For better or for worse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

June may be the month of brides, but this is definitely the week of relationships in the strange world of reality television.

On Monday night, Fox's Joe Millionaire, Evan Marriott picked Zora Andrich, the seemingly demure schoolteacher, over Sarah Kozer, the strut-your-stuff star of bondage films, while a record-setting audience of an estimated 30 million viewers looked on. In the final half-hour of the telecast, when the construction worker posing as a multimillionaire made his choice from the last of the women who came to his phony French chateau, one out of every four American households was tuned in, according to preliminary overnight ratings from Nielsen Media.

Tonight, ABC's The Bachelorette concludes as Trista Rehn makes her final pick from the men who came to court her - and an engagement announcement has been promised. If the ratings for ABC's Bachelor and Bachelor 2 are any indication, the audience for this one will also be measured in the tens of millions.

Tomorrow night on WB's Surreal Life, the goofy series that placed a group of has-been celebrities in Glen Campbell's Hollywood mansion, child star Corey Feldman weds his lady friend. As viewers of the first episode will recall, the idea of marriage seemed to come to Feldman, a young man in recovery from multiple addictions, while he was getting a little stir crazy on his first night in the mansion. Rapper and minister MC Hammer, one of Feldman's housemates, will be among the clergymen officiating the event.

The fact that much of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast was snowbound Monday night surely helped drive the ratings for Joe Millionaire into the stratosphere, but nonetheless, one out of every four homes is still a phenomenal proportion of the television-watching audience. (It was more than twice the audience captured Monday night by either NBC or ABC, both of which offered specials dealing with Michael Jackson, last week's hot ratings number.) An audience this size begs for further consideration of the television program that attracted it, as well as our curious attraction to it.

Start with the fact that while these programs promise to show two people finding true love, almost no one in these series ever actually marries. The telecasts are loaded with rhetoric of: "Mr. Right," "the woman of his dreams" "soul mates," and, most of all, "the one." But, once the programs have aired and viewer interest has waned, the relationships end.

That was the story with Alex Michel, aka The Bachelor, and Amanda Marsh, the woman he chose to be his wife (chose, by the way, over Rehn, who was a contestant on that series). Almost 20 million viewers tuned in to see that happy ending.

The Bachelor 2 followed the same trajectory. Last week, it was confirmed that Aaron Buerge and Helene Eksterowicz, the woman he chose to have and to hold before an audience of 15 million, had broken off their engagement.

"I think I've heard 10,000 times on these shows phrases like 'Prince Charming' and 'Cinderella Story,' but the only marriage to have ever come of any of these shows was on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? And that one ended in annulment and a huge public scandal before they even got to the honeymoon," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Joe Millionaire tried to sidestep the issue by having Marriott place a diamond on the ring finger of Andrich's right hand - instead of her left - after she accepted his proposal to "continue this journey we've been on."

Her exact words after thinking about his "proposal" most of the day: "I would like to continue this journey - if it is still being offered to me."

No reality series dealing with relationships has offered more and delivered less in its ending. The hype since early January involved the lie shared with the audience but kept from the 25 women who came to win Marriott's hand: Instead of being worth $50 million, he was really a construction worker who earned $19,000 a year. What would happen when the lucky lady he chose found out?

Andrich's smile faltered when she was told, but she kept her game face on, clearly aware of the cameras. Later in the evening when she gave her answer, she told Marriott she had always been a little troubled by the fact that he supposedly inherited all his wealth.

She understood the setup, and she was not going to play the gold-digging vampire. Besides, all she had to commit to was continuing "the journey" to get that big diamond ring.

Perhaps sensing how anti-climatic the show was beginning to seem, Fox then had the actor playing Marriott's butler present the couple with a check for $1 million - an ending that had been hyped throughout the two-hour telecast as a "fantastic and incredible surprise twist." Marriott and Andrich will be back Monday in Joe Millionaire: The Aftermath, which presumably will tell us what happened to the couple since the show was filmed in November.

"It was an awful ending," Thompson said. "They set the whole thing up as a fairytale, so you want one of two things to happen. Either you want a true happy ending, or you want a really ugly fight with faces being slapped, plates thrown, and curses and tears. We got neither.

"Can you imagine Cinderella ending with her saying, 'I think I'd like to continue on this journey to see what happens'? It's the kind of ending that makes you wonder how we keep getting caught up in these things."

Part of the answer lies in the power of the fairytale narrative itself. There's a reason stories like Cinderella have endured thousands of years. Throughout each of the series, one after another of the young women could be heard saying, "It really is like a fairytale."

But television corrupts the psychic power of the fairytale. The fairy godmother in such programs - the agent that provides for the magical transformation of the hero or heroine - is none other than the Fox network itself, whether it is with a $1 million check for Marriott and Andrich or a recording contract for the winners of American Idol. That's the underlying moral of the fairytales told by television.

Unfortunately, young people come to the tube looking for information and guidance on an aspect of life just about everyone over the age of 13 has an interest in: dating and courtship.

"Generally, the only image we have of courtship and the dating process comes through the cleansed, sanitized, hokey lens of romantic film comedies from Cary Grant to Meg Ryan," Thompson said.

"But there's the other part of the process that's ugly, moronic and stupid - the part that involves lying, feeling vulnerable and deconstructing a phone message over and over to try and discern what the person you're dating is really thinking. Seeing that played out onscreen is like catnip - especially since it is happening to someone else, not us."

Some young viewers might also hope to learn from what they're seeing onscreen so that it doesn't happen to them in their lives. "That's the TV appeal part of it, anyway," Thompson said.

The other, larger part involves what isn't happening in such institutions as family, church and school to create the vacuum that network television has so eagerly stepped forward to fill.

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