An attractive, well-rounded and kind-hearted man in his late 20s takes a pretty blonde woman on an extravagant first date in the Bahamas. The two speak from the heart about their ideas of love and discuss the possibility of spending the rest of their lives together, despite the fact that this is the first time the two have spent time together alone. They are the world’s most perfect couple, it would seem.
…Until a few hours later, when the same man goes on a nearly identical date with a nearly identical blonde and nearly identical dialogue.
The concept sounds crazy. Even crazier, though, is that this is the premise for one of the highest viewed television shows for the past 14 years. ABC’s The Bachelor is widely known for being both absurd and compelling, often at the same time.
“It’s so ridiculous,” said Liz Gillum, a freshman finance and supply chain management double major at the University of Maryland. “You’re watching the show and you’re like, ‘This show is horrible. Why are they doing this to girls? Why are they doing this to this guy?’ But you can’t not watch. You have to know what happens next, no matter if you like it or hate it.”
That’s the catch: viewers have strong opinions of love and hatred for the show, often at the same time and often for the same reasons.
Hatred of the show comes predominantly from a bizarre combination of feeling annoyance at the show’s contestants for causing unnecessary drama and feeling sorry about the emotional stress they undertake.
“You get attached to the people,” Jessica Cotugno, a freshman said. “You’re watching these people hate themselves and cry. It’s horrible.”
Unnecessary drama is also one of the aspects fans enjoy most, though.
Olivia Caridi, a contestant from this season who [SPOILER ALERT!] was eliminated earlier this season, is a particularly interesting example of the former reason. Caridi was famous on the show for “sensing hidden romantic messages” from bachelor Ben that only she could pick up on (read: messages that she made up in her mind).
It was clear that Ben was levelheaded enough to never consider proposing to Olivia, yet she was not sent home until the sixth week. Why? One simple reason: it made for a more entertaining show.
#TheBachelor I wanted Olivia to go but now there aren't any entertaining crazy girls 😁😢
— @Bonnnie (@bkennedy159) February 16, 2016
This is the first Olivia free week and I don't know if I'll have anything to tweet about. #TheBachelor
— Ashlyn (@ashbdan) February 16, 2016
The Bachelor will never completely replicate what real dating looks like because real dating doesn’t have millions of viewers tuning in every week to check in on the drama. It also doesn’t involve a large group of women simultaneously claiming to be in love with the same man.
“It makes them force their relationships so much that they have to be in love,” Cotugno said. “On the show, they’re living in paradise so you’re going to fall in love but then they get to the real world and they’re like, ‘sh*t.’”
Falling out of love off camera happens to contestants much more often than not. Out of the 19 completed seasons, 11 resulted in engagements, eight of which were called off only months afterwards. Only one couple, Sean and Catherine Lowe from season 17, remain married.
“I just can’t believe that it actually could work,” Gillum said. “I don’t understand. It’s such a forced situation. How can you find love when you’re being forced to fall in love with someone? I don’t think it’s the best foundation.”
If The Bachelor is so horrible, why do we watch it, then?
The answer lies in the way viewers are introduced to the show. While most other television shows gain viewers through advertising and individual stipulation, a majority of The Bachelor’s fan base is introduced to the show by family or friends.
“My grandma watched [season 14] and I watched a few episodes and was like, ‘This is so dumb,’” freshman Jessica Cotugno said. “And then my cousin was like, ‘come over and watch with us,’ and I watched the whole next season with them.”
The show’s hook is not so much the content itself, but rather the camaraderie that comes from sharing the experience and being able to discuss the show—and make fun of it—together. In a society that increasingly binges television shows alone, watching The Bachelor with friends and family alike helps to strengthen relationships with little cost.
“Television viewing offers a ready opportunity to share the same experiences,” Robert Kubey, University of Chicago Assistant Professor of Communication, found in a study of the correlation between television viewership and the strength of familial relationships. “Other activities that family members do together often require planning, money, or the same background or shared interests. Watching television requires virtually none of these.”
Herein lies the absurdity that is reality television: we know it’s absurd, yet we continue to watch anyway. The situations may be forced and exaggerated, but the drama is exciting and a great conversation piece.
Earlier this season, bachelor Ben became frustrated after inevitable drama began between the women competing for his affection.
“How do you date this many women that you have feelings for and keep everybody happy?” He asked in an interview. “Does anybody know?”
The simple answer, Ben? You can’t. You’re stuck to struggle through an uncomfortable situation for the sake of entertainment. That’s why we watch the show.
Or maybe it’s the romantics in us hoping that true love can endure even when it seems most futile.