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'Bachelor' bargain: Reality TV fans choose to suspend disbelief

Stories about "Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure" have described revelations in...

Posted: Mar 15, 2018 9:59 PM

Stories about "Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure" have described revelations in reporter Amy Kaufman's unauthorized, behind-the-scenes book about the popular show as "shocking" and "surprising."

Yet the truth is that those professing surprise about manipulation and staging in reality TV either haven't been looking very hard or don't want to know, and would be equally shocked to discover that gambling was going on in Casablanca.

Indeed, stories unmasking the tricks of the trade have emerged since the infancy of unscripted television in its present form. And while some early scandals appeared to threaten the genre's future, by now it's pretty well understood -- if seldom stated -- that regular viewers of such programs have made a pact, conscious or otherwise, to suspend disbelief.

In addition, TV itself is often pretty brutal in its appraisal of reality shows, especially in the scripted realm. This weekend's episode of "The Good Fight," for example, the CBS All-Access drama, features a lawsuit involving a woman who claims she was sexually assaulted while shooting a dating show clearly modeled after last summer's "Bachelor in Paradise" controversy.

Lifetime drama "UnREAL," similarly, regularly features producers engaging in unethical practices in the pursuit, as the lead producer on the show within the show puts it, of "good TV."

"UnREAL's" creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, is a former "The Bachelor" producer. In promoting the program, she has discussed an interlude in which she badgered a contestant until she could wring tears out of her for the camera, and characterized her relationship with those featured as "complicated manipulation," including sleep deprivation and misleading them to elicit the required response.

Related: 'Unreal's' Constance Zimmer is great at being badass

One needn't look very far to find examples of the curtain being pulled back, revealing the men (usually) and women pulling levers behind it. That includes practices like "frankenbiting" -- using snippets of quotes out of context to shape and tell a certain story.

In a first-person account, Anna Klassen wrote about her experience shooting an unscripted pilot: "We improvised every scene, and if a producer didn't like what we did, he'd ask us to do it over, and over, and over. There was no script, but I knew the emotions I was supposed to evoke with each take."

Klassen concluded, "There is nothing real about reality TV."

In 2011, the Daily Beast interviewed a woman featured on the Showtime series "Gigolos," which focused on paid male escorts, who said the producers "created a scenario where I would need an escort, and they hired me."

Such accusations go back to the earliest days of the genre, including twin lawsuits in 2001. "Survivor" competitor Stacey Stillman sued the show, maintaining the producers consulted with others to vote her off. Fox faced its own legal skirmish over "Temptation Island," a dating show, when a pair of contestants claimed the producers knew that they had a child together before expelling them for violating those rules.

The bottom line is that "reality TV" has a long, spotty history, which hasn't prevented it from becoming a staple of the modern TV landscape. To the extent viewers buy into it, they are complicit in perpetuating those practices, as are media outlets that breathlessly cover every beat of these shows because it's good for traffic and, well, fun.

Reviewing "Bachelor Nation" for the Hollywood Reporter, former basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suggested that the book contained "all the dirty secrets about how the sausage is made. It doesn't make the sausage any less delicious or addicting, but it does, if you think about it too much, roil the stomach."

Still, one aspect of the review was contradictory, with Abdul-Jabbar noting, "I can't imagine any fan of the franchise not joyously devouring this book."

To the extent those statements conflict, the first part is more accurate. Because when it comes to reality TV, there's only so much actual reality that most of its consumers can -- or choose to -- stomach.

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