Dumped! Betrayed! Humiliated! For a week now, the reality-TV universe has been obsessed with The Bachelor and its "After the Final Rose" reunion special that many perceived to be little more than an act of public humiliation.
While the show's season finale and reunion special were shown back-to-back on March 2, six weeks had elapsed between the finale — when bachelor Jason Mesnick chose Melissa Rycroft to be his bride —and the reunion special, during which he announced that he had changed his mind and professed feelings for runner-up Molly Malaney. With more than 17 million viewers watching, Rycroft arrived at the reunion special holding — not wearing — her ring, and Mesnick confirmed the suspicions that the engagement was off. (Read "Reality TV Wants to Heal You.")
As Rycroft fought back her tears and Mesnick turned to Malaney, the show's fans took to the Internet in a rage, decrying Mesnick as a "jackass," "playboy" and "bastard." It was clear that this particular chapter of reality TV struck some as a little too real. Yet creator and executive producer Mike Fleiss says the fireworks of March 2 reflected the best, not the worst, of the genre. "I'm not really surprised by this; it's just a sign that the show is working," he tells TIME. "That's really your job, to create television that the whole country will sit down at one time and watch together. But honestly, I really don't see the difference between [Mesnick's]dumping Molly in New Zealand [at the finale] and then dumping Melissa in Glendale [at the special]."
Some would say the difference is that Malaney knew there was a chance she could get kicked off the show during the competition, while Rycroft's departure occurred long after she had been picked as the winner — and purportedly gotten engaged. But Fleiss insists that Mesnick's change of heart hardly came as a shock to the bride-to-be. In the weeks leading up to the reunion special, Fleiss says, he started to hear word from other producers on the show that Rycroft and Mesnick were not getting along. Two weeks before the reunion, Fleiss says, he heard that Mesnick might be interested again in Malaney — whom Fleiss had already approached about taking part in the next season of The Bachelorette.
All of which set the stage for the most unpredictable "After the Final Rose" event in the show's history. Opting to film the show without a live audience for secrecy reasons, and unsure of how Malaney would respond to Mesnick's renewed affections, Fleiss says there was plenty of uncertainty when cameras started rolling — just not when it came to Rycroft. "She knew they were essentially finished before walking out on that stage," he says. "But still, doing it for real and making it official and handing back the ring brought out real emotions."
In various interviews, as well as in e-mails between Mesnick and Rycroft that were leaked to the press, Mesnick has blamed the production crew for some of the emotional fallout surrounding his ultimate choice of Malaney, saying he was obligated to dump Rycroft in front of the cameras. But Fleiss says that's only half the story. "We didn't want Jason to necessarily spill the beans prior to taping, to keep it as real and raw as possible," he says. "But he's a good guy and didn't conceal anything. He let her know before that show that he didn't think this relationship was going to work."
Fleiss seems to be basking in the buzz of the past week ("It's the first time in a long time that people have something to talk about other than the stock market"). He also believes the emotional outcry that has accompanied the show's dénouement points to a passion that a new wave of reality-TV contestants is inspiring. At one time, he says, it was next to impossible to recruit plausible contestants, or even hosts, for reality-TV projects. But as the genre has become increasingly mainstream, producers have been able to find people who are more than mere exhibitionists.
And with this new pool of talent, Fleiss says, the emotions involved have become more complicated — and engaging. "Believe me, I've seen Bachelor couples stay together who really didn't care about each other," he says. "Some of them feel an obligation to the show to try to be a couple, since we spent literally millions of dollars as their matchmakers and sent them all over the world."
But rather than playing to the expectations of producers or viewers, says Fleiss, Mesnick dared to reveal his true emotions and to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that love is not always a programmable enterprise. "More than any other bachelor in history, he was committed to love and to truly following his heart, even though he knew he was going to have to go through hell to do it," Fleiss says. "It's really a romantic notion, that he sacrificed chunks of his popularity to at least try to be with the woman he loved."