The Devolution Will Be Televised

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Who Wants to Elimidate a Bachelorette? by Ryan Tuthill

Jacuzzis give me the creeps. There’s something a little too foamy and seedy about them; if I sit down in one, it’s only a matter of time before I start thinking: Man, I don’t want to know what’s gone on in here.
     But lately, on television, it seems all I do is watch people screw around in Jacuzzis. Sometimes they have swimwear on. Other times they jiggle around in their birthday suits. Mostly, they’ll


just converse, swap spit and grope. Occasionally you get the distinct impression that someone’s playing hide-the-eel.
     If you’re a dedicated voyeur, you can watch two of three couples get it on in a Jacuzzi each night. On the current wave of low-rent television dating shows — a list that includes Blind Date, Shipmates, Elimidate, Fifth Wheel and Dismissed — the Jacuzzi finale is the point culminant of reality coupling: fledgling pairs can’t wait to finish their red wine and breadsticks and scoot back to whatever little Taco Bell-style condo hell they live in, strip down to their barest essentials and take a flirty plunge.
     The aprés-dinner bubble dip has become the silicone generation’s nightcap of choice; yesterday’s singles were happy to get a Scotch and cigarette on the couch. And though some of these TV daters are undoubtedly hamming it up, it’s always astonishing how shameless they are, lathering each other in front of a video camera, to say nothing of an audience of millions. They have the fearlessness I never had. (Of course, they also have the abs I never had.)
     As weirdly fascinating as they are, these shows always make me feel a little sad. There’s no such thing as reality television, of course — TV invariably cuts and chops people and scenes into the simple, ersatz nuggets — but all of these dating shows contain painfully recognizable moments: the disappointed looks of contestants when they meet; the horrible clanging-fork silences over dinner; the limp, you’re-not-getting-any hugs goodbye. You can’t help but squirm as you hear, for the ten millionth time, a date ask, “So what’s the craziest place you’ve ever done it?” — not because the question is dumb-ass and embarrassing, but because you’ve asked the same exact dumb-ass, embarrassing question yourself.
     Thankfully, that’s about all that’s recognizable. Most dating shows play like seminars in how not to date. I don’t know about you, but if I picked a woman up and told her I had assembled a date of foot-powered paddleboating, a 5:30 early bird buffet at Jo-Jo’s Clam Hut and a night of electric boogaloo at a strip- mall nightclub called The Pirate’s Booty, I’d be lucky to get her out of the front hall. But on Blind Date, that’s a fun night. (The funniest are the contrived explanations suitors give for their choices: “Well, I heard how much you like books, that’s why I decided we should both go  . . . mud wrestling.”)
     People love these shows, of course, because they enjoy reveling in other people’s misery — watching another Blind Date couple bicker in a Ford Explorer on their way to Chili’s, you can’t help but feel a surge of smug self satisfaction about your own dating rituals, even if you’ve been recycling your own pathetic Thai food-into-renting-Annie-Hall idea for ten years now, with shoddy results. (There’s ample irony that most of these shows run around 11 p.m. at night — making fun of singles has become the choice entertainment for singles, sitting at home, alone.)
     It’s tempting to ferret some kind of cultural harbinger from the dating show wave — that video will ruin intimacy, that voyeurism has become a national pastime, blah blah blah. But it’s the competitiveness of television dating that really scares me, since it reduces coupling to its most primal and pathetic extremes. Take MTV’s Dismissed. Asked to choose between two dates, a Dismissed contestant usually picks the one who wore the least, who put out the most, who didn’t pose any intellectual resistance, who had the best teeth. Knowing this going in, competing dates often engage in a game of prideless one-upsdateship — she shook her booty and flashed her thong, so I have no choice but to perform a steamy 30-second lap dance upon this man I met eleven minutes ago. To think feminists used to get revved up about Barbie dolls.
     But people love this stuff. Every time there’s an indication that the craze is ebbing — Fox’s Temptation Island 2 was a flop — something comes along like ABC’s The Bachelor, which became the network’s biggest phenomenon since Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. The prime-time Bachelor‘s shtick was that it was classy; pursuers and pursued were alleged to be a notch above corn-fed actresses and junior-college water polo players who typically appear on the syndicated shows. (The bachelor himself was a preppy Stanford MBA.) Yet the elitist-haremesque dynamic of the show — the Bach plucked his mate from more than a dozen and a half would-bes, like some GQ-dude sultan — proved to be far more demeaning than the frozen-margarita banalities of Blind Date and its ilk. In a headline, the New York Times called The Bachelor “One Small Step For Man, 25 Backward for Women.”
     Of course, The Bachelor looks like Wuthering Heights compared to two new alternatives: Bachelorettes in Alaska is a stunningly calculated amalgam of nearly every reality/game show of the last few years. The premise — single women in the wilderness play process-of-elimination with a stable of potential mates — combines Big Brother‘s hidden cameras and the shoot-’em-down ethos of The Bachelor — there’s even a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-esque cash prize for the victor. Where will it end? Perhaps with Cheaters, a newish syndicated show wherein real-life unfaithful lovers are busted in the act by vengeful spouses trailed by camera crews (Think Jerry Springer meets Cops). If Blind Date was the free-spirited zenith of television dating, then Cheaters is a knife-wielding, Fatal Attraction-era nadir. (On Cheaters‘ web site, cheaters.com, the show sells best-of videos entitled Totally Busted.)
     Indeed, the vindictive Cheaters may prove to be a TV-dating turning point, a societal correction to all the flirty fumbling we’ve watched over the past couple of years. Maybe Blind Date will want to consider teaming up with Cheaters, if only to spice up the action. After all, if you’re screwing around in a Jacuzzi with a woman you just met, it’s one thing if the only ones watching are a couple million Americans. It’s another thing if it’s the wife.

©2002 Ryan Tuthill and Nerve.com, Inc.