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Every Reality Show Is A True Story, And Other 'Bachelor' Lessons

This is what "I didn't pick you" looks like, coming from <em>Bachelor</em> Juan Pablo. Sorry, Clare.
Rick Rowell
This is what "I didn't pick you" looks like, coming from Bachelor Juan Pablo. Sorry, Clare.

Every reality show is an entirely true story.

It is not the story that it claims to be — the story of two tribes building a new civilization, the story of America's search for its next superstar — but it is a true story nevertheless. It is, or at least it contains, the true story of the conception, creation, marketing, viewing, analyzing and evolution over time of a piece of entertainment that lives in the swampy, foggy, half-real version of the truth that it creates.

There are people who have met on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette (as well as on other shows) who have actually gotten married and had children and stayed together. That's the more-or-less kind-of-true plus-or-minus part when it comes to the on-screen story. It's popular to say everything is scripted, nothing is real, but that's far too simplistic. There are moments of authenticity, believe it or not, in many of these productions.

But the on-screen story of The Bachelor is, for the most part, a goony, tacky, stupid con. To repeat a statistic that's well-known by now, and one that's repeated as it becomes gaudier and gaudier: of 17 bachelors before Juan Pablo Galavis (whose season ended Monday night), exactly one — the most recent, Sean Lowe — had the experience the show sells with its diamonds-and-roses come-on: Meet a woman, choose her in the finale, get married. Women on The Bachelorette have fared a little better for some reason: Fully two out of the first eight Bachelorettes married their final picks, and the ninth is still engaged.

There are perhaps those viewers who still watch it straight-on, for the romance, who still thrill in the way the show overtly asks them to and who swoon when someone "finds" "love." But particularly with the help of Twitter, The Bachelor now has an entirely different following: people who find it amusing to watch and dissect the con and to treat the entire thing as a partially felt, entertainingly unctuous performance of what television has decided is "romantic."

Monday night's finale was catnip to this demographic, because more than it ever has before, the con came apart on screen.

As shattering as the light that fell from the sky in 1998's prescient The Truman Show, this particular finale capped a season that has gurgled and choked on its own chosen star as a series of women seemed to suddenly widen their eyes, straighten their spines and say, "Uhhhh ... bye." This isn't unprecedented – there have been people in the past who have still been in the running and said of the central figure that they are not, shall we say, feeling it. But generally, the show preserves the idea that this is either nobody's fault or the departing person's fault. Generally, the near-universal desirability of the Bachelor/ette is sacrosanct.

This season, of the last six women in the running, who are presumably the ones who got to know Galavis the best, two of them walked and another one almost did. And they didn't really leave because there was no spark, and they didn't really leave because they weren't "feeling it." The first, an opera singer named Sharleen, left after making a long series of comments amounting to variations on, "He has nothing to say and isn't very smart." The second, an assistant district attorney named Andi, left after spending a long night with him in which he apparently talked exclusively about himself and turned her off entirely.

And then a lady named Clare, when she was all the way down to the final two, found herself in a private moment with Juan Pablo outside the reach of cameras and microphones, hoping for a private avowal of warm feelings, at which point she later claimed (extrapolating from her bleeped retelling) that he instead said, "I loved [having sex with] you." With the brackets containing the part she wasn't so crazy about. She wound up staying, but he didn't pick her in the end, and she was immediately irate that he'd led her on. She told him she wouldn't want any child of hers to have him for a father — despite the fact that the show's favorite thing about him has been that he has a daughter. When she was gone, he chortled, "Hoo, I'm glad I didn't pick her."

So in the course of three departures, the show actually allowed their eligible bachelor, who represents the prize for which all these contestants are competing, to be portrayed as (1) not too bright, (2) kind of self-centered and boring, and (3) coarse and vulgar.

They'd had some PR issues with Galavis earlier in the season, when he was quoted saying that he didn't believe a show with a gay bachelor would be anything people would watch, would set a poor example for kids, and would be "too strong" because gay people are "more pervert in a sense." Galavis, a Venezuelan soccer player whose first language is not English, later claimed that when he said "pervert" he meant "more affectionate and intense."

