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TV Dinner Dates

Dating as blood sport for our televised amusement never goes out of style

by Shawn Stone on February 9, 2012

Millions of Americans tune in every week to see 28-year-old California winemaker Ben Flajnik go on dates with beautiful women on ABC’s The Bachelor. He goes on single dates; he goes on double dates; they have outings to various hot spots, and occasionally to exotic locales like Panama City—the one in Panama. (That’s where they partied, and confused the locals, this week.) The women who aren’t out these dates sit around and ruthlessly pick apart the flaws of the women who are.

At the end of each week, some women get to stay on the show; others get sent home. This is the dramatic peak of each episode: the Rose Ceremony.

Decked out in their slinkiest finery, the ladies line up before Ben. He calls out the name of a woman, hands her a rose and gives her a kiss. She gets to stick around for another week of sexy shenanigans and fame. The women who do not get roses must go off and seek humiliation somewhere else—somewhere without a TV audience.

Supposedly, the point of all this is for Mr. Flajnik to find his soulmate. This is actually the least likely outcome for Flajnik. It probably will give a boost to his winery; let us forgive the proprietor of fansite The Bachelor2012.com for typing, presumably with a straight face, “Is Ben really on The Bachelor to promote his wine business or is he truly trying to find the love of his life?” Maybe one of the women will make enough of an impression to get a gig on another reality TV show; of this season’s gaggle, clothing-optional Courtney seems like a good candidate for bigger and better things.

The real point is, of course, entertainment. The Bachelor has now been on ABC for 15 “seasons.” There’s a companion show, The Bachelorette, which has had only seven seasons over almost as many years, but will return for an eighth later this year with soulmate-seeker Emily Maynard.

Do people still love it? The most recent episode beat the Super Bowl-promoted, talent-oriented reality show The Voice by more than a million viewers.

The Bachelor is an orgy of gloriously upscale kitschy sex and consumerism; it’s the 99 percent getting their rocks off watching a network exec’s idea of the 1 percent at play. And if you’re rich, you can get in on it. As Erin Gloria Ryan reported at Jezebel last month, you can rent the “set.” Ryan wrote, “Do you have tons of money and questionable taste? Do you enjoy wine and granite countertops and outdoor swimming pools full of desperation residue? Then why not rent the house made famous on this season of The Bachelor?! . . .  It will set you back $2,100 per night, or $13,225 per week. If you want to go bananas, the place is available for an entire month for only $35,225. The 4,800 square foot house has 6 bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms, and thousands of secrets. Sleeps 12 comfortably!”

If you rent it, dish.

Television dating shows didn’t really exist before the 1960s, when certified genius Chuck Barris invented them. His brilliant creation was the The Dating Game, a half-hour quiz show that began on ABC primetime in 1965 and lasted in syndication until 1980. (That’s still impressive.) Hosted by Jim Lange, it featured a bachelorette who interviewed—and chose from among—three bachelors she wasn’t allowed to see. The audience could see them, however, which was most of the fun. (In George Clooney’s Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangrous Mind, a bachelorette is shown passing over Brad Pitt and Matt Damon for a date with Judah Friedlander, who provided more sensitive-guy answers.) There were prizes, and the happy couple got to go on a supervised, all-expense paid date.

Barris’ original concept allowed for a lot more sexual innuendo in the questions and answers than the censors of the time would allow. And the humiliation of a bad date happened off camera. Fun fact: Judd Apatow appeared as a bachelor contestant on one of the revived, post-1980 versions of The Dating Game. Explains a lot about his movies, actually.

The trail blazed by Barris was followed in the 1980s and early ’90s by Love Connection.  Hosted by the smooth-talking Chuck Woolery, who had been the original host of Wheel of Fortune, Love Connection followed a couple from the selection process through an actual date, and included studio audience participation that dramatically upped the fun factor.

This necessarily upped the level of humiliation. We got to see the failed date.

Did Love Connection ever lead to true love? According to Chuck Woolery, out of “22,000 couples who met on the show, there were a total of 29 marriages, 8 engagements, and 15 children.”

That’s not a lot.

There are a few quiz-type shows on now, in addition to reality dating shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. There’s Excused, which debuted last fall and is hosted by Last Comic Standing winner Lliza Shlesinger. This show is a round robin of misery in which a number of contestants are eliminated, or “excused” over the course of 30 brisk minutes. Shlesinger is often funny and always mean in her comments; Excused (which has a tie-in with a Jazzed.com, an online dating service) often ends with just one contestant left, all alone.

Which makes it the perfect show for today.

And don’t ask about Who Wants to Date a Comedian?, which is also currently still on. The sensible answer to that show’s title is, “No one.”