12 September 2014
The self-aware absurdity of Bachelor in Paradise has come to an end, Project Runway is in full bitchy swing, the Big Brother editors are still trying to locate a villain in their most likeable cast ever, Survivor’s new season is quickly approaching. So now seems as good a time as any to philosophize on a topic that has long fascinated and infuriated me: reality TV villainy. This is an article that’s been brewing since the painful Bachelorette finale brought my season-long frustration with the editorial treatment of Nick Viall to new heights, but as Bachelor in Paradise wraps up with a one-time villain walking into the sunset and Big Brother finally makes the call to back nice-guy chessmaster Derrick over flashy editor’s pet Frankie, I figure now is the time to make my point.
The Bachelorette is one of the few things I actually call a guilty pleasure. This isn’t because I don’t watch/listen to/eat/participate in/otherwise enjoy the sorts of things other people call guilty pleasures; it’s just that I don’t feel particularly guilty about them. I proudly observe the Big Brother social experiment every single summer (go, Derrick, go!); I will happily back up my lifelong devotion to the Backstreet Boys (they still deliver a hell of a concert, even if Kevin is closing in on 50); I’ve been known to give lectures on why your condescending dismissal of The OC is really shortsighted (mostly to console lanky nerd boys who think girls don’t love them; they are wrong and can thank Seth Cohen for that).
But The Bachelorette is different. It’s the only reality show on my docket that’s not a competition (or at least it’s not supposed to be, sometimes the boys get that confused). The Bachelorette is not about revelling in the strategic genius of social manipulators like my other favourite reality shows; nor is anyone going to do anything really impressive like dance the Viennese Waltz or make a perfect soufflé. Since I’m not particularly impressed by fancy dates, what I get out of The Bachelorette is the pure escapist romanticism of watching a real love story (that occasionally even ends in an actual wedding!) and the chance to giggle over the boys I deem dreamy. I fancy myself a pretty good judge of character so I like to rate the boys and see how right I turn out to be (I haven’t been crazy far off the mark since Jillian’s season when I ranked Reid WAY too low). I should clarify that I do (usually) watch The Bachelor and Bachelor Pad/in Paradise as well but they’re not really guilty pleasures because, well, they’re not that pleasurable.
Perhaps more than anything about The Bachelorette, I enjoy tracking the romantic connections and lack thereof. I loved knowing from the moment she first laid eyes on him that Ali would pick Roberto and watching Ashley slowly turn off her Bentley blinders and see what I saw in JP the second his intro package started. I think it’s fascinating how clearly you can see the spark between two people, and how palpably you can feel the difference of chemistry between a true frontrunner and a fan favourite who isn’t meant to be with the Bachelorette (like Marquel this year or JJ, who was my personal pick for cutest but definitely had no chemistry with Andi).
Perhaps because love is harder to fake than hate or because the gradual elimination gives the action some context or because the whole franchise would come crashing down if they got caught fabricating too much, The Bachelorette is also, generally, a lot less manufactured than other non-competition reality shows I’ve attempted to watch (once, because I love her on the Fashion Police, I tried to watch Giuliana Rancic’s reality show and had to quit after four minutes because it was all staged conversations like a commercial where two people just happen to be talking about life insurance over coffee). It’s totally manufactured in the sense that they use fancy dates, exotic locations and the occasional endorphin-promoting stunt to help the contestants get carried away. There are definitely a few staged scenes (pretty much anytime the contestants sit in a circle and talk about their “journey”) and sometimes the editors will remove all context from a look or a voice over but, for the most part, I’ve always felt like I could see through the basic manipulations of The Bachelorette and figure out who the real people were underneath it all. You need to have an eye for fancy editing, emotional sound cues, and specific lines and behaviours that were clearly producer-encouraged, but, I think, if you’ve got an eye for human behaviour (and have spent enough time around actors to catch a fake), you can see the real Bachelorette, and that’s really pretty fun.
