where the fourth wall ends

As of writing this, I’m impatiently waiting for the next round of episodes of Love is Blind to come out on Netflix. I’ve watched so much Selling Sunset and Bling Empire that I am beyond qualified to write Uncanny Valley pop music. I’m sneaking in a few written words during Bachelor in Paradise commercial breaks. There are days (weeks?) when I become the TV kid in Willie Wonka’s godforsaken chocolate factory, where I spend so much time staring at the television that I will need the full 3 Hour Crystal Singing Bowl Healing 4K No Talking Perfect Meditation Sound Bath video just to clear out the brain fog of passive absorption. And I love it!

I don’t claim to be a reality TV connoisseur. (Can such a thing exist? Can someone claim to be a judge in matters of taste when we’re talking about a genre of television that is actively uninterested in taste-making?) I don’t keep up with the Kardashians (although I do know that reference is outdated). I have never visited Love Island: Australia, UK, or US. Netflix will not win me over with that sibling dating thing.

I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of every reality TV show that has a major fanbase, but that doesn’t mean I’m not highly invested in the shows I do watch, particularly the (currently self-destructing) Bachelor franchise.

I don’t have any reason to be writing about this other than self-indulgence. I have no organized thoughts. Much like the contestants on Paradise who make a last-minute decision to start dating someone new despite having a reliable connection with someone else, I have no plan. Here we go.

To my fellow Bachelor watchers, I don’t have to explain anything to you. You know that not everyone is here for the “right reasons” but that it’s incredibly annoying when non-fans act like not a soul is falling in love with the lead. You know that these contestants are real people who are also being manipulated at every turn by Bachelor producers (who I’m not convinced haven’t been replaced by bots, but more on that later). You know that the key to a satisfying and highly discussable viewing of every single episode is the balance between trust in the authenticity of your favorite contestants and a sharp eye for producer bull shittery.

In theory, reality TV has no fourth wall. In theory, we’re watching people act the way they act in real life. They talk directly to the camera on a regular basis. They walk around with mic packs attached to bathing suits and halter tops, the bulk of them perfectly visible to the viewer because in these shows about real people doing real things, we’re not pretending like the cameras aren’t there. Yet, there is that pesky issue of producer bull shittery. There is the constant presence of reality TV’s omniscient gods, the heavy-handed touch of those whose job it is to turn weeks of footage into an actual story, who go beyond the “favorite edit” and “villain edit” to create a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of contestant and viewer manipulation.

I’ve written before about popular entertainment. More specifically, I’ve written about the rise of amusement parks as a space of excitement and organized chaos. Here’s something noteworthy about the evolution of western tourism: in the 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon to make an outing to your local mental asylum, where you could gawk at the patients and witness psychological treatment in action. Also noteworthy: the performance of madness you might witness at your local mental asylum would almost always align with the leading scholarship on mental illness and its symptoms at any given time. The performer-viewer relationship reassured two groups: the men who were determining what madness was and why it existed and needed everyone else’s agreement and permission to continue, and the audience, who wanted a show as much as they wanted reassurance that whatever the spectrum of madness might be, they were way, way, way, way over on the side of complete and seamless sanity.

As much as we get caught up in our Bachelor group chats and meme accounts, we know that a villain lingering longer than an episode comes back to the producers. We know that if the prince charming reveals after hometowns that he’s not actually ready for a serious relationship, the producers knew that weeks ago. We know that every time the lead delivers the ultimate words (“I’m done,” “Get me out of here,” “I’m going home,” etc), they probably do mean it, but someone off screen is telling them they don’t really have a choice, ignoring their mental fatigue, and redirecting their emotional needs away from privacy, family, and real-life friends and back onto the remaining contestants (one of whom definitely isn’t ready for a serious relationship).

This is reality TV’s fourth wall, and it’s crumbling—at least in the Bachelor franchise. The foundation of Bachelor Nation is cracking, and what is usually the most entertaining of all—Bachelor in Paradise—is sinking into the ground.

The split of Season 8 has made the typical exploration of eleventh-hour relationships seem more akin to having an affair. The villain on the beach was too much of a cartoon character to do anything besides give us all the ick, shout about his pizza business (which honestly has to be suffering as a result of his odious personality), and leave. We’ve spent weeks on contestants who can’t seem to find a calm moment (as well as a successful married couple from seasons ago and the rifled-through suitcase of a woman who barely made an appearance) and almost no time on the season’s most viable and beloved couple, Brandon and Serene.

This brings me to the bots who I’m certain are in charge and have been since Clayton’s season, who have been fed thousands of hours of Bach content and pages of online reactions and then left to steer the ship. Imagine if we fed all of the works written by Charcot and Freud to a bot and said, “Teach your patients how to behave for the crowd.” One can only imagine that it would be a warped (and somehow worse, despite how incredibly low that bar is) version of the original.

Listen: we wanted Rodney. We wanted Brandon. Who did we get? Clayton. What did he do? Keep the problematic, spiteful villain around for weeks. Tell all three women he loved them just to bounce when the one who mysteriously did not communicate her ultimatum until it was too late gave him one last chance. Watching Clayton was like watching someone who had never received the playbook but was made captain of the team. I don’t blame the guy, but it takes some truly misguided producing to take the world’s milquetoastiest man, hand him every possible problem, and expect something entertaining to come of it.

Let’s fast forward to the women who got the short end of the Clayton stick, Gabby and Rachel. Fan favorites, great women, we love them, but wait a second, no one said they wanted a double-bachelorette season. The producers promised us double the content and then crammed five hometowns into one episode, saying nothing when they chose to bump one to the following week. They repeatedly aired promos that told us just about everything that was going to happen, showed Gabby’s engagement ring before airing her engagement, and ultimately gave more screentime to whichever woman was having the bigger breakdown at any given time. Once again, it takes some wildly misguided producing to cast two incredible and strong women and somehow create the most mentally and emotionally exhausting season to date.

They seem to think that we’re more interested in villains and gags and “this changes everything for the worse” upsets than the success of the lead(s). The bots have seen our tweets and have jumped to the conclusion that every moment on the show should lend itself to outraged memes. They’ve failed to learn the (apparently human) art of suspense, continuing to use language like, “You’re not gonna believe what happens next week—it is, by god, the craziest shit of your life,” and then showing us everything in a 45-second teaser. They’ve stripped these past seasons of the balance required to tug at our heartstrings, to make us believe the fantasy. They’ve pushed contestants so far that they’re vague-posting their frustration to spite the NDAs they’ve had to sign. They’ve crammed so many seasons together because, I am certain, the bots aren’t sure how to interpret viewer frustration and assume that quantity will make up for the diminishing quality. They’re the only ones who believe that the fourth wall that production is meant to hide behind is still standing.

I’m not suggesting that the producers brought much humanity to the franchise, in the first place, but I am suggesting that any human touch that used to exist is gone.

I’ll end this the way I end just about every conversation about the demise of the Bachelor franchise:

I mean, I’m still gonna watch. But not without criticizing the production team, who continues to lag behind the need for progress and atonement for past biases and offenses. Not without questioning the pivot away from any semblance of a love story in favor of stale, manufactured drama. Not without insisting that the reason we never see production on screen is not because of the fourth wall, but because they are all bots.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s