Steve Braunias watched and reviewed every episode of The Bachelorette and lived to tell the story.
I have so many questions now that The Bachelorette has finished. What are we watching when we watch a television show about the mating habits of the New Zealand drongo? What are we looking at when we look at the two women who the drongos avidly pursue? What goes on in our mind when we watch and look at The Bachelorette, a series which came close - so very, very close - to achieving absolute mindlessness?
It was a show about love. And the rules of attraction and how to talk to a woman and make her feel good, how to win her heart. It was a show about you, and the people you've wanted and loved and lost and the people you haven't met yet or have just started seeing and hope to get it right this time. Certainly on the surface it seemed to be about a bunch of drongos. For a lot of the time it also seemed to be a show about nothing – the tedious dates, the stupid challenges, the vacuum created every time host Art Green wandered into shot. But really it was a sweet, tender, sometimes very sad show and, of course, we were watching and looking at ourselves.
Love is the great leveller. "You don't have to be rich to be my girl," as Prince declared. On The Bachelorette, wealth and status were stripped away, none of that mattered a damn, it was all about who you really were and if you were genuine, if you were honest, if you were straight-up. I would have been the first to go.
There was a dark kind of irony to the fact that I watched and reviewed every episode of The Bachelorette. It was my daughter's idea; we were downtown in the summer holidays, and she pointed at a huge billboard promoting the series that was about to begin and said, "You should write about that. It's what you do." Strange to think she will look back on her childhood and remember that her dad did things like review every episode of a series of The Block (2015), MasterChef (2016) and Dancing With the Stars (2018).
I took on those assignments as a challenge: to make mean but good-natured comedy out of the worst kind of junk reality TV that a nation watches and loves. It did my head in. God, I watched a lot of rubbish. But these were real people on TV, not actors playing characters, and it was easy to feel for them as they struggled and competed to do whatever it was they needed to do on their stupid shows. They built houses. They cooked food. They danced. I wrote about these diverting activities and seldom imagined myself in their shoes. Apparently quite a few of the hoofers on Dancing with the Stars were hurt by my mocking reviews and hated my guts. Oh well. All they were doing was dancing; it hardly seemed to matter.
But The Bachelorette was concerned with the one thing that matters more than anything in life – love – and there I was, up to my old tricks, mocking and hooting and scorning, as I wrote my reviews, usually quite quickly, referring to the bachelors as clones for the opening fortnight (Clone Liam, Clone Marc, etc), then as drongos (Drongo Glenn, Drongo George, etc), then as zombies (Zombie Jesse, Zombie Tavita, etc). I enjoyed the work. It was quite a challenge. Nothing happened on The Bachelorette night after night and I had to find some kind of comedy when I filed my 600-word reviews.
It didn't do my head in as much as the dark irony that I was writing a running commentary on a show devoted to love. Because what the blazes did I know about love? What was my own track record and what right did I have to hoot at the mating habits of the New Zealand drongo when I was a drongo for the ages, a drongo without compare, a drongo who had mucked up a series of important relationships and hardly seemed to have the first idea how to maintain a romance? I had so many questions, but no answers.
But really it wasn't all that much of an anomaly that someone faithless in love should write about the search for love on The Bachelorette. One of the founding principles of journalism is that those who can, do; those who can't, observe those who do. Sports journalists who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag may be wonderfully lyrical and astute commentators of a wide variety of codes. Business journalists who are flat broke may be knowledgeable and insightful interpreters of high finance. As a journalist on The Bachelorette round, I went into it thinking that I might be able to pass on wise remarks about love and that.
I wrote 31 reviews and the number of times I passed on a wise remark about love and that was precisely zero. At the age of 59, I had learned nothing. Part of the problem is that I don't know who I am. The other day I was on the Twitter machine and DMing with a friend of mine, who also lives alone, about self-isolation in the Lockdown. She wrote, "Just trucking along. Exercising. Playing with kittens. Trying to concentrate on work. Drinking waaaay too much wine. Do you drink at home?" I replied that no, I almost never even had any alcohol in the house, that it didn't cross my mind; and yet on the three or four times a year that I went out on the town, I was a binge-drinker of considerable stamina and renown. "That's me," I wrote. "All or nothing."
