Considering that we now occupy an apocalyptic landscape that lies somewhere between a Philip K. Dick novel and The Krusty the Clown Show, you’d think our television programs might serve up escapist delights frothy enough to lighten the most dismal dystopian mood. Recall the myriad thrills dreamt up by reality-TV producers the same year that 9/11 laid us low, when the starvation and squabbling of The Real World and Survivor abruptly transformed into a haze of boozy tropical drinks and cocoa-butter-slicked man-boobs. These were the salad days of reality TV, clumsy but intoxicating. Temptation Island marked the first wobbly prehistoric attempt to mix paradise with sexy time: jacked up dim-bulbs were flown to lush locations and served umbrella-festooned cocktails until they put the mack down, in the argot of the day, ideally within range of night-vision surveillance cameras. In 2002, The Bachelor brought its faux-classy mansion, red roses, and strummy guitar soundtrack to the genre, and by 2003, the reality brain trust was redeployed in the service of zooming in on rum-slurred pick-up lines (with helpful subtitles!) on that bizarre, meandering cult classic Paradise Hotel.
Meanwhile, the seeds of our current nightmare were being planted on The Apprentice, a different flavor of imaginary paradise inhabited by douchey conquistadors led by Donald Trump, playing what turned out to be a far more decisive and informed version of himself. But for the most part, reality TV was just a harmless indulgence. At a time when Americans feared strangers armed with box cutters, we could still relish the limited charms of strangers armed with tequila shots, awkwardly negging and flirting and sweating and rolling around in tangled sheets under the unforgiving glare of that Acapulco sun.
So where is the Paradise Hotel of this bleak era? I ask you. All we have left now is the tedious champagne “cheersing” of The Bachelor. And just when we’d resolved to squeeze every ounce of escapist joy out of Arie performatively smooching an interminable parade of vastly superior potential mates (“I love that,” he murmured blandly, as the stars fell from the sky), ABC abruptly transformed the finale of The Bachelor from its usual, tacky, diamond-encrusted matrimonial sideshow into an emotional-terrorist training camp.
Yes, after weeks of braying about how shocking and unprecedented and controversial the finale would be, after hours of listening to Chris Harrison tease and hype and soil his pants over the most dramatic, uncut, uncensored Bachelor finale ever, ABC served up almost an hour of Becca K. silently sobbing into her hands. Arie had decided he wanted take-backsies on the final rose (which broke in half!) and the giant diamond ring (which is probably cursed anyway!).
This is what our once-lush paradise of reality TV romance has evolved into: a hellscape of cringing and mumbling and strained silence. Arie follows Becca down a long hallway. They don’t speak. Arie follows Becca into the bathroom. She tells him to leave. He leaves, stands outside, and then comes back in, saying nothing. She sits, silently sobbing. In the entire 45 minutes of footage, there are very few full sentences exchanged between them. It was like someone swapped out the end of the Bachelor finale with footage from an edgy art film starring Vincent Gallo — except with teary hiccups and awkward silences where the blow jobs should go.
“This is so embarrassing,” was all Becca had to say about it, and we, the audience, couldn’t have agreed more. After all, here we are, Americans, united in our roiling fears of nuclear apocalypse and our disbelief at the daily clown show in the Oval Office, seeking solace where we’ve traditionally found it, in the deeply stupid realm of network-TV programming. How did we land here? Why would these producers think we want to watch two people not talking to each other for almost an hour straight? How did we get cast out of paradise forever?
If the televisual masterminds over at ABC really wanted to give us a neurotic Bachelor, couldn’t they have found a decisive, mature one who knows the difference between thoughts and feelings? Instead, Arie conjured Chidi from The Good Place, second-guessing his every impression, overthinking every interaction, and eventually begging his mommy and daddy to tell him which of his choices, Lauren or Becca, was the better one. “I need a wife at the end of this!” Arie kept reminding anyone who would listen. Whose bright idea was it to drop a self-serious nerd into this realm of Very Basic Humans, the likes of which can typically choose a spouse with the same casual aplomb that they might choose a breakfast cereal? Watching Arie approach this crass spectacle with deathly seriousness each week was like watching a Chihuahua don a suit and ride the subway to his “big job in the city” every morning, only to arrive at a muddy dog park in Queens instead. It was sort of cute sometimes, but mostly just deeply depressing. “This will not end well,” we said to ourselves. We were not wrong.
How hard is it to find an adult man who knows his own heart? Because Arie clearly felt the most for Lauren. We could see it in his cold, dead eyes when he gazed at her, and we could spot it in the way his hands grasped at the back of her head, as if her skull were a buoy preventing him from drowning in the bewildering swell of his parents’ subdued but oppressive expectations. Everything became clear in those family scenes, in which Arie’s father kept referring to him as “Junior,” like Arie was just a sad imitation of the real thing: Arie needs a wife so he can fit in with the rest of his tribe. He wants a blonde wife, like the rest of them have already. But he needs a wife who won’t leave him. He needs a wife who’ll make babies, to add to the other babies. He needs a wife who will move to Glendale, Arizona — which is not, quite frankly, a location that every fertile blonde single lady on Planet Earth daydreams about.
