Reality TV Shows are the New Romantic Comedies

Why pay to watch a fake love story when you can get the real-er thing for free?
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Rebecca Bohanan
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Why pay to watch a fake love story when you can get the real-er thing for free?

“I could see a life with you. Not just, like, getting married initially. I could see, like, a with you. Which is, like, terrifying. Like a life.” 

— Lauren B., The Bachelor (S20E05)

The above quote from the current season of ABC’s The Bachelor, which will air its final episode tonight, hits on the prevailing appeal of many reality shows now in their 10th-ish year and/or iteration: They bring a touch of real life to the screen. 

Sometimes it’s a full heap, sometimes its just a sprinkling, but the reality element is always there.

Lauren Bushnell isn’t a character. She’s a real world 25-year-old flight attendant based out of Marina Del Rey. When she says she can see a future with Ben Higgins, an equally-real world 27-year-old software sales rep from Denver, she means she can see stuff like fighting over his ex-girlfriends (a few of which she now knows pretty well, as they were her fellow contestants on the show), the mortgage, the day-care fees, the weight fluctuations, the student loans — the off camera. Just like the ones viewers live out before and after their weekly Bachelor break.

This is the unique appeal of reality TV. 

After all, in structure The Bachelor and its literal sister-show The Bachelorette are not much different from any traditional romantic comedy. Both center on proposals and weddings; both run just under two hours (subtracting Bachelor commercial time); each season of The Bachelor follows one protagonist, a man or woman, on the ultimate heroic quest, a journey to find love; each episode brings new obstacles, potentially hindering the protag’s quest for good. There are meet-cutes, first dates, bruised egos, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, ulterior motives, moments of ecstasy and moments of defeat. The same could be said for Sleepless in Seattle.

But The Bachelor differs greatly from Hollywood flicks in that there isn’t a prewritten script and these folks aren’t actors (though many would like to be). When the engagement ring is slipped on the winner’s finger at the end of the season, real expectations come into play. More often than not, those expectations are too much for the relationship to bear. It bends and breaks, resulting in usually-messy and public announcements of an end. While unpleasant, this conclusion is more realistic than something like Julia Roberts and Richard Gere getting together in the final minutes of Pretty Woman. Most relationships do end, and our ability to see that ending play out, even after the official show is over, only makes the love stories told on The Bachelor all the more real.

In 2016 people want real, and they want it to coincide with the real ways dating and courtship have changed. Many single adults now turn to online dating sites and apps to find a partner, a process which inherently involves dating multiple people at once. Most Internet-induced relationships are short-term, ending after a few weeks or months of getting to know a person and finding that, though there was initial attraction, you’re ultimately not a match. Sound like a familiar premise?

It’s a type of storytelling traditionally-produced TV shows and films just can’t beat. Hollywood does seem to recognize its current audience isn’t looking for another Norah Ephron movie. Newer releases like Trainwreck, Master of None, and Love all aim to reflect current dating culture and realities — they talk about things like online dating, they call out how ridiculous traditional rom-coms are in their dialogue, they have unhappy endings and mornings after with Plan B pills — but they can’t deliver viewers the same raw storylines reality TV can.

Other longstanding reality franchises, like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and the Real Housewives, naturally operate the same way as The Bachelor. People can read about Kim Kardashian’s marriages in the paper, check online for updates about Khloe and Lamar, listen to interviews on Caitlyn’s transition, and they’ll still tune-in to KUWTK weekly to watch it all again for entertainment. Following the lives of real people while simultaneously watching the show of their lives creates greater stakes—this is all grounded in the real world. What’s going to happen next?

The “com” element is not lost in reality shows either. The editors of The Bachelor know exactly how to play a drunk guy’s line or an oblivious girl’s rant for the biggest laugh. Enhanced with music, cutaway shots, and dramatic pauses, one episode of The Bachelor can make an audience laugh more than an episode of HBO comedy Girls.

Many comedians are also hooked on reality TV humor, from Amy Schumer (who appeared on an episode of The Bachelor in 2015) to Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. SNL and Happy Endings alum Casey Wilson hosts a weekly podcast recapping Real Housewives. Rom-com actress Jennifer Lawrence loves and frequently comments on Vanderpump Rules, a Real Housewives spinoff. This real world attention only adds another level of accessibility to the shows’ rom-com elements.

When The Bachelor first premiered in 2002, general consensus was that the premise was ridiculous. A man was going to find and marry someone he met on TV? No, don’t think so. But fourteen years later it’s happened and happened again. There’s real potential for marriage every season, and if it doesn’t happen, well, it’s all the more relatable. Rom-com viewers of today, just like those of yesteryear, secretly hope for that happy ending. But now they know they probably won’t get it, which makes them want it even more. It’s great oil for a well-thought-out machine. 

It’s no wonder it’s still working, and not surprising it’s now surpassed the models that came before.