This season's bachelorette: Rachel Lindsay / ABC

One can’t so much recommend watching ABC’s The Bachelorette as try to explain why so many people do so. The top-rated show in its timeslot among adults aged eighteen to forty-nine, millions of us watch weekly as a group of men “try for a chance at love” with a beautiful and spunky single woman in her late twenties to early thirties (usually a runner-up from the last season of The Bachelor, ABC’s identical show in which the gender dynamics are reversed).

The show’s premise is simple: every week our eligible single woman eliminates prospective life partners from a pool of about thirty men with trendy haircuts and indecipherable jobs. This season’s bachelorette is Rachel Lindsay, a beautiful lawyer from Dallas in possession of an unholy amount of charisma. Though the show has been on the air for fifteen years, she’s the Bachelor franchise’s first African-American lead or runner-up. If you met her in person you would assume she is too impressive to seek love on reality television and you would be right. Yet here we are. We’re in Bachelor World now, and it has its own rules.

The show thrives on the uncanny relationship between Bachelor World and the real world. It makes you feel both superior and bewitched. Take, for example, the dates Rachel goes on with the men she’s actually considering marrying when the show stops filming. Our bachelorette—both fully approachable and fully aspirational—woos and is wooed exclusively in exotic locations. Not satisfied to stay on mere land, the lovers take to the sea—in a yacht, naturally—or soar in helicopters and hot air-balloons. We are to understand that these crafts are metaphors for the journey toward love. The roses she hands out to the suitors she likes are also love-metaphors—same as the surprise fireworks displays that appear during at least one date per season. Bachelor World paints romance from the rich palette of ‘90s R&B music videos where life is mansions, convertibles, champagne, and hot tubs. The contestants ooh and ahh over these surroundings, and we laugh and roll our eyes. It’s so obviously artificial that you don’t feel manipulated as much as admiration at the work it took to produce the pageant.

Bachelor World paints romance from the rich palette of ‘90s R&B music videos where life is mansions, convertibles, champagne, and hot tubs.

Part of the show’s appeal are these absurdities. It should not be that a very appealing woman has had any difficulty finding a partner until now—yet the show makes much hay out of every beautiful contestants’ previous romantic disappointments. It should not be that adults would gamely tolerate intentionally-frustrating “group dates” in which the men perform feats of strength and mild humiliation. Yet they do, with gusto. This season featured a mud wrestling competition and a spelling bee, because “Rachel wants someone with intelligence.” We experience empathy, pity, and more than a little reassurance.

But the heightened weirdness is only part of the formula. Real life intrudes into the narrative just enough to make the show seem a little...important. First, there’s the high-stakes premise that these strangers will truly marry at the end of the show—and a handful of couples from the franchise’s twenty-odd seasons are still together with kids. The contestants reliably fall in love, weep, and confess to the camera to their own surprise, “this is becoming real for me.”

More fascinating and problematic is when the show can’t gloss over or seamlessly exploit real life. That’s especially evident this season. Rachel is aware that she’s facing the scrutiny of a country with a racist past and present. After a tense week when a white contestant baited an African-American contestant, calling him “aggressive,” Rachel broke down. “I'm going to get emotional about the pressures that I feel about being a black woman, and what that is,” she said. “I already know what people are going to say about me, and judge me for the decisions that I'm making, and I'm going to be the one who has to deal with that, and nobody else.” Whether or not it intends to, The Bachelorette becomes an image of the country’s pathos and grief.

It certainly knows it’s an image of America’s love of spectacle. The show is best watched in a group of loud friends who have stories of their own romantic travails. As if by design, it’s slow-paced enough to encourage shouting at the television without missing anything—but where you might shout at the coach of a beloved losing sports team, during The Bachelorette you yell advice to a suitor flailing at explaining why he is a catch in the form of a poem he wrote. The emotional quarterbacking continues until the next commercial break or the season ends, whichever comes first.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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