Arie felt sure that Lauren was the one. It was obvious! Lauren was so reassured by Arie’s reassurance! Arie and Lauren kissed with real passion, a passion which seemed strikingly unfamiliar to them. Their love and lust for each other made all four of their cold, dead eyes sparkle. It gave their otherwise flat voices a teensy wavering sound. “I love that,” Arie announced, with real feeling this time, when Lauren confided in him her unique vision of the two of them, married: They would wake up in the morning together and drink coffee and walk the dogs and then drink some wine and go to bed. On weekends, they would maybe take the dogs to the dog park. What a breathtaking and romantic vision! How Arie swooned to hear such an elaborate daydream of the future from Lauren! “I love how well you reassure me!” Lauren told Arie again, and in that instant Arie forgot that he’d just been complaining to his folks about how taxing it was to reassure Lauren repeatedly. Lauren made Arie forget stuff. She was that good. Instead of remembering, Arie imagined reassuring Lauren forever and ever, in between the coffee and the wine. It was going to be perfect.
But then Arie’s mom and dad told Junior that he would be better off with Becca, who didn’t need Arie and was much better at matching Arie’s performative, spokesmodel, “I love that!” personality step for step. “Let’s do this damn thing!” Becca wrote in her Fun Girl ™ scrawl, and Arie encountered those words, along with his parents’ wishes, as the sort of imperative he had to obey.
But Arie couldn’t stop thinking about Lauren! And hey, entertainment-wise, that could’ve worked just fine! If this were the year of our Lord 2003, the show’s producers would’ve offered us a short, lively scene of Becca having her heart ripped out of her chest. “I love that,” Arie would mumble, and then take the black SUV straight to Lauren’s home, where Lauren’s eyes would glisten in their dead, glistening way and she would explain that it would really be super hard to trust Arie again, but maybe, just maybe if they could wake up in the morning and drink some coffee while Arie reassured her and then they could drink wine and he could reassure her some more, maybe in about five or six months she would be ready to move to Glendale, Arizona, and start pushing out adorable babies who will need almost as much reassurance as Lauren and Arie do.
I guess we should’ve known that ABC would bring us an “After The Final Rose” that delivered all of the teary, dead-eyed reunions and happy endings that we so rightfully deserve. After Chris Harrison rolls out his cheesy host shtick (which feels as outdated as rolling an embalmed Lawrence Welk onto the stage), Lauren basically admits that she took Arie back with zero reassurance, because obviously, their four glistening dead eyes were always meant to be together 5ever. And honestly, they do seem right together, compared to Arie and Becca, who always sounded like two professional associates who met up on LinkedIn and, after comparing their resumes, recognized that partnering up could be a mutually beneficial sort of win-win. And anyway, Becca has zero hard feelings and guess what? Shocker, she’s the new Bachelorette! Immediately a string of beefy man-beasts trussed up in too-tight suit jackets like they’re late for their “big job in the city” swaggers across the stage, and before we know it, Becca is chirpily offering up what we thought was her and Arie’s private catchphrase (“Let’s do this damn thing!”) – but this time it’s about dating 30 self-satisfied man-children willing to grease up their meat Chiclets in the hopes of finding that mutually beneficial sort of win-win known as True Love.
I suppose this proves that the reality TV producers of the world haven’t forgotten that the secret sauce of all reality TV has just three ingredients to it: escapist fantasy, high-capitalist luxury, and stupidity. Not coincidentally, these are also the foundation of all American values at this late date in our now-downward-spiraling trajectory. More than pursuing property or pioneering or even pillaging, this country was founded on shiny, delusional dreams of relaxing heteronormative isolation, encrusted in diamonds, doused in Champagne, festooned with tiny umbrellas, slowly decomposing in the middle of Glendale, Arizona, if need be. We want to watch big, stupid, shiny dreams of love come true, to a dipshitty pop soundtrack. We take that kind of shit very personal, in the eternal argot of the grammar-challenged reality rube.
But let’s still bring back the boozy-sexy-time indulgences of the early aughts! Because even though those prehistoric paradise-themed reality TV shows quickly devolved into starvation and squabbling just like their survival-themed counterparts, at least everyone looked pretty and sounded stupid, just like they’re supposed to in paradise! Reality TV masterminds must never forget that nothing pairs better with a flaming Bacardi 151 floater than a heaping dose of self-delusion and an inability to use adverbs properly. Sure, Arie seemed empty. But he was not empty enough. He had some brains in that skull of his, and they got in the way of everything. Arie was too neurotic to base his decision on animal instinct, the way all reality-TV stars are meant to. Animal instinct would’ve led him straight to Lauren, and we could’ve sidestepped all of this misery instead of zooming in for 45 minutes of rage-fueled snotting and tears.
So here’s a message for all those reality-TV producers who’ve blundered into believing that it’s their job to bring us more hours of uncut misery: Just stop it. If what you want is human suffering, take a page from Paradise Hotel. The empty inhabitants of paradise suffered before our eyes for two full hours a week, but it was fine because they were dumb enough to believe that they were in paradise, and at the end of everything, they would probably win a giant prize or be famous forever. Back in those days, we didn’t even have to bump into their asinine tweets or sidestep their preening Instagram accounts for the rest of our lives. All they had were flip phones and MySpace pages and a file folder full of playful and smoldering headshots for their next auditions. They were harmless and adorable. They weren’t building bulletproof brands. They weren’t Chihuahuas going to their big jobs in the city. Literally all they wanted was to get laid in paradise.
But isn’t that what most of us want, at the end of a long day of learning way too much about an abject idiot like Sam Nunberg? We don’t want quiet weeping into hands. We don’t want edgy art films with awkward silences where the blow jobs should go. We want to get laid in paradise. Fix this, reality-TV masterminds. Fix. It. Or as “Bachelor” contestant Caroline told Chris Harrison at the end of “After The Final Rose,” “We’re not awkward, you’re awkward.”