In the summer of 1999, the young television producer Mike Fleiss had
already achieved some early success making tacky compilation reality
shows such as “Shocking Behavior Caught on Tape” and “World’s Scariest
Police Shootouts,” when he had an idea for a game show, in which a
wealthy man would select a winner from a group of fifty
wedding-gown-clad women, propose, and then marry her. After some
searching, Fleiss found his star, Rick Rockwell, a comedian and
real-estate investor, and, in February, 2000, a two-hour TV special
called “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” aired on Fox. On a
studio stage bathed in harsh lighting, Rockwell chose an emergency-room
nurse, Darva Conger, to be his bride, and twenty-three million people
viewed the pageant-like proceedings.

Recently, I rewatched the moment in which Rockwell—lantern-jawed, his smile locked in a manic
rictus—swoops in to kiss Conger, a slim, yellow-tressed woman whose
tense grin echoes his. The two are, obviously, complete strangers—and,
unsurprisingly, their union buckled almost immediately under the weight
of its own extreme premise. Rockwell, it emerged, was barely a
millionaire; he had also had a restraining order filed against him by a
former girlfriend. Conger later revealed that the marriage was not
consummated on the new couple’s all-expenses-paid Barbados honeymoon.
The union was annulled seven weeks after it was forged. But Fleiss
wasn’t done yet. As Amy Kaufman recounts in her new book, “Bachelor
Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty
the producer came to understand that he could tease out and extend the
romance, nurturing it carefully into full blossom. And so “The Bachelor”
was born.

In 2002, during a difficult first year of grad school, as a foreign
student in Baltimore, I watched the second season of the show, on ABC,
which starred the dull but calming Bachelor Aaron Buerge, a Midwestern
banker whose very large head had, I used to marvel, the quality of a
solid cube of beef. Now, this is America, I told myself: a country
brimming with healthy, pleasingly robust bodies, a land of meat and milk
and corn. It was during this season that I first encountered the
hallmarks of the show, in which banally attractive and
almost always white protagonists are provided with a string of
one-on-one and group dates to “get to know” the contestants, who live
together in a “luxury mansion,” and who are progressively winnowed down
in formal “rose ceremonies.”

Since then, in the course of more than forty seasons, the “Bachelor” franchise—which came to include the spinoffs “The Bachelorette,”
“Bachelor Pad,” “Bachelor in Paradise,” and, recently, “Bachelor Winter
”—has become a mainstay of American reality television,
transforming the competition of “Multi-Millionaire” into something much
more baroque, and shrouding its mercenary quality in the language and
soft lighting of romance. The TV landscape is lousy with more or less
unscripted, improbably themed series—from “Lip Sync Battle” to
“Basketball Wives LA” and “Hunting Hitler”—but the aims of “The
Bachelor” have proven impressively static. (Almost unbelievably, the
series didn’t introduce its first black lead, the Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, until 2017.) Any enjoyment I’ve derived from the show over the
years has had less to do with its dramatic plot points (A former
boyfriend appears to stake his claim on one of the contestants! A
contestant steals away to sleep covertly with the Bachelor!) than its

According to Kaufman, such stately rhythms are the result of painfully
hard work. An entertainment journalist at the Los Angeles Times and a
longtime fan of the show (she has, she writes, a “bach discush” cohort),
Kaufman has procured damning production notes, revealing the show’s
behind-the-scenes manipulation of participants, beginning with the
ground rules established at the Agoura Hills, California, mansion where
“The Bachelor” is filmed. No electronic devices or reading materials are allowed there, nor is contact with the outside world provided.
Competition is kindled not only between the contestants but also among
the on-set producers, who battle for seniority and money (at times,
literally, for hundred-dollar bills doled out by their superiors), by
attempting to create moments of onscreen tension. They throw
participants into states of heightened fear during televised dates (a
bungee-jumping gathering for the heights-averse contestant, say), veer
between intimidation and intimacy to secure information, and keep track
of contestants’ menstruation cycles, targeting them when they are at
their most vulnerable in order to achieve more affecting and dramatically
satisfying scenes.

Like Kaufman, the Canadian poet and academic Suzannah Showler is a
self-professed fan of the show, and she has also recently written a book
about it, “Most Dramatic Ever: The
.” Unlike Kaufman, Showler didn’t talk to any sources, because, as she
writes, “Uh, I didn’t really want to.” Instead, she studies the show
using the tools of literary analysis, treating it as a text whose form
provides meaning. Less attuned to the motivations of individual actors,
Showler is more interested in interrogating the ways in which the show
works systematically—analyzing, for instance, how the contestants’ life
traumas are, as a rule, converted into connection, creating an economy
where “confessional narrative is a form of Bachelor currency.” In
recent years, she suggests, the producers have increasingly allowed
reality to enter the insular spectacle of the show (as, for instance,
when the Southern-belle Bachelorette Emily Maynard acknowledged on
camera that she knew about a past affair that one of the contestants had
had with a “Bachelor” producer). Such intrusions are carefully
calibrated to imply that the show’s authenticity is total, Showler
proposes, while, in fact, the producers careful control how many of its
seams they will expose.

Despite their different approaches, both Kaufman’s and Showler’s books
are primarily preoccupied with the question of feeling. How sincere is a
show, they ask, that professes to be about true emotions while
manipulating its participants? And what is the right amount of emotional
distance that viewers should be able keep from “The Bachelor”? Nearly
twenty years ago, in her groundbreaking book “No Logo,” Naomi Klein
referred to a type of engagement with popular culture that she called
“ironic consumption,” wherein people, realizing their inability to
detach from the often idiotic, occasionally poisonous products of
capitalism, partake instead of these products’ pleasures while keeping a
sense of agency and humor about it. Kaufman’s and Showler’s books remind
us that this attitude is, today, often subsumed by a stance that looks
past irony to find sincere enjoyment and edification in wholly
commercial works. Viewers such as herself, Showler writes, are “aware of
the preposterousness of the situation” presented on the show, and of its
pandering to gendered and racial stereotypes; and yet, she writes, “I
fucking love The Bachelor.” For her part, Kaufman notes that “no one
takes a show about twenty-five women vying for one man seriously”; and
yet, if given the chance to try out for the show, she writes, “I WOULD
STILL. FUCKING. APPLY.” This admission is followed by another reversal:
“That’s pretty dark, right? What is wrong with me? Why do I want to be
that girl?” The fault lines between enjoyment and irony, critique and
complicity, are treacherous; the back-and-forth is ongoing, insistent,
recursive. A moment later, Kaufman is moved to earnest query once again:
“What does it mean to be the chosen one?”