However, the reality TV convention I’m going to call “persona edits” affects The Bachelorette entirely differently than it does my other favourite shows, and that drives me absolutely crazy. On Survivor, someone who’s been watching the show for years can often narrow the winner down to 2 or 3 possibilities based on something casually observed as a “Winners Edit” (this past season, for example, the screentime and story perspectives strongly suggested it would be either Tony and Spencer; sure enough it was Tony with an inevitable All-Star return for Spencer). Big Brother is interesting because it’s played live and the editors have no way of knowing in week one who will be important in week nine. Most of the great end-game strategists law low in the early weeks so heroes and villains and stars and nobodies will often switch places many times throughout a season (or across a few seasons as in the fascinating case of villain-turned-hero Rachel Reilly). This season was a little different because major player Frankie used a socially conspicuous strategy to hide his backroom dealings so the editors knew to zero in on him right away and the first few weeks of Big Brother 16 were all about him. It took them longer to locate the season’s real star Derrick but, once they did, the editorial shift is notable. Quiet player and light competition threat Derrick now earns about 60% of the total screentime and serves as our unofficial Diary Room narrator while the focus on Frankie has shifted from his charm, intelligence, openness and determination to his paranoia, egotism, superficiality and cut-throat tendencies. The elimination of Zach- the emotional lynchpin in Frankie’s personal story- was a major turning point when the editors saw the opportunity to turn on their week one favourite to manufacture more conflict from a generally villain-less season by undoing some of Frankie’s Hero Edit. In another season, Frankie would have stayed the hero and the back half of this season would be all about the importance of self-expression and the triumph of the little, effeminate guy over the hulking jocks and we would have heard a lot more about his plan to donate all the money. In a totally other season, Cody would be our hero in the Jeff tradition of nice, handsome, sort of boring guys being the hero (for the record, Cody is ten times the player Jeff was and he’s definitely one of the most charming reality TV personalities I’ve seen in a long time but his seeming genericism invites the comparison and it’s interesting, then, to see him get a sidekick edit). Actually, that’s an interesting point, why is Jeff Schroeder so revered in BB lore? He wasn’t a particularly good strategist; there have been better physical competitors; I don’t consider him all that charming or heroic on a personality level. The answer is that the editors told us to revere him. They edited out the moments when the live feeds revealed him to be lughead, played up his romance with innocent yokel Jordan and started calling him a “legend of the game”, so everyone else did too. The ridiculous deification of Jeff (and the understandable editorial annihilation of Aaryn) aside, Big Brother and Survivor’s edits are usually all about gameplay, not personality. If you’re a backstabbing, manipulative liar, you’re probably a “villain”. But all the fans know that it takes a “villain” to play a great game.
While I acknowledge the need to frame the story (though I don’t necessarily accept it), the problem I have with persona edits on The Bachelorette is that the editors are making judgement calls about real people as opposed to game personas. The Survivor editors have usually (except in the case of Russell Hantz) been able make it clear that their “villains” are playing ruthless games completely unrelated to their personal lives. Boston Rob is probably the most interesting example since his gameplay is quintessentially “villainous” but he’s known to Survivor fans as a doting husband and loving father who does things like trick his tribe into naming themselves after his wife’s teddy bear. On The Bachelorette, if you’re perceived as being “on” for the cameras or holding back on your true self at all, you’re declared to be “there for the wrong reasons” (aka the worst crime in the Bachelorverse). The understanding, therefore, is that we’re seeing these people be themselves. So if the editors decide to give someone a Villain Edit, what they’re actually doing is telling the audience that they’re watching someone who is genuinely a bad person, off-camera. Courtney Robertson is a slut, Vienna Girardi is a fake, Ben Scott is a fraud, Kalon McMahon is an asshole- that’s what we were told and there are very few of us (though I’m most certainly one of them) who absolutely refuse to believe what we’re told.
On The Bachelorette, occasionally you’ll get someone like Andrew Poole who is more than willing to play into the troublemaker role for the sake of TV drama (until it went too far and ended up sort of ruining his life. Oops). Sometimes you get a Bentley Williams- someone so mean spirited that giving him a villain edit is unavoidable and objectively deserved (the test is to try to imagine what their hero edit would look like; with Bentley that’s impossible). Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of someone’s humour not reading quite right so they’ll say something stupid, put their Bachelor or Bachelorette on the defensive, and get a villain edit on their season then a Hero Edit when they return in different company on Bachelor Pad (this happened with both Michelle Money and Kalon McMahon, two of my favourites. It then happened in reverse to Kalon who has gone back to being a “villain” while Michelle is a beloved member of the franchise). We likely would have seen a harsh edit like this for Eric Hill if he hadn’t died. His dramatic exit from Andi’s season was based entirely on a miscommunication that spun out of control but the exchange cast a fairly negative light on Andi. If circumstances were different, the producers would have, without a doubt, added ominous music and out of context shots of Eric throughout the season leading up to his “dramatic confrontation” to create a villain/victim narrative that kept their leading lady more free of the blame. It would have been misleading and unfair to Eric in the larger sense of his life, but the lowest common denominator would have seen it as better TV so that’s what would have happened (lord knows no one wants realistic character ambiguity from their “reality” shows the way they do from their scripted fare).