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I pressed send but sensed that something was wrong. The claim was bogus, phoney. I sent another DM almost immediately: "Actually, I'm not an 'all or nothing' person in the slightest. I hardly have the first clue about myself really and just say things like that as a wild guess."
The guys on The Bachelorette were certain about who they were. I couldn't relate. I have always been uncertain about pretty much everything, including who I am and what I want; I get by on wild guesses and impulsive acts and hope it all works out. It usually doesn't. But does it work out any better for the guys on The Bachelorette? You can go in with your eyes shut, like me, or your eyes wide open, like the show's bachelors and either way you're liable to get it all wrong and end up in pieces. "Love," as Pat Benatar stated, "is a battlefield."
One of the constant themes of The Bachelorette was how well you knew yourself and, correspondingly, whether you were true to yourself. It assumed a profound importance to the bachelors. It became their chant, their religious belief. They talked about it with each other, they talked about it in pieces to camera, they talked about it to Lily and Lesina, the two hotties they pursued. Many said they had lost sight of who they were in past relationships and had only regained that sense once the relationship had ended. Many also said they had done a lot of work on themselves to find out who they were and what was important to them. I was like, "What?"
This is a terrible thing to say, but the men on The Bachelorette so often sounded like women. That is, they were always wanting to talk about relationships and what worked, what could be done to make it work - and on and on and on. I can't abide that sort of thing and don't want a bar of it. Like I wrote earlier, I would have been the first to be ditched on The Bachelorette.
The men on the show couldn't get enough of relationship talk. They were womanly yappers, dedicated listeners, pious know-thyselfers. Sometimes I thought: what planet are they from? But actually they were all decent Earthlings. The show was like a kind of Expo promoting nice, stable, modest Kiwi men with awesome bodies. They were nice, they were loyal. They looked out for each other, they talked about their feelings ad nauseum.
Walls became a hot subject. I'd watch one bachelor after another talk about the need to take down their walls and sometimes I'd think, "Should I ask my girlfriend if she thinks I need to take down my walls? But do I even I have walls? And wouldn't it ruin the wallpaper?" Lily and Lesina implored their men to take down their walls. Accordingly, they took down their walls but it didn't do any of them a lick of good. Bachelor Terence really opened up. He said he'd fought depression. He said he hadn't seen his parents in years. He said he wandered the Earth and described himself as homeless. "Yeah," Lily said to camera after their date. "I worry about Terence." He didn't last long after that.
As one bachelor after another was sent home, roseless, it became clear that the main thing the show was about wasn't love but love's dark shadow: rejection. Fear haunted every show. Lesina and Lily were the abandonettes. Men fell at their feet and it ended in tears. Art Green played the desk clerk dressed in black at heartbreak hotel. "Say your goodbyes and pack your bags," he said, whenever some poor sap failed the rose ceremony. It made for sad viewing. That's the thing about reality TV: it's real life.
Lesina abandoned everyone. It came down to Bachelor Aaron or no one. She preferred no one. "I'm being honest with myself," she said; "She's a man-eater," said Lily; "It blows my mind, eh," said Bachelor Michael, who she refused to even go out with on a date. It was all very strange. But really, she had her chance and she blew it. It was obvious, wasn't it, that the guy who she really liked was Bachelor Mike, who quit the show rather than put up with her bulls***. "Lesina checked out when Mike left," an ex texted. "Has been dead in the eyes ever since." I remembered that the ex's eyes had regained their flame and their light after we broke up.
Lily abandoned everyone except Bachelor Richie. That was nice she chose him. She always looked radiant whenever they were together. As for Richie, he always looked at peace when they were together. What a lovely couple. Of course I wept when they kissed at the end and the music played. I bet a lot of other people did, too. Watching The Bachelorette, watching ourselves, watching the beautiful possibilities of love and happily ever after. It can happen to anyone.