I started watching The Greatest Season of Reality Television Ever three weeks ago in a very small dorm room at UCLA. The six-week sketch comedy writing workshop I’d enrolled in was taking up a healthy amount of my time, but with literally no other obligations to fulfill, the days were long. I hung out at the pool every afternoon and agonized over the group of Australian girls who liked to tan on the plastic pool chairs next to the diving bleachers. I finished the book I’d brought from Denver (Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) and tried reading the first page of Thus Spoke Zarathustra one day while wandering through the library.
It’s not like I need a sturdy defense for why I started watching The Bachelorette, and honestly I don’t have one. I could have kept reading Infinite Jest, which I also brought to L.A. I could’ve doubled down on my assignments or spent more quality time with friends. I did none of those things, however — instead, I watched The Bachelorette.
I figured watching The Bachelorette would be like smoking a cigarette or going to a petting zoo — it’s far from the first thing I’d personally like to do with my time, but how can you reach the age of 21 without saying you’ve done it at least once, you know? I told myself I’d just watch one episode and then move on with my life.
The 12th season of The Bachelorette aired its finale on Monday to 8.43 million viewers, which, for reference, is more than double the average nightly viewership of the DNC. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have been called America’s modern twist on throwing Christians to the lions. Middle America loves The Bachelorette, and America’s urban bourgeois loves to ridicule it (because, let’s be honest, America’s urban bourgeois loves to ridicule everything about Middle America).
Out of interest, I searched for “bachelorette” on The New Yorker’s website. The first and only relevant result was a bone-dry Shouts and Murmurs piece called “‘The Bachelorette’ Happened to Me.” Quoth the satirist: I’m writing this now from the private island prison where all the failed “Bachelorette” contestants are kept. Once in a while, one of us is taken off the island to become the next Bachelor. I’ve been training a pigeon to deliver messages, so I’m hopeful this letter will reach someone in the outside world.
Nice. Clever. Poignant. Absurdist. Post-Vonnegut. Delivery pigeons. Shoot me in the face, please.
Look — having watched the better part of this season of The Bachelorette, I can now confidently say that if we could manage to collectively turn our snooty noses back down, we’d recognize that JoJo’s season of the show has been objectively incredible.
The first step to reality TV enlightenment: suspend disbelief. The Bachelorette is exactly like wrestling. Everyone’s aware that wrestling is choreographed, but those folding chairs are still made of real metal. 24 year-old JoJo Fletcher supposedly fell in love with and then had her heart broken on this year’s season of The Bachelor, had two months to recuperate, and then started taping The Bachelorette in May. Now it’s August, and she’s engaged to Aaron Rodgers’ estranged brother, Jordan Rodgers.
Maybe I have too much faith in the Big-Gulp-guzzlers and Xanax-moms of our great nation, but I would dare posit that nobody really thinks that the real-life JoJo Fletcher rose from obscurity, fell in love, got dumped and then found her soulmate all before Labor Day of this year. No one’s watching because they think it’s 100% real. They’re watching because it’s a fucking great human drama.
When the season starts, JoJo is pretty much ancillary to the action of the show. As twenty-six guys live in the same house under very strange circumstances, a completely insane man named Chad comes to the forefront of the tension, exercising more alpha-masculinity than you’d think could possibly come from one person. Chad is awesome. Chad is a villain that is so wild and cartoonish that it’s difficult to imagine that the producers of the show could’ve been prepared for him (although, in all likelihood, Chad was their invention all along).
Like any great archetypical villain (think Darth Vader, Heath Ledger’s Joker), Chad isn’t only pure-evil — his backwards morality poses a fascinating vexation to JoJo’s supposed purity. Chad’s treatise was simple: JoJo, every contestant on this show is lying to you, and you know it. You can keep up this charade for the cameras, or you can love me, because my love is real. Deep down, we know that Chad is at least half right — which is what makes us loath and fear him so much more.
The hour-long battle to get Chad off the show is a triumphant rebuttal of traditional masculinity and a relieving pivot back to the world of reality TV’s fake authenticity that Chad had threatened to dismantle. An ex-marine tears into Chad and “people like” him, who only know how to resort to threats of violence to resolve conflict. As tension boils over, Chad tells Jordan (who was already a frontrunner) “You think this is a show, and you think you’re safe for now… But when you go home, do you think I won’t find you? Do you think I won’t go out of my way to come to your house? I’m dead fucking serious.”
After hearing of this threat, JoJo takes Chad on a hiking date and then asks him to leave the show — literally sending him off alone into the mountains. What a perfectly executed metaphor for the exile of Chad’s archaic masculinity. How poetic, for a man like Chad to be sent exactly where he belongs — back into the wild, out of reality TV, where realness is realness and fakeness is fakeness. A bear roars somewhere off in the distance as we cut to commercial. A perfect TV moment.
With Chad gone and the order of the universe restored, the show needed a new antagonist. As I continued watching and the group of guys narrowed to four, I wasn’t sure who exactly that new antagonist could be. Chase McNary is a pharma sales rep from Colorado with a fun, goofy side. Luke Pell is a dreamy singer-songwriter from Texas. Robby Hayes is a former competitive swimmer from Florida who’s as kind and caring as he is hot. Jordan Rodgers is a classic all-American jock from California who doesn’t want to talk about his brother. They’re all equally nice, they look identical from a distance, and JoJo has very much fallen for all of them.
At the rose ceremony at the end of week seven, JoJo is so torn that she breaks down and starts sobbing outside of the airplane hanger where the guys were waiting for their fate. Wiping tears away, she says to the camera: “In my entire life of dating, I’ve never met one guy, let alone four, that have made me feel this good and this happy… I feel so out of control… what if I make a mistake?”
That’s when it became clear — like in most great television dramas of the past decade, JoJo’s most formidable enemy is, and always will be, herself.
She lets Luke go. Looking shell-shocked, Luke whispers “I’m sorry,” as he gets into his limo. “Please don’t be sorry,” JoJo cries out, voice cracking. “You did nothing.”
The limo drives away. “Oh God,” JoJo says, falling to her knees. Remember when Walter White strangled Krazy 8 with a bike lock?
JoJo’s spectacular performance this season (and it is a performance, no one’s saying it isn’t) has been a touching reminder of how brutal the struggle is to find true love in a world where it seems like everyone is faking it — especially you. How much is on the line when people open up to you. How terrifying it is when you have to let good things go.
Jordan and JoJo are engaged now, and I guess their plan is to move to Dallas. Jordan has a new job on ESPN. They keep putting pictures of each other on their snap stories. It’ll probably be a terrible marriage, but who knows — and honestly, who cares? After such a great season of reality TV, a prolonged and miserable divorce would still be completely worth it.
My only hope for JoJo is that she starts auditioning for scripted roles. I’ve never seen an actress with more nimble, precise control over her tear ducts.