In Lynda Obst’s new-to-paperback book Sleepless in Hollywood, she writes in length about the shifting paradigm of what constitutes a movie these days, and why the “new normal” consists of superhero movies (X-Men), films based on previously existing franchises (Star Wars reboot, 21 Jump Streets), and brand adaptations (The Lego Movie. Lego). In this jungle, a movie has to make billions of dollars around the world as the air has gone out of the DVD business, and money and profit comes from selling hard and selling well overseas. And in this brave new world, this shifting paradigm, there’s simply not a place for the romantic comedy — and even less for the romantic drama.
The problem is that while movies starring Sandra Bullock looking for love make some money overseas, they’re simply not the blockbusters that they need to be; and the rom com is something that can be done cheaply and make enough money in its native country. Any scroll through Netflix can show you that countries like France and South Korea have their own comedies about the mysteries of love. America doesn’t dominate when it comes to stories of women and love; part of the reason that American movies are saying, well, fuck it, why do we need to make movies about women and love?
But the thing is that there is a palpable hunger for stories about love and romance out there. Look at the out-of-nowhere (i.e., women, that “mysterious” demographic) popularity of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey — the latter’s sales meant that everyone at Random House got a $5,000 bonus that year. ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchise is absolutely deathless. Millions of people watch the mainstream show, and since 2002 there’s been 18 Bachelors, ten Bachelorettes and three Bachelor Pads. And there’s been five or so “successful” couples who met on the show, discounting post-show boning but including exceptions like the guy who dumped his fiancee and asked for a second chance with the runner-up on the live “After the Final Rose” ceremony.
The Bachelor is also a show that has a weird death-grip hold on numerous intelligent writers, all of whom appreciate its machinations with some combination of irony and fantasy. Jennifer Weiner tweets about it. Elizabeth Wurtzel writes bananas recaps for Nerve that often veer off into Don Draper fantasies and ruminations on why we love watching a marriage happen — she calls the contestants a “stunning array of humanity.” In an op-ed for The New York Times, author Roxane Gay wrote, “I suspend my disbelief and common sense. I mute my feminism,” and compared the spectacle of these shows to Puritan times, acknowledging that the fairy tale fantasy coming out of the drama is awfully addictive.
Look: I had my own Bachelor/ette period. I got addicted to the show while freelancing from home, alone upstate, and I found Massachusetts native Ali Fedotowsky weirdly compelling — she simply seemed too smart for the drama. (Unlike, say, America’s Next Top Model, the Bachelor franchise remains resolutely normcore in its casting — no slots for hipsters who’ve dated Shins members, even less for minorities.) There’s something amazing about the show’s machinations: it teaches you that love can emerge from “solo dates” that generally involve death-defying feats dealing with heights and other fears all around the world, and then mistaking that rush of adrenaline for something like real feelings. By the time the show whittles things down to the final four, it’s compelling to see where real life comes sneaking in, beyond talking head segments that require speechifying that involves “being on a journey,” and “being here for the right reasons” and ridiculous amounts of alcohol.
Really, The Bachelor franchise is our romantic comedy and searing romantic drama these days. It is the drama we deserve, I suppose. But because of its simultaneously ironic/beatified status, it’s nice that there’s product out there that punctures “the beautiful lie,” to quote Roxane Gay, that drives the show’s success, particularly with women. Stories about the machinations of Bachelor-type shows are leaking into the culture: a short film, Sequin Raze, which parodied The Bachelor, has been adapted into a future Lifetime series due later this year called Un-Real, headed up by Buffy writer Marni Noxon.
For former Bachelor contestant Courtney Robertson, the “villain” and ultimate champion of season sixteen, winning the heart of longhaired winery owner Ben Flajnik messed up her life. In her entertaining new memoir, I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends: Confessions of a Reality Show Villain, cowritten with writer Deb Bauer, she pulls back the screen on what life’s like behind the scenes of The Bachelor. It is not that dissimilar from torture. Falling in love, in this case, is certainly Stockholm syndrome at its finest.
Robertson’s a charming and dishy tour guide, ready to say whatever about whomever — she’s frank about her former celebrity paramours, Entourage‘s Adrian Grenier and Desperate Housewives‘ Jesse Metcalfe (cheater), and she’s frank about her clashes with the girls in the Bachelor house, who were intimated by her job as a model. According to Robertson, she had a crush on Flajnik, acted like a cool cucumber, and she was able to win due to some pretty canny strategy, as opposed to the wide-eyed dreamers that were ready to fall in love. She made a point to make him feel special, to write him secret notes, and to create a scrapbook.
But all that strategy adds up to, in the end, is a losing situation. Robertson is painted as a jezebel and the woman you love to hate in the tabloids, and whatever she and Flajnik had — lust maybe — collapsed with the pressure of the outside world. The tabloids were mean to Robertson, and Flajnik grew colder and colder as a result. So the relationship may not have lasted, but Robertson has one more thing: a don’t give a fuck tell-all. There’s Bachelor gossip in here that could be shocking — people have sex in the fantasy suites, there’s no condoms, and Robertson and Flajnik totally did it when they went skinny dipping. Stuff of that ilk. Robertson’s villain persona seems plucked from the cameras, just a bad match of one girl stuck in a house with a lot of girls, the sort of stuff of sorority nightmares.
Yet even though I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends is sort of a bit of celebrity cash-in trash, it’s actually a book that’s worth reading, in its fashion. Robertson’s journey for love is a weird sort of cautionary tale. She compares the Bachelor process to The Hunger Games multiple times, and it really seems like a love competition that goes to the death, as you see what goes on behind the scenes. Yet in this case, middling sex in a Swiss chalet is the ultimate prize. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be on reality TV.
They — and in this case, “they” includes Bachelor/ette guru Mike Fleiss, a man with a mansion on the beach in Malibu — can tar and feather you publicly, and you can’t even continue on in your job without the public having you frozen in time in their heads, constantly mid-drink in bad lighting: smirking, lonely, and mean, convinced this pageantry is worth it for the chance to fall in love with a dopey young man. Is that the fairy tale that we need?