ABC's twin reality shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are putatively about romance. But their real subject is infatuation, that first blush when one falls in love with the idea of love, and all the associated drama. Each installment--in which a protagonist picks from a dating pool (a term not meant in this case to imply depth)--is about loud fights, exotic vacations and ostentatious, if justified, body confidence. Not many relationships last more than a TV season: 34 iterations of the shows since 2002 have yielded far more breakups than marriages.
I can only hope for better luck for the current Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, 32. Lindsay is a charismatic attorney from Dallas who was, more crucially, a rejected competitor on the most recent season of The Bachelor. (She was not selected for love by a gent himself in his fourth appearance on a Bachelor-branded series.) This alone speaks to what the show has become: like Survivor, General Hospital and the WWE, it relies on long-running, repetitive plotlines. But Lindsay's star turn was greeted with cheers from fans because she is not merely charming and witty but also the show's first woman of color to be the lead. (One former Bachelor, Juan Pablo Galavis, is Latino.) And the cast of suitors for Lindsay's heart is substantially more diverse than in years past.
The show has taken a step forward. And yet those looking for any sort of insight into what it is like for a black woman to date will have to look elsewhere. Lindsay is so helpful to a production dependent on her good humor that her reaction to a white suitor saying "I'm ready to go black, and I'm never going to go back" is charmed giggles. The rest of us are left to cringe.
The real problem is that this season's Bachelorette plays by the same script it always has. There's fighting among the dating pool and demonstrations of strength. But a black contestant chastised by a white one for aggressiveness or promiscuity takes on a different valence given historically racist stereotypes. As did a mud-wrestling match in which a white man dragged a black man to the ground. It's difficult, from the first three episodes, to distinguish between mere tone-deafness on the producers' part and ignorance. But little thought or sensitivity seems to have gone into what would happen when the usual fare was acted out by a largely nonwhite cast.
The best reality TV has a way of pulling insight from ugly impulses and generating discussion of social issues. Survivor, for instance, provoked frank conversations in a 2006 season in which tribes were racially segregated and this year, when a trans contestant was outed. In both cases the story became messily real. Among dating shows, the same is true of Finding Prince Charming, a same-sex competition that leaned into its novelty last year by showing different ideas of how gay men should be, in public and in private. The Bachelor franchise, by contrast, is so tightly produced that only marketable drama--nothing that might actually provoke viewers--makes it to air.
That drama is the sort that keeps fans loyal long past the point where they could expect a Bachelor pairing to last forever. The fights--fueled by undatable contestants specifically cast to create manageable problems--have gotten louder. The locations have gotten more exotic. The muscles have gotten less proportional. But the script hasn't, so far, changed with the times, even if the casting has. Which is too bad. A show with this devoted a fan base owes viewers more than a retelling of its own story. Real love, after all, is supposed to lead you away from narcissism, not deeper into it.
The Bachelorette Airs on ABC on Mondays at 8 p.m. E.T.