Perhaps most amusing is when the villain edit comes after a hero edit and the producers have to undo their own work in order to spin the new narrative (Chris Bukowski and AshLee Frazier are good examples of this, so is Ed Swiderski). The case of Jake Pavelka is interesting because he was given the most overwhelming hero edit ever while on Jillian’s season of The Bachelorette but, by the time his controversial season and very public breakup aired, he was one of the most hated men in the Bachelor universe. He then returned on Bachelor Pad and received a very very strange edit that suggested the producers didn’t know what to do with him (my personal take: he’s not the golden boy first presented but he always meant well and definitely didn’t deserve the crazy hatred thrown his way. If he’d been portrayed as anything other than Mr. Perfect to begin with the backlash wouldn’t have been so overwhelming and cruel).
More times than not (and usually because there isn’t an obvious villain like Bentley or an easily edited funny “villain” like Kalon), the “villain” of the season is fabricated out of the contestants’ insecurities around the frontrunner (usually the first impression rose recipient). All frontrunners need to be Sean Lowe levels of non-threatening and friendly otherwise there will be some kind of resentment from the less-loved of the group and, if you’re in a season without much actual drama, that is absolutely where the drama will come from. It happened to Vienna; it happened to Courtney; it happened to Ben; it happened to Tierra; it happened to Nikki; and it absolutely happened to Nick Viall.
But all those other people at least flirted with bad behaviour on the show- their edits seemed far less artificial. Nick didn’t in a million years deserve what happened to him on The Bachelorette. I don’t mean getting his heart smashed to a million pieces- no one deserves that but any Bachelorette contestant has to anticipate the possibility- I mean the fact that Nick happened to be in a season of The Bachelorette where almost nothing happened, so the producers threw him under the bus. There were the two minor skirmishes surrounding Andrew (one actually minor and one made minor because Marquel doesn’t do drama) and the Eric confrontation that the producers were forced to play down, but otherwise Andi’s path towards the proposal platform was the smoothest ride I’ve seen maybe ever.
The closest comparison I can think of would be to Emily’s season (one of my least favourites). The whole season seemed to point towards an Emily-Arie happy ending: they hit it off instantly and had chemistry that far outstripped every other relationship on the show; when she was in crisis, she immediately looked for him to comfort her. A dramatic last minute turn sent her into the arms of rich hipster Jef and left her hunky racecar driver heartbroken and confused. In the time between the finale and After the Final Rose, downtrodden Arie went so far as to fly to North Carolina and show up at Emily’s house unannounced. I’d say that’s pretty much the same story as poor Nick, except that Nick and Andi’s connection (at least what we saw of it) was more emotional and intellectual than Emily and Arie’s (the line on Emily’s season was that her head wanted Sean, her heart wanted Jef, and her body wanted Arie though I would argue that her heart wanted Arie at least a little bit too). I think Nick lost a stronger relationship than Arie, and I think he was led on a lot more, but the story was largely the same. Except for two things. 1) Emily chose a guy who got along with Arie and was able to talk to him man-to-man when he showed up in NC; 2) the producers wanted to keep their Bachelor options open so they could choose between Sean and Arie when the time came.
That last thing is the key. Nick is far too reserved and definitely too skeptical to be the new Bachelor, and the producers knew that right away. He’s also not for all markets like Arie or Sean, meaning that to love Nick is a highly specific thing and not a universal reaction that would transfer well through the screen (Chris was the guy like that this season, though I’m still a little disappointed that they didn’t choose Marquel). Even Andi had trouble vocalizing why she was so drawn to Nick (which I loved- it was so intrinsic and personal). And in the rarest of Bachelorette feats, I can recall only one shot wherein Nick was treated by the show like a piece of meat (that slow pan up his torso at the start of the finale; you could feel shortsighted girls all over the country starting to change their minds about him, briefly). And all Bachelors are treated like a piece of meat; it’s in the job description. So Nick had no shot at being the next Bachelor (nor do I think he would ever want to be) and that meant he was fair game for destruction (you’d think his final 2 status would have saved him but Courtney and Vienna both won their seasons as the resident villain).
So even though Arie had done the Exact same thing, when Nick tried to contact Andi after the season, it was spun as stalkerish (from what I can tell, he merely called Chris Harrison to ask if he could speak to Andi and she happened to be on vacation at the time; the way it was presented and repeated during the live finale it seemed as though he had followed her to Mexico!); when the other guys (notably guys Twitter reveals to be his pretty close friends) got drunk and picked an incoherent fight with him, it was given a disproportionate amount of promotion and screentime. If Nick wasn’t getting a Villain’s Edit, that awkward scene would have likely been a negative spin on one of the other guys for being drunk and belligerent, or it would have been played for laughs.