But it certainly seems that at some point, whether because the PR was bad or because they couldn't avoid it, in showing all these interviews in which women dismissed him as kind of unappealing, the show decided to dump him. They steered into the skid, as it were, and the finale included lots of footage of the live audience frowning and booing and gasping with dismay at things he said and did – that's the true story part. The true story part is not Juan Pablo ultimately choosing a woman named Nikki. The true story is that somewhere, somebody who makes The Bachelor decided that they needed a different framing for the season – one in which their bachelor was kind of ... a jerk. They made a choice to cut him loose. To throw him, in reality show terms, under the bus.

And Galavis knows that's what happened, and while he was undoubtedly under all kinds of contractual obligations to come out on stage with Nikki and talk to host Chris Harrison, he made it as uncomfortable and awkward as possible and played along as little as he possibly could. Harrison had been teasing all along that Galavis had a big surprise; when it came time to reveal it on live TV, Juan Pablo basically said, "I don't know what you're talking about." It certainly appeared that he hosed the host on live television. That is, in this universe, Not Done. Live shows are choreographed; if there was supposed to be a bit there, pulling the plug on it would leave a hole. Indeed, Harrison seemed to be caught flat-footed, and settled for asking over and over and over again whether Juan Pablo would please just say he was in love with Nikki. (He wouldn't.)

It wasn't just that — Juan Pablo later darkly and coldly implied that he and Nikki had changed some of their plans for the future because of information he received in the last few weeks from the producers. Now what isthat supposed to mean?

As things sputtered awkwardly, Harrison went to Sean and Catherine in the audience – that one bachelor who has ever married his final choice – and asked them to comment as Juan Pablo dug his heels in and didn't cooperate. And Catherine said the most fascinating thing to him: "Don't slap the hand that fed you." Now, the show played this as an exchange that was about Juan Pablo disrespecting the relationship he'd built on the show, but juuuuust barely concealed is what felt like it might be the real, true story: a woman who has derived a lot of financial benefit (including a splashy televised wedding) from staying on good terms with this franchise and playing along like she's supposed to, telling a guy who was in the process — the live process — of blowing off the producers that he might one day regret burning his bridges with them. They won't invite you back to do the thing I am doing right now and you'll have to get a job like a chump, you could easily imagine she might be saying.

It wasn't that the con fell apart because Juan Pablo came off like a cad. It was that the con fell apart because Juan Pablo was no shame-faced Brad Womack from a few seasons back, who allowed himself to be treated as a commitment-phobic punching bag because he chose nobody, and who in return for his cooperation got to come back and do another season. No, Juan Pablo sat on that couch, suddenly interested in his privacy, looking like every bit the self-involved, smug dude some of the women had come to believe he was. But he directed his smugness and his unpleasantness not at the women, but at the show.

In a sense, Chris Harrison and Juan Pablo Galavis were on a terrible, awkward fifth date: Harrison trying to make conversation, feeling resentful and entitled because his date wouldn't engage; Galavis glowering and bored and checked out, ticked off and ready to leave.

The con cracked in half because all of a sudden, you were watching the struggle between a network production trying to put together a neat narrative about a guy women could have fun gabbing about as a Bad Boyfriend and a guy who was not at all prepared to have that happen, regardless of whether he deserved it. There's a true story there somewhere, and it's a true story of what looks like a hugely tense taping in which everybody was genuinely, truly, really, non-pretend mad.

Now, you can go out in levels of complexity: maybe it's a true story about an entirely different con in which they persuaded the audience that they were at odds with their Bachelor; maybe that's what they wanted you to think. Or maybe "that's what they wanted you to think" is ... what they wanted you to think. But somewhere here, there is a true story of television and some substantial shifts in the planning and execution of one of the few long-running reality franchises that's been this resilient (particularly given its appalling track record). A franchise, it must be said, that makes a lot of money for a lot of folks.

And Monday night, that true story was a little ... fascinating.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.