In the season finale of The Bachelor, Nick from Wisconsin will choose between two women: Raven, a dark-haired fashion-boutique owner from Arkansas, or Vanessa, a special-education teacher from Montreal. If he chooses – proposes – to her, Vanessa would become the first Canadian to ever win a Bachelor competition.
If the long-running reality series is still your thing – and there are seven-million-plus of us every episode – these last three hours (Monday 8 p.m., Omni-2, ABC) should be the most exciting yet. Except viewers already know it won't be. Thanks to a bold wink and nod from the producers, the buzziest Bachelor happening in years is already old news – and it never even happened on air.
Weeks earlier, the show runners announced the next Bachelorette. Meet Rachel! Sure, she will be the first black suitor, but she was also on the current season. Spoiler alert: No one but grandpa, who grandma makes watch, was surprised when Nick did not extend her a rose in the penultimate episode.
So after 21 seasons of human melodrama that has veered from the mundane to the shamelessly fascinating and back, The Bachelor's open secrets have finally been whispered out loud. Everyone now knows that no one cares who Nick, one of the most boring men in the history of television, will choose. That the most interesting part of the franchise in 2017 is the inside baseball that greases the wheels of celebrity gossip sites. And that the only way to still sanely enjoy The Bachelor is by embracing everything about The Bachelor but the show itself.
As reality TV has evolved from evil Richard on the first season of Survivor in 2000 to the empire-building of the Kardashian family on their eponymous show, these programs have found ways to shrug off questions of authenticity. There are games of popularity and skill that derive from the American Idols of the genre; the voyeurism of constructed sociological experiments, such as in Survivor and Big Brother; and Keeping Up With The Kardashians made it mainstream, and profitable, to script life for the cameras and for Kim's Snapchat brand.
The Bachelor has always worn its reality mantle uncomfortably. There is something incalculable about the emotional stakes – a man or woman seeking to find The One, on TV – that has kept viewers suspending disbelief for years. This, despite a majority of Bachelor and Bachelorette couples rarely making it to the alter once engaged. Viewers are continually asked to buy the scripted prize of a hand in marriage at the end of the journey (and sometimes rewarded with a televised wedding or – even rarer – babies).
Now the real world has caught up, somewhat, to The Bachelor's constructed fantasy. Like the Oscars, The Bachelor could no longer ignore the social upheaval happening outside its sandbox. While #bachelorsowhite may not have had the visibility of criticism levelled at the film academy, Rachel's ascendance as the first black Bachelorette is a reaction to the same growing dissatisfaction with the Academy Awards' approach to a diverse representation of culture.
But where Hollywood's biggest night diverges from Monday's best reason to have a glass of red wine is that The Bachelor is creating fiction, not bestowing accolades. Reality-show producers are most comfortable interacting with their audience in the confines of the story. How else, besides ratings, to explain spin-offs such as Bachelor in Paradise, that bring back favourite heroes and villains from past seasons to get drunk and act boorish anew? That approach, for pessimists, is how the first black Bachelorette has come to pass: as a newer, shinier coat rack on which to hang an upcoming season. Except, in this novel case, producers are appealing to a growing segment of their audience who are big fans of The Bachelor, but even bigger fans of The Bachelor Internet.
The online community, which lives on sites such as Reality Steve, watch the show as a by-product of the rumour mill that powers every season. Breathless spoilers, editing critiques and insider gossip are what keep these fans occupied in between episodes. They follow producers on Instagram such as Elan Gale, who's amassed 178,000 followers at @theyearofelan with behind-the-scenes portraiture from the set. It's these devotees that seed an issue such as The Bachelor's lack of diversity before the conversation trickles up through the media. It's also this growing viewing group that makes a move such as an early Bachelorette announcement a bankable risk: Why not try to spike ratings if everyone and their grandma are reading spoilers?
(Ostensibly, for the show's sake, host Chris Harrison explained to Kelly Ripa on morning TV that "we would like to cast the show for her.")
I can't help but see The Bachelor as having its professional wrestling moment, which helps to chart where the show is coming from and where it could be headed. That so-called soap-opera-with-testosterone has seen its perceived reality ripped apart and evolve over the past 50 years. It wasn't long ago that kids watched Hulk Hogan in the ring, thinking a single body slam was all it would take to put Andre the Giant down for the count. There is even wrestling jargon for the illusion of competition: Those in the business believed keeping "kayfabe" was paramount to keeping fans hooked.
But by the late 1980s, when some U.S. states were forcing the "sport" to adhere to regulations and tax rules, WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) impresario Vince McMahon testified to state authorities in New Jersey that wrestling was indeed performance. Breaking kayfabe didn't kill the industry – rather it turned into a juggernaut. With any pretense of competition cast aside, World Wrestling Entertainment today is a publicly traded, multi-platform company with more than $650-million (U.S.) in revenue.
In popular culture, the business of wrestling is in the basic diet of an enlightened fan. Bookers, the writers who dream up the elaborate rivalries and matches, are known by name and in some cases venerated. And since no one intends to get hurt, celebrity appearances in the ring have become de rigueur (see: Donald Trump).
The TV drama Unreal offers further hints to the realms of insider insight The Bachelor has yet to mine. Based on the experiences of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer, the show follows the on-set rampages of an exploitative, manipulative, emotionally unstable producer of a thinly veiled parody called Everlasting. The suitor is a British prince-ling looking to reform his image. The women contestants are portrayed with sympathy for the humiliations they've blindly agreed to face. And the producers – ever teasing, prodding, looking to ruin personal lives in the name of riveting television – are the stars.
The Bachelor is still shaking off a holistic approach to kayfabe. The challenge is that the practice still plays a vital, if de-emphasized role, in creating a show. Regardless of how much the public is allowed to peek at the sausage-making process, reality TV and pro wrestling must still produce a hit program with big ratings. Viewers know it's fake, but it doesn't eliminate the desire to be entertained. Bachelor fans shouldn't wonder, perplexedly, why Nick has been such a wet blanket. The real question is why the man isn't performing harder to win over his audience? And when will we see a delicately scripted Celebrity Bachelor, starring a future divorced George Clooney seeking love again?
Until then, we excitedly wait to see who will be standing in front of Nick when he gets on one knee, looks up and asks: "Will you marry me?"
Spoiler: It's probably Vanessa from Montreal. Reality Steve said so.