If the silver lining for any unwelcome development is that at least things can’t get much worse, perhaps some such optimism is in order for the wasteland known as reality-romance TV. The premiere on July 9 of the show Cupid brought us a show in which nuptials have been reduced to a combination of a romantic gong show and plebiscite. Produced by Simon Cowell, the self-consciously obnoxious British judge on the runaway hit American Idol, Cupid essentially is a cross between Idol and another hit series, The Bachelor. A panel of three female judges scrutinizes a line of suitors, with two of the judges offering advice to the third panelist, who is trying to find a husband. Eventually, viewers at home will vote to determine which of the finalists wins her hand.
Whether Cowell himself will weigh in on the selections is unclear. He unabashedly tried to influence the telephonic votes of TV viewers on Idol, perhaps most brazenly when he suddenly turned on the singing Marine, Joshua Gracin, after a bio clip on the show focused on Gracin’s wife and child. Cowell believes rock-and-roll singers must have a “wild side” rather than settle down for marital bliss; one participant whom Cowell praised for possessing this indispensable and mercurial quality later was booted from the program for allegedly assaulting his sister.
Now, Cowell has switched hats and is singing the praises of domesticity as he plays matchmaker. And already a predictable parade of dolts, Ricky Martin wannabes, and self-absorbed goofballs has come before the panelists to earn guffaws and initially strong ratings. One man was led off the set yelling that he wouldn’t leave without “my wife and my half a million dollars” — the latter representing his half of a $1 million dowry put up by CBS.
The public demand for such manufactured romance is deep and persistent, even though the relationships previously patched together by television have been uniformly temporary. Indeed, the most objectionable aspect of these shows is not so much their exploitation of sad saps wanting a brief dance with fame, or even their encouragement of a certain odd voyeurism. It is rather that these programs are a concerted fraud on the public, as none of these relationships ever survives the camera’s glare. Nevertheless, the producers of these shows continue to capitalize knowingly on the widespread, well-intentioned desire to see real romance and marriage bloom amid a culture largely desolate of the same.
Take The Bachelor, the most popular of these shows. The premise of the show is that about two dozen women must compete for the affections of (and, they hope, a proposal from) a handsome man of means. The show has been as successful commercially as it has been a disaster romantically. In the first series, the bachelor ended up not proposing to anyone. In the next series, banker Aaron Buerge charmed the nation with his light southern accent and smooth, self-effacing manner. He ultimately proposed on bended knee to a beautiful school psychologist from New Jersey named Helene. But the two never made plans to formalize the engagement, and a few months later, Aaron flew out to New Jersey to dump Helene at a Starbucks near her home.
The producers shamelessly exploited the couple once more in an update episode a few months later. Aaron and Helene were interviewed separately, each complaining about what had gone wrong. Helene burst into tears and seemed genuinely stunned by the breakup; so much for all those psychology classes on the id and the ego. Aaron was last seen cavorting with a model out in Hollywood — who will presumably dump him when his last glimmers of fame die out.
Joe Millionaire was even more clearly destined to end in failure and recriminations. The producers misled two score of women into believing a handsome bachelor was rich, when in fact he was merely a construction worker and part-time underwear model. The number of Americans wanting to see gold-diggers brought low was, it turned out, pretty much everyone; the show was one of Fox’s highest-rated series ever. In the end, the faux millionaire, Evan Marriott, chose between two women. One was Sarah, a graduate of George Mason University who, it later transpired, had starred in a low-budget bondage porn film (in a notable moment of television history, Sarah audibly gave Evan sexual favors off camera in the woods outside a French castle). The other woman, Zora, was the “nice girl” who lived in a drafty old apartment and volunteered at a local nursing home.
Evan seemed much more drawn to Sarah, for reasons not very hard for men to discern. But apparently after off-camera prompting by the producers, Evan chose Zora. Following more presumed off-camera coaching, Zora, even more incredibly, decided to stay with Evan — even after he revealed the true state of his finances. Their unexpected prize was a joint check for $1 million. But as soon as the check was presented, Evan was already talking about how each of them had $500,000 coming to them separately. Their relationship never materialized, and recently Evan and his woods mate, Sarah, did a cable TV commercial together to promote a weekend of “romantic” films.
The audience for these shows may be gullible, but they do read People magazine, and the ratings for such shows have dipped as the tabloid press has published the details of these breakups. Obviously in response to this growing skepticism, the producers of Cupid have stipulated they will pay out the $1 million only if the couple stays married for a year (now that’s commitment!).
Perhaps the main cultural contribution of these shows is a signal lesson in how much the notion of engagement has suffered. After Aaron proposed to Helene, he referred to the engagement as simply an understanding the two would “date exclusively.” This concept of engagement, common today, is very different from that of generations past. Previously, an engagement was understood to be a solemn promise, the violation of which meant obloquy and potentially serious legal consequences for breach of contract. Lincoln fell into a severe depression after temporarily breaking off his engagement to Mary Todd, as he knew his reputation for honesty and integrity — what he called “the chief gem of my personality” — would suffer if he did not honor this pledge. Now, engagements often linger for years without marriage dates being set and end with a feud over who gets the ring (assuming one was given).
For a dose of authenticity in the generally unreal genre of reality TV as well as a more sober view of everyday romance, one must turn to a demented sort of Candid Camera. The show Scare Tactics encourages viewers to set up their friends in frightening situations financed by the producers. Some segments have involved couples. All have been revealing.
In one episode, two friends take a young man with his date supposedly to a “rave” party out in the middle of the Mojave Desert (an area also known for frequently UFO sightings). The couple chat amiably in the back seat, enjoying hamburgers and milkshakes, as the young beau raps to his date and his two friends in the front seat about how he’s “up for anything” when it comes to parties.
Suddenly, the car stalls, the panel lights flicker on and off, and an enormous corona of white light shines over a sand dune. A giant man dressed as an alien (think Independence Day) walks to the car, rips off the driver’s side door, and pulls the driver and his friend out of the vehicle. The young woman in the backseat screams and tosses her shake. Her suitor throws open the door and runs for it, abandoning her to the alien. Later, she summons the good sense to run as well. The couple is reunited when she catches up to him.
After the friends explain their prank to them (“Are you scared? You’re on Scare Tactics“), the young man offers an explanation for sacrificing her to the extraterrestrials: “Babe, I thought he’d already got you.” At the end of the segment, the show’s host reported, not surprisingly, that the woman is now dating someone else.
What to make of this juxtaposition of “reality shows”? It seems to beg a modest proposal. If the participants in reality-romance shows expect the audience to treat their woo pitches as genuine, it is only fair that, as part of their “engagement,” they do a tour of duty on Scare Tactics. If nothing else, this experience would reveal in short order the true state of their relationships. In the process, it would also provide much-earned, legitimate entertainment for a loyal TV audience that otherwise is always the last to know.
— Andrew Peyton Thomas is an attorney in Phoenix and the author of Clarence Thomas: A Biography. He was the Republican nominee for attorney general of Arizona in 2002.