A Romance Drained of Its Heart
It's official: "The Bachelor" franchise has jilted us all, and the pathetic love affair is over. It has always been a toxic sideshow, anyway, a soft-focus smear campaign against love and hope. How could we ever have been taken in? The fake-tan-colored confessionals, the stupid hot-tub make-out sessions, the pathetic red roses wilting on their props-department tray: everything about the Splenda-sweet "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" damages the souls of their participants more than all of the openly snide, gotcha reality shows put together.
Yes, that includes the misanthropic heavyweights "Joe Millionaire" and even "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé."
The cruelty of the "Bachelor" shows had become increasingly obvious, but it was unmistakable on Monday night. That's when Jen Schefft, late of "The Bachelor" - which in 2002 produced her ill-fated engagement to the richie Andrew Firestone - turned the three-hour finale of "The Bachelorette," the spinoff series she had turned to for a second chance to find a husband, into a grating spectacle of heartbreak and despair.
That's right: three hours. "After the Final Rose," the live one-hour coda, was ABC's effort to protract everyone's misery, a poisoned nightcap to the recorded two-hour finale during which Jen took John Paul and Jerry, her final suitors, home to Cleveland to meet her parents and then in principle decided between them.
To be sure, when John Paul flashed a Harry Winston ring reportedly worth $50,500 under some stringy tinsel in a cavernous orange room, Jen said no, citing a "gut feeling." That left only Jerry, the uncannily handsome art-gallery director; we were told we'd see his months-old recorded proposal and Jen's live response after "The Bachelorette," on "After the Final Rose."
This live thing needed to be good. Jerry had apparently waited for months to hear whether Jen would marry him. And we viewers - we dwindling, doubting "Bachelorette" viewers - had endured the grind this season to see whether Jen, who had once long ago evinced a faint but real spark of charm, would right herself, regain her Cleveland ***** and just finally shout her love from a rooftop as she claimed she was so eager to do.
But as the new, curdled Jen, awkward in a tight flowered top, mustered her second pallid refusal (she and Jerry, blah blah, "better as friends"), she revealed that the shows have utterly drained her charm, just as they drained the charm of her "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" predecessors and the charm of television matchmaking itself. Once a fun, short-waisted opportunist eager to play land-a-Firestone, Jen had frankly become deranged by the end of her own show.
Jen's self-possession first cracked on Monday's "Bachelorette," before the show went live. In what might be a first in televised sobs, tears covered not just her face but also her neck, streaming down the front of her shirt as she choked out a statement for the cameras and presumably the show's producers: "I need to figure this out. I want to be smart about it, and I'm sorry that I'm not somebody who just takes a leap of faith and goes with the moment. I did that, and it" betrayed her, she said, using an obscenity.
Was she, as seemed clear, now cursing at the "Bachelor" machine, which desperately needs an engagement, any engagement, if it is to preserve a shred of integrity? (Only one of seven matches from either series - Trista and Ryan from the first "Bachelorette" - has resulted in a marriage.) "Leaps of faith" and "going with the moment" sounded suddenly not like the clichés of romance, but like a coercive television idiom that Jen was violently, physically rejecting, as one would an incompatible transplant.
It was an existential crisis for a woman who had repeatedly made it plain that she did not have the depths to endure one. She was at the end of her vocabulary for justifying this misadventure. Fed up with leaps of faith and spontaneity, Jen appeared in a serious bind: sick both of love and of minor celebrity culture. In America, as a rule, love is what you get instead of celebrity; celebrity is what you get instead of love. Jen would now end up with neither.
She was down to her last shred of palaver: "I think we both came to the realization that we were better as friends."
Jerry took this "friends" send-off with more than equanimity. He said he loved her for it. He said she had opened his heart. He said she was amazing.
But Jen did not reciprocate; she was cold, fearful, and anxious to get away. Maybe, facing loveless obscurity, she was finally embracing the bourgeois cynicism her mother had explained to Jerry: "I mean, I can't lie. I think Jen would like to be in a relationship where, you know, you want to be comfortable in life. She likes nice things. I'm not going to lie about that. I like nice things."
The lines of logic that must have collided in Jen's head - carpe diem, marry for money, and the no doubt hundreds of imperatives of her "Bachelorette" contract, which probably mandated her appearance on this ignominious live broadcast - seemed to short-circuit her.
"Sometimes I think that I'm a little bit crazy, and I've always thought that," Jen confessed earlier, sounding sincere.
If Jen had been driven crazy, it was her fault only for succumbing, twice, to the terrible regime of "The Bachelor" and the "The Bachelorette." The same might be said for those of us who continue to tune in, even as each season offers diminishing dramatic returns, providing blinding evidence of the incompatibility of love and celebrity, or love and market forces, or even love and - dare we think it? - American life. Each grueling round of roses breaks the stupid hungry heart a little more.
Why do these shows miss the mark of lightness and love so wretchedly? After all, they find, screen, spray-tan and style eligible singles. No one on the shows is ugly or documentably poor. The shows also foot the bill for dream dates involving surf and fantasy suites; they encourage childlike folly and over-the-top romance; they banish commitment phobia, career pressures and other scourges that are said to interfere with modern love. And the producers seem to want to score with a Trista-Ryan reprise so badly. So what is it?
It's everything. It's that there are cameras everywhere. It's the styling. It's that the participants all have conspicuous sound equipment tucked in their pants. It's that the bachelor or bachelorette at the center of it all is forced not only to develop an interest in one of the candidates, but also to sham enough interest in all of them to keep suspense alive: up until the very end, his or her job is not to enjoy new love but to create a nail-biter for the viewer, pretending to the final few contestants that any one of them might win the game. Even as she knows she's not feeling anything. Nor are we, not anymore.