We’ve Entered Peak Dystopian Television, and Chris Harrison is Our King

Listen to Your Heart host Chris Harrison, left, and contestants Julia and Brandon (ABC/John Fleenor)

We know that television is about making money, but The Bachelor has taken this to a new level. We got The Bachelor, and then The Bachelorette, and then Bachelor in Paradise, and then that weird Bachelor: Winter Games. Though reality television itself found its start with shows like MTV’s The Real World, which was originally released in 1992, VH1’s Flavor of Love (2006), and its spinoff I Love New York (2007), The Bachelor has managed to survive the 2010s and continue to be a force in the 2020s (meanwhile, The Real World lives on Facebook Watch, a much lesser platform, as of 2019), largely by locking in the main form of drama that kept viewers watching its predecessors: romantic drama. The entire series is all about participants’ ability to find love, or lose it, on television, with the ultimate goal being to lock in an engagement. Now, with a captive audience at home, the empire is going to make us watch them sing on The Bachelor: Listen to Your Heart.

Dystopian television is here, and it’s coming for our love lives—whether through song, or otherwise. We know the lengths that people will go to make it on reality television: Women like Hannah Brown get sex-shamed and manipulated; others, like Becca Kufrin, have their most painful moments filmed no matter how many times they ask for the cameras to turn off; Season 23 Bachelor Colton Underwood literally jumped a fence to escape. Now, Brown turns her nearly 3 million followers into deals with deodorant companies and nonprofits; Kufrin’s 1.3 million followers watch her hawk vitamins and, too, the same deodorant as Brown); Underwood’s 2 million followers help him earn sponsorships from streaming services and allowed him to publish a book. In 2020, making it doesn’t just mean landing yourself a quick clothing line or makeup brand; it means becoming an influencer and receiving seemingly endless free gifts, sponsorships, and social power and authority—if you play your cards right.

“Many of Instagram’s most-followed celebrities got their start on reality TV,” writes Margot Harris in Insider. Despite losing at Underwood’s season of The Bachelor, and sobbing messily all the way, Brown has became the most-followed Bachelor contestant on Instagram and earned a spot on Dancing with the Stars. For Refinery29, Madeline Buxton reports that there’s real money to be found in the transition from reality show hopeful to influencer. “While many influencers are hesitant to disclose exactly how much money they’re raking in from sponsored deals,” Buxton writes, “new research published by influencer marketing agency Mediakix estimates the top reality TV stars can make over $1 million every year on Instagram alone … If anything, Instagram is showing that, for reality stars, making it to the final rose ceremony isn’t the end of their fame, nor is it a requirement for establishing their long-term money-making prospects. What would Chris Harrison have to say about that?”

While host Harrison himself might not have a hot take on this continued fame, he certainly continues to be the face of potential riches for each season’s influencers-in-progress. Listen to Your Heart, Harrison’s latest, finds contestants doing essentially what they’ve always done—competing to be the hottest and the most likeable and to find love onscreen with less sobbing and more singing. The Bachelor empire’s step into American Idol territory isn’t hypothetical: One former Idol contestant, Trevor Holmes, is a competitor, and the contest is structured much like Idol and its counterpart The Voice, showing that The Bachelor isn’t attempting to rewrite the rules of reality singing shows so much as it is hoping to capitalize on their formula.

The show’s 23 contestants range from indie popstars to R&B crooners to country singers, each hoping to spark romance via music-themed dates. In the second week, dates include trips to Guitar Center and iHeartRadio Studio; in the third, they perform duets in front of celebrities who judge their abilities to sing not just solo, but as a couple. The fourth week offers a twist predictable to anyone familiar with Bachelor canon when Harrison re-matches contestant pairings to test the strength of the established relationships. The series landed more than 2.7 million viewers with each of its first four episodes, which aired in April. Pier Dominguez wrote in a recent piece for BuzzFeed, “Listen to Your Heart’s carefully structured, glossy singing competition turned reality dating mashup is improbably compelling escapism, somehow perfectly suited for this upside-down moment.”

Part of Listen to Your Heart’s dystopian feel is that it’s Harrison who is most visibly running the show every step of the way. A familiar host can be a boon to reality franchises, but seeing a freshly tanned, apparently ageless Harrison welcome a new class of participants in what is sure to be, each and every time, the most dramatic season of The Bachelor yet has taken on an unsettling, Hunger Games–esque inevitability. Despite not acting in an official producer capacity, it’s Harrison whose messaging, both on- and off-screen, holds the power, and who glosses over the shows’ potential problem areas with practiced platitudes. When asked about the series’ ongoing lack of racial diversity, for instance, Harrison told radio host Bevy Smith that “[W]e have done better at casting and putting more diverse people on the show, therefore you see yourself represented more. Again, I think it takes a long time to turn around a big boat. We needed to take that step and I think we’ve done much better in the last few seasons for sure. We’ll continue to do that.”

Likewise, when sexual-assault allegations plagued Bachelor in