the women in completely fantastical situations. Even the show’s beloved host, Chris Harrison, is at once a chaperone, always maintaining order in the house, and a pimp, constantly delivering the contestants to the bachelor and telling them they have to leave when eliminated. These contradictions are entirely out in the open, yet never acknowledged. The result is an atmosphere that’s completely mind-bending, where the realities of the situation simultaneously exist at both poles of the Madonna-whore complex. In the void of a logical reality, it’s much harder for the contestants to do anything but follow the structure of the show.

Photo Courtesy ABC/Bill Matlock

Indeed, this control is vital to the Bachelor Experiment. The producers manage nearly every detail of the show, from where they stay to how they travel to what they do on their dates. If we’ve learned anything from the Stanford Prison Experiment, it’s that after enough time in a given power structure, people will alter their behavior to comply with the rules put in place by those in charge. Obviously the contestants aren’t in a prison (far from it), but that’s the point—the manipulation is hard to notice when you’re being treated like royalty everywhere you go. What’s more, many of the trappings of the first class treatment they enjoy actually serve to disorient them further—the constant travelling from one place to the next, the perpetual flow of booze (and it is perpetual), and the disconnection from their real lives that is often viewed as a perk. Like in any good experiment, the subjects don’t know what’s being tested for.

As the show’s creator, Mike Fleiss, has admitted, the Bachelor franchise is not good at creating couples. And it’s true, only a few have gotten married and stayed together. But that’s not part of the experiment, or what makes it compelling TV—all they have to do is feel like they’re in love, or be in love for a while. What we watch when we watch The Bachelor is not someone finding their soulmate; yet, that has to be the prevailing belief in order for the Bachelor Experiment to work.

Even so, come 8:00pm tonight, I’ll be anxiously watching to see who Andi chooses to be her husband. Social experiment or not, I’m genuinely interested to see how it ends. And that’s the second genius of the Bachelor Experiment—it’s also an experiment on us, the viewers, who watch season after season, knowing all the while that the process is flawed, the environment is artificial, and the feelings usually wear off. As soon as the show comes on, it’s the smartest one in the room.

Giancarlo T. Roma is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.

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