I find myself sometimes defending reality television.
Yes, there's some trash out there. Sure, it's got some issues. But some shows—Secret Millionaire, The Amazing Race, Undercover Boss, for example—can be reasonably clean and occasionally inspiring relative to the broad television landscape. We can't just coat an entire genre with such a broad brush, I'll say. We can't point to reality television and say it's evidence that our entire culture is about to go all Mayan calendar on itself.
Then I run into a show like Bachelor Pad, and I feel a strong compulsion to hollow out a shelter of some sort and start stockpiling canned goods.
ABC's latest take on singleness and 21st-century "courtship" is like Survivor with more sex, Jersey Shore with less hair gel. The misbegotten offspring of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad duplicates those shows' worst faults while adding a few that are all its own.
Those aforementioned "parent" programs are essentially game shows predicated on love, sex and dating: The bachelor or bachelorette in question must communally date a bevy of suitors and, in the end, choose one with whom to live happily ever after. (Or not.) But while the shows' "winners" ride off into the broadcast network sunset year after year, presumably heading for lives filled with bliss and celebrity supermarket appearances, the jilted "losers" are forced to return to their presumably less celebri-liscious lives offscreen.
Or at least, that's what used to happen—until 2010, when ABC created Bachelor Pad as a sort of telegenic limbo for Bachelor and Bachelorette castoffs. There, they can work through their broadcast sins ("I clearly wasn't manipulative enough the last time around," someone might confess) and look for love (or at least more sex) while competing for $250,000. And, of course, bask in the gaze of the cameras just a wee bit longer. Spicing things up for Season 3, the brain trust behind Bachelor Pad added a handful of "superfans" to the mix, folks who have apparently been as transfixed by Bachelor and Bachelorette broadcasts as a cat is by a laser pointer.
The show stuffs the rejected contestants and the superfans into one gigantic house where they live and drink and smooch. Occasionally, host Chris Harrison barges in and forces them all to compete in some sort of Big Brother-style contest. Winners get to go on dates. Losers have to stay at home ... drinking and kissing and forming alliances and wondering if they're going to be the next to get the boot.
What "winning" looks like here varies more than it does on most reality shows. Some contestants are clearly angling for the cash prize, swapping strategy and spit with their partners in equal measure. Others hope to attract a beau or belle (though, honestly, finding a soul mate on a reality show always seemed a bit quixotic to me). Others just want to hang with beautiful people, making out with as many as they can. "I'm not thinking strategy at all," admits Michael between kissing sessions.
Mostly, though, they just seem interested in clinging to their 15 minutes of fame with white knuckles—not letting go until they're dragged away, kicking and screaming.
These contestants aren't necessarily bad people, of course. Some seem quite nice. Some even seem real. One woman casts a vote to kick out one of her best guy friends and later regrets it. "You get close to people in this house," she says. "You really like them." And I'm sure that's true. Relationships on reality TV, just like relationships everywhere, are complicated.
The attraction for viewers, however, is more straightforward: the appeal of watching attractive people kiss lips, share beds and stab backs. It has the appeal of a peephole, the voyeuristic attraction of an audio bug in your neighbor's bedroom.
OK, so maybe Bachelor Pad isn't the end of the world. Not literally. Still, I can't quite shake that strange compulsion to stop writing and start digging.
In honor of the Olympics, Bachelor Pad contestants perform a rhythmic gymnastics routine. The man and woman who do the best get to pick three other Pad denizens of the opposite sex to go on a date with them. The male winner, Michael, kisses two of the three women he chooses during their outing. (And one of those passionate (we could say sloppy) liplocks leaves little to the imagination). Female winner Blakely uses her date in a more strategic manner. But superfan twins Brittany and Erica provide the episode's real drama: Cursing, crying and calling each other "sluts," the two leave the house and drop out of the contest, much to the relief of the show's other participants.
Two couples wind up in bed together. Two female contestants kiss. Other couples make out and canoodle. Alcohol flows freely, and a few folks appear inebriated. They ogle, discuss and critique others' privates. Some either fantasize about having sex with another participant or opine about how a particular person might be in bed. They lie and manipulate.
We hear "p‑‑‑ed," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑," along with more than 20 misuses of God's name. Other, ostensibly stronger, curse words are bleeped at least another 20 times.