I fully acknowledge my bias; Nick is my kind of person. I find his soft-spoken intellectual thing engaging. I like his intensity and don’t mind that he’s occasionally “salty” (at least he doesn’t randomly start yelling when someone tries to give him a lie detector test, Josh!). I actually like his scarves. I’m more than willing to throw a little extra empathy his way because he often chooses the wrong words or struggles fitting in. But I honestly believe that I could have seen through the shady edit even if he wasn’t my kind of person. And I honestly think it would have bothered me just as much (Evidence: I’m inclined to believe JJ but I’m still uncomfortable with Andrew being indicted for racism on shifty evidence. Though I actually think Andrew was given a fairly generous edit, especially considering how much time he was given to explain himself during Men Tell All, a courtesy JJ did not receive). I find it genuinely troubling how willing most people seem to be to take the cues of careful editing and ominous music. Editors can remove endearing comments and place ambiguous comments into incriminating contexts and include awkward shots of someone standing off by themselves, but they can’t fabricate chemistry and they can’t put words in people’s mouths and they can’t change the look in someone’s eye. I wonder how the people who think Nick is creepy were watching the same show as I was.
Over the course of the full season (and, yes, even that painful After the Final Rose), Nick didn’t say or do a single thing that I didn’t completely understand. He did and said some things that were inadvisable, but nothing that didn’t come from a clearly well-intentioned place. That “make love with me” comment, for example- you know, the one that everyone is using as the final nail in the poor guy’s coffin- I have so many feelings about that, and none of them are outrage. I don’t give a flying fig that he talked about their sex life on national TV (can we please all just get over the fact that we know Exactly what goes on in the fantasy suite? He didn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know) and the reason I don’t care comes down to the simple fact that Andi refused to talk to him before After the Final Rose. He kept trying and she kept putting it off. Chris Harrison seemed to imply that Andi felt the live special would be a more “appropriate time”. Okay, sure, I understand wanting Harrison there to mediate (seems a little extreme but whatever) but Nick just wanted to talk to this girl he thought loved him (don’t you dare try to tell me he didn’t have fair reason to believe that) and the only chance he was given was on live TV. Explain to me, then, why we’re supposed to be so offended that he aired their dirty laundry on live TV; it was live or never, and he clearly couldn’t live with never.
Nick Viall came into The Bachelorette more skeptical than anyone I’ve ever seen on the show. He didn’t want to open up, he didn’t want to fall in love, he didn’t want to be embarrassed or exposed or hurt. But at a certain point in his clearly very real relationship with Andi, he had to either jump in or get out. In Jillian’s season of The Bachelorette, my favourite contestant Reid reached the exact same point- expose himself to heartbreak or let his self-preservational instincts do their job. Reid chose the latter and, instantly regretting it, came back to propose in the finale only to find that he’d lost Jillian forever. Jillian ended up getting her heart broken by the man who got her final rose (the aforementioned Ed) and you get the sense that if Reid had just given in, declared his love when she needed him to, she would have chosen him and they might have been happy. No one wants to be Reid. Nobody wants to be that guy who wasn’t brave enough to let love in, even if it might go badly (or embarrass him on national TV). So Nick let down his guard (the guard that’s likely been built up in response to being a little bit different all his life) and Nick got smashed. The editors slaughtered him when he didn’t even give them all that much material with which to do it (until After the Final Rose, at least). What’s worse is that it was completely unnecessary. Bachelorette fans don’t need crazy amounts of drama, they just want to watch someone fall in love. At least when the editors made the impossibly cruel decision to stage Clare’s Bachelor in Paradise meltdown as if it was directed at a racoon (instead of the producer she was clearly talking to), it was funny. Mean, but funny. But what they did to Nick was just plain mean. They knew the outcome before they even started editing; they knew he was about to get his heart broken even after he’d done all he could to protect it. And they slaughtered him anyway, seemingly for the fun of it.
After the season ended, Nick took to his twitter account and addressed the finale with this: “Congratulations to
@AndiDorfman and @jmurbulldog on their engagement. Wishing you both incredible happiness. #TheBachelorette #Bachelorette“. In interviews he’s talked about how Josh is a good guy who will treat Andi well. In interviews, Josh has called Nick classless then stated that he “never really cared for him” and “couldn’t care less about him”. Nick has stayed friends with his fellow contestants and gone back to his real life in Chicago, hopefully never to return to the unwelcoming hell that is reality TV unless it’s to air his wedding to soulmate Sharleen Joynt (the amazing contestant from Juan Pablo’s season who was similarly polarizing and thus remained Nick’s only really visible staunch supporter throughout the entire season. Thank god for Sharleen). The treatment of Nick by the Bachelorette producers was so off-putting that it has me reexamining the reality TV landscape and what it does to its human “characters”. The fact that I am apparently alone in this backlash might be the most upsetting thing.