As Jillian Harris has pursued true love on TV, she’s also upheld a franchise’s ratings.
Last week, a few days before Monday’s finale of “The Bachelorette” aired on ABC, its star, Jillian Harris, was sitting at a bar in Los Angeles, anxiously eyeing her surroundings and quieting her voice down as waitresses and busboys passed by her table. She was about to reveal the secret she had been keeping.
“Oh my God, oh my God. I feel like I’m sweating right now,” she said, her hands smoothing the silk of her dress. She bit her lip, smiled and then said that in May, she had given the final rose — to use the show’s parlance — to Ed Swiderski, a 29-year-old Microsoft technology consultant from Chicago. The pair are engaged, she said, and her parents were the only ones who knew about it. She’s spent more time this summer with him than anyone else, meeting up at “a secret little house somewhere” every two weeks for five days. She was text-messaging with him before the interview.
For how fast she was talking and how much she was smiling, she did appear to genuinely be in love. They eat the same things, she said. They have the same sleeping patterns, the same taste in music, the same passions about camping, beer and being with family. She thinks he looks like Jeffrey Dean Morgan — “Hubba, hubba!”
But these things never really work out, do they?
Not judging by the show’s track record: The first woman to appear on “The Bachelorette” — Trista Sutter, who was rejected on the first season of “The Bachelor” in 2002 — is the only contestant currently married to the man she chose on her season’s finale, Ryan. Critics have long argued that the reality show doesn’t create lasting relationships, instead concerning itself with silly rules (Harris admitted producers wouldn’t let her tell Swiderski she loved him until the final episode), drawn-out ceremonies and helicopter rides over sweeping vistas.
Just ask Jason Mesnick, last season’s single-father “Bachelor” who proposed to Melissa Rycroft. She said “yes,” he twirled her around in the air and they both laughed and kissed. Then things went horribly wrong.
He couldn’t get Molly Malaney, the woman he’d let go before Rycroft, out of his thoughts. After the show ended, he said things felt unnatural and awkward with Rycroft. On the program’s “After the Final Rose” special, he rescinded his engagement to Rycroft. He told Malaney that he loved her, and the two have been together since. (And ABC cast Rycroft on “Dancing With the Stars.”)
In many ways, Mesnick’s decision seemed to fly in the face of the franchise’s glittering premise: that in a scant nine weeks, the show’s protagonist can meet, understand, fall in love and end up with the man or woman of their dreams. As a result, he faced the wrath of angry viewers who wished he could have upheld the ideal of perfection “The Bachelor” affirms — or at least thought Mesnick shouldn’t have ditched Rycroft on television.
But with America’s ire came ratings gold, defying the overall trend of erosion in broadcast television: 17.5 million viewers tuned in to the finale, a record for the series.
The pressure was on Mike Fleiss, the show’s creator and executive producer, to keep the juggernaut afloat. He was confident that Harris, a petite, bubbly, 29-year-old Canadian who came in third on Mesnick’s season and billed herself as “a polished hick from northern Alberta,” could carry this summer’s “Bachelorette.”
“It’s always a concern that you want to keep the audience engaged, but we thought Jillian had the personality and a different attitude toward herself,” Fleiss said. “She’s not your typical bombshell ‘Bachelorette.’ She’s more of your girl next door, with insecurity about her own sex appeal.”
For the most part, Harris has delivered for ABC. The finale episode on Monday raked in 9.9 million viewers, and her season has averaged 8.1 million viewers per week — which, though down from Mesnick’s season, is a strong audience for a summer season and on par with previous “Bachelorette” editions.
Still, Fleiss admitted he never planned on a series with a woman at the center because he didn’t think it would fuel the “same high-octane content” as “The Bachelor” did. The franchise has had 13 seasons with “Bachelors” and only five with “Bachelorettes.”
“Men tend not to compete for women with the same energy. It’s like, ‘Forget that chick, let’s go to Hooters,’” Fleiss said. “Girls don’t do that. They really fight for the guy they like. ‘The Bachelorette’ is more about the romantic fantasy of a girl having all these guys to choose from.”
There are other gender issues that come into play for a “Bachelorette” as well, especially regarding sex. When a bachelor spends three nights in succession with different women, he doesn’t appear as promiscuous as a bachelorette who does the same, Harris believes.
“I’m a grown woman. I am looking for the man of my dreams. I am not a virgin. And if I feel like I’m falling for somebody, I’m going to do what I think is appropriate,” she said. “If I have sex with somebody, it’s not a dirty thing. I don’t think it should be frowned upon.”
The physical aspects of Harris’ relationships had more prominence this season than ever before in the show’s history. In a recent episode, Harris and Swiderski retreated to their fantasy suite for their long-awaited alone time, but quickly fell asleep instead. It was implied that Swiderski experienced erectile dysfunction, but Harris insisted the pair didn’t even attempt to sleep together after an emotional, exhausting day.
“This is one of the many reasons I think our show has been successful for so long,” wrote Chris Harrison, the host, in an e-mail. “We bring up real life, and often uncomfortable issues and force people to discuss them.”
But if the show is so realistic, why do things rarely work out for the couples? Fleiss came to the program’s defense, stating that five couples are still together in some capacity. “If that doesn’t mean that the show gets couples together, then that’s just a difference of opinion,” he said.
Trista Sutter said living in Vail, Colo., and not attending a glut of parties and charity events helps her and Ryan stay focused on their relationship.
We didn’t get engaged and stay married and have two kids just because we want to prove people wrong,” Sutter said. “And sure, my babies have been on the covers of magazines. But we don’t live our life to be on TV and go to fun parties.”
For now, Harris’ biggest priority is moving to Chicago in September, where she will live with Swiderski. She said the two could marry within the year.
“I’m waiting for that trigger to go off where we start to fall apart and everyone’s gonna be like, ‘Oh my God, they broke up again,’” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be this good. I thought maybe I’d be engaged to somebody, but that it’d be really scary and I wasn’t going to know them very well. But I just can’t wait to crack a cold beer and hang out with him. I can’t wait for life to get back to reality.”