April is the month for trickery; national poetry month; and, according to Eliot, the cruelest month. It has always seemed a mistake, then, that Valentine’s Day doesn’t fall during these first few weeks of spring; April feels designed for love and love’s vicissitudes. Sudden storms thunder in the morning, then peter out in time for the birds to chitter at the receding sun by dinnertime. Heavy coats are tucked into storage, then brought back out again as a wintry afternoon inserts itself in a week of 60-degree weather. Cherry trees blossom so suddenly that, in a blink, whole streets are covered in a flowery snow.
And now that I’m in my twenties, I’m even more aware of spring’s potential for romance. My happily-coupled friends spend evenings discussing their post-graduation plans to buy houses and host engagement parties. Even the advertisers on my podcasts seem in the mood for love; a chipper woman from Match.com implores me to try the site that “leads to the most second dates!”
For the terminally single, the season of the birds and the bees can start to lose its luster quickly. A truly cynical girl might, on a warm, weekday evening, even find herself turning to the truly absurd for comfort: the latest season of The Bachelor. This show is bafflingly popular among my female friends, especially the younger ones, but I myself had never seen it until I began writing this blog post.
It is hard to escape the cultural zeitgeist that is The Bachelor, it’s true; I’ve watched a close cousin of the show, I Wanna Marry Harry, which saw twenty-odd American women competing for the heart of a Prince Harry look-alike (the fact that their suitor was not actual royalty was hidden from them until the final episode), and have partaken in the parody series Burning Love. Lately, as a salvo to the show itself, I started watching Unreal, a Lifetime series (I know, but stay with me) about the dramatic lives of the producers of a Bachelor-type program.
It feels difficult to write anything truly novel about this sort of show; everyone knows that the world of reality TV is highly contrived, oversexed, and nakedly misogynistic (or, at the very least, post-feminist, relying as it does on a divorce of individual narrative from social context). There are hundreds of blogs poking fun at the poor suckers who really think they can find true love on cable. But as I watched my first episode of The Bachelor (Nick flew one of his darlings to Finland, first class), I didn’t want to laugh. Scoff, sure—the bachelor’s self-assured smile, his stilted conversations (one romantic dinner was filled with chatter about whether or not an iron or a steamer is better for getting wrinkles out of clothes), and the very fact of his having dated up to 29 women at a single time, made the whole premise difficult to take seriously.
But I didn’t find the episode hilarious. The women all seemed so sincere, so ready to love a near stranger; an invisible hand behind the camera was clearly prompting them to confess deep feelings to their suitor, and several tearfully admitted to having fallen in love with the scruffy-but-personable Nick. Watching them I felt, uncomfortably, that I understood where they were coming from. After all, I’m trying to date, and have an intimate knowledge of how truly terrible it is (a memorable one-liner from the Tinder-sphere: “You want to be my cardio this evening? It’s cutting season.”) If you’re going to couple-up in the modern age, why not get a few months’ vacation in a mansion as well?
And, though the environment is obviously staged for the screen, the fairy-tale effect is never quite punctured; despite myself, the sweeping orchestral score and the lights of cabin windows glittering on a fjord made me quickly invested in the (thin) narrative (the Southern belle has never had an orgasm, and can’t figure out how to tell her beau). It is easy to believe that the pair are sharing an intimate exchange over dinner when one is distracted by candlelight, by the stylish fair-isle sweaters, and impeccable makeup.
This is partly what drove me to watch Unreal; one always suspects that the contestants’ every move is choreographed to maximize interest, that the editing is, at best, misleading and at worst malicious, and that the results are predetermined, and watching these suspicions unfold in a Lifetime drama is undoubtedly satisfying. One gets to feel not only that they were too clever to have been duped by reality TV, but also that they are no longer complicit in reality TV’s bullying and, therefore, can indulge in the drama without doing harm to any real people.
And it’s true, Unreal is as dramatic as any afternoon soap; 6 episodes in and the main character has already been blackmailed, her boss has nearly died of a heart attack, a contestant was outed on national TV, and a girl has jumped off of the roof. Watching the self-serving behind-the-scenes world of reality TV production is entertaining, if slightly nausea-inducing. But, still, it can’t quite compare to what I felt watching the real deal.
Even with the glitz and the glamour attendant to The Bachelor, there is something searingly genuine about it. If the impulse to display one’s love life to an audience of millions is foreign to me, if the contestants seem chillingly like American standards of beauty personified, if the much-discussed “Fantasy Suite” smacks a bit of coercive sex, the overwhelming desire to be close to another person (any person, even a person who wears too many turtlenecks and makes you wait in the cold while he sips whiskey with the host) is so… normal. It is so much like the April afternoons I spend here, in Baltimore, downloading a dating app for the fourth time (even though I swore after I deleted it last time that I was done for good), that I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at the people on my screen. In this season of love, I’m not that unlike them. The Bachelor might have won itself another fan.