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Graham: What it means to say 'I do' to shows like 'The Bachelor,' 'Love is Blind'

Marriage competitions have become their own reality TV sub-genre, but what does it mean to love these shows?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Marriage is hard enough as is. Add reality TV in the mix and it’s a surefire recipe for disaster.

Well, “surefire recipe for disaster” is reality TV’s warm bread and melted butter, which is why we’re so drawn to train wreck shows about doomed marriages-in-the-making.

Cameron proposes to Lauren on the Netflix series "Love is Blind."

ABC’s “The Bachelor” is in the closing stages of its 24th season, and it’s almost time for “Bachelor” Pete Weber to choose which lucky Bachelorette he’ll pretend he’s going to marry for cameras until some inevitable real world event stops them from making it to the altar. (Tabloids already have him in a romance with one of the show’s producers, par for the course for the show.)

And Netflix has doubled down on the insanity of televised reality marriage competitions with its ludicrously trashy “Love is Blind,” which takes the rushed-relationship aspect of “The Bachelor” and multiplies it by the blind audition rounds of “The Voice” to find out what happens when people who’ve never even seen each other decide it’s a good idea to get married.

Rarely do the stunt marriages work out, but that's beside the point. When it comes to these shows, we’re here for the messy sport of it all, because there’s something oddly satisfying about watching good looking people making bad life decisions for our entertainment. 

If we can laugh at the absurdity of people "dating" in huge, furnished pods and roll our eyes from the safety of our own couches, it makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves. As long as the participants wind up relatively unscathed — sorry your TV marriage didn't work out, but hopefully you got a couple hundred thousand Instagram followers out of it — it's harmless amusement.  

But sometimes it's more than that, which is when we need to look at ourselves. 

The expectation of a televised hook-up used to be a date. In the '60s there was “The Dating Game,” where contestants would ask questions of three people hidden behind a screen. At the end of a few rounds, they’d choose a favorite, and the pair would go out for dinner. How quaint.

Things evolved, from “Love Connection” to “Blind Date” to MTV’s rash of dating game shows in the '90s, from “Singled Out” (Jenny McCarthy picks her nose and yells at contestants until they agree to date each other) to “Next” (speed dating in the extreme; contestants go on dates and yell “next!” at the first hint of boredom, prompting the immediate arrival of a replacement suitor).

These shows were casual, low-stakes fun. Marriage was never brought into the mix until Fox — of course it was Fox — introduced “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” 20 years ago this month, a disastrous one-off beauty pageant special where the “winner,” and we use the term loosely, would marry a moneyed man she’d never met.

“Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” was a mess — the “millionaire’s” fortune was brought into question, he was revealed to have a history of domestic violence and the marriage was promptly annulled — but the show was a ratings smash. And for TV, simply dating was no longer enough, marriage became the new bar.

“Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” creator Mike Fleiss retooled and in 2002 launched “The Bachelor” — one man dates a group of women, they travel around the world on elaborate dates and the show ends in a marriage proposal — and the rest is fantasy suite history.

Only a few couples from the show’s many iterations (there have also been 15 seasons of “The Bachelorette” and six seasons of the dual spinoff “Bachelor in Paradise,” aka “Hot Influencers Making Out in Mexico”) are still together, which proves that marriage is not in any way a realistic expectation of a contrived reality TV scenario.

Oh, but it makes for juicy TV. Without those high stakes, we wouldn’t be nearly as invested in the exploits of Pilot Pete, Hannah Ann and Victoria F., as well as Madison, who decided to wait until she was one of the last three contestants on the show to tell her potential groom-to-be that she was saving herself for marriage and that she’d prefer he not sleep with her fellow co-stars. (She also had the option of, you know, not going on “The Bachelor,” where sex is as much an expectation as host Chris Harrison branding each rose ceremony as the most dramatic... ever.) 

Madison Prewett and Pete Weber on "The Bachelor."

As for “Love is Blind,” it has engineered such chaos — it goes from “dates” behind stained glass windows straight through to engagements and then watches, popcorn in hand, as everything falls apart when the two parties actually, you know, meet and get to know each other — that it makes “The Bachelor” look classy and refined in comparison.

We recoil in horror at "Love is Blind." But what about the contestants themselves? There can be a dark side to the head rush of reality fame, the manipulation of one's emotions by TV producers and the sudden feeling of emptiness once it's all over.

Earlier this month, Caroline Flack — host of the UK's "Love Island," which has an American counterpart that airs on CBS — killed herself, and three "Love Island" contestants have killed themselves in the last two years. In all, close to 40 reality stars have died by suicide since the genre's rise.  

It's a disturbing reminder that when the cameras are off, the participants in these shows are real people dealing with real emotions. And you can say "well, they signed up for this," but the flashy allure of fame and romance and all that comes with it can be, well, blinding. 

So yes, marriage is hard. But all things considered, reality TV marriage might be even harder, which is something to keep in mind each time you say "I do" to a new show.