If you like love, there are plenty of things on television for you to watch. Sappy movies, snappy romantic comedies, lush dramas — the choices are limitless. But if you hate love — really, really hate it — there is one perfect show for you: "The Bachelor" (ABC, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET, returns Jan. 9).
This time around, unlike the semi-celebrities (Jesse Palmer of the NFL) and semi-semi-celebrities (Charlie O'Connell of the family of Jerry O'Connell of "Crossing Jordan") of recent seasons, the Bachelor himself is an ordinary guy. At least as ordinary as a 33-year-old ER doctor willing to be shipped off to Paris to romance a bunch of women all at the same time while audiences watch is going to get. So it's love-hating time again.
Why is this the ideal show for cynics? Start with the fact that "The Bachelor" and its sister show "The Bachelorette" almost always ultimately result in busted romances. Sure, there was the marriage of Trista and Ryan, and the most recent couples haven't had a chance to break up yet, including Byron and his biological-clock-watching bride Mary from the sixth season, and tall Charlie and tiny Sarah from the seventh.
But for the most part, the show consists of watching people meet, smile coyly at each other, make out, and declare their feelings, knowing all the time that they will one day be pictured in Us magazine in a graphic based around a ripped photo, under the headline, "WHAT WENT WRONG?"
Conventional wisdom is that the poor relationship record of "The Bachelor" could hurt the show, but the opposite is true. In its early and highly rated days, it spawned romances that not only failed to thrive but ended with marvelous ugliness. Season two's Aaron Buerge famously later dumped Helene in a New Jersey Starbucks, a story so sad it's almost hard to laugh hysterically.
Tune in for the train wrecks
The happy stories just aren't as much fun. Ryan and Trista's wedding was okay in a rubbernecking, "Look at all that pink" kind of way.
But it didn't hold a candle to the fun of watching Bachelor Bob show Estella the door a month after the show aired so he could pursue (and later wed) a soap-opera actress he met while she was hosting ABC Family's reruns of "The Bachelor." This really happened. (And Estella said that one of the reasons their relationship broke up was Bob's pursuit of his pretend music career. This also really happened.)
But it doesn't even take a disastrous end result to please a relationship skeptic. The behavior of the participants along the way is enough to convince anyone that human beings are just not meant to date each other. With the insistence that one can "fall in love" after two dates that included other people, the sloppy kissing, and the women who become backbiting seventh-graders when competing for the affections of a real live bass fisherman, none of the show's atmosphere makes relationships look appealing.
Similarly, the show has a way of keeping at least one controversially awful person until close to the end — Trista had creepy Russ, Andrew had ice-cold Kirsten, Charlie had nasty Sarah W., and Bachelor Bob had … himself, actually. When it gets to be late in the season, the continuing presence of these people, helpful as it may be to the producers' desire for drama, tends to make it appear that the person making the choices doesn’t have very good judgment.
What kind of a desirable bachelor is going to keep the most obnoxious, obviously unsuitable woman in the group until the final two? The kind that confirms everything you've ever believed about bachelors in your darkest moments; that's the kind.
Most of all, however, "The Bachelor" satisfies because of the black eye it gives to such standard relationship paraphernalia as champagne, flowers, fancy dinners, dancing, horse-drawn carriages, and diamond rings. The show's attempts to make the giving of a single rose into a sign of love and promise took a beating when season five's Jesse Palmer accidentally gave one to the wrong woman because he was bad with names. Every awkward dinner deflates the idea that great food means a great date, and every ring that is ultimately returned just goes to show that jewelry doesn't make an engagement.
So if it's such a feast for the dark-hearted, why isn't the show as much of a phenomenon as it once was? Is there a shortage of angry love-haters?
Well, start with this: Between "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," there have been 10 seasons. Ten throngs of hopefuls, 10 supposedly agonizing final decisions, and that aforementioned dismal track record in actually arranging marriages. Romantic reality shows are out of fashion now, and ABC simply doesn't need (or promote) "The Bachelor" in the age of "Desperate Housewives," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and "Grey's Anatomy" the way it did in the age of "Push, Nevada" and "Married To The Kellys."
The most obvious effort to crank up the excitement this season is the relocation to Paris. If the show's tearing down of romantic mythology is part of its charm, then Paris is indeed perfect. What cliché makes a more tempting target than strolling under the stars? Strolling under the stars in Paris!
Besides, a show that plays out the same scenes every season has limited options when it comes to adding interest, and the most obvious one here is a change of scenery. (That is, unless there is any interest in changing the formula of chiseled, boring men choosing from among dullard women born without the gene for pride. Which it certainly is not.)
For most shows, moving to Paris and shuffling the his-and-hers deck chairs on this romantic Titanic wouldn't keep viewers tuning in, but "The Bachelor" seems to have the television equivalent of an inelastic demand curve.
Despite sagging ratings, people care about "The Bachelor" roughly the same amount no matter how much it's actually worth. No one watches it because it's good; people watch it because it's on, and because it's familiar, and because there's something reassuring about learning over and over again that however stupid love is, it's smarter than this. For a show operating at that level, Paris is probably enough.
Furthermore, the new bachelor, Travis Stork, is a doctor. If romantic skeptics like to see a guy act like a jerk, they love to see a hot, eligible doctor act like a jerk. What is more satisfying for someone who doesn't believe in love than the discovery that even a gorgeous doctor you find in Paris cannot be counted on to be worth the trouble?
No, "The Bachelor" is not a show for romantics. It is a show for cynics, in which the greatest pleasure is usually reassuring yourself that you don't want to date vapid people. You don't want The Bachelor. But as long as you keep watching, ABC will keep trying to sell him to you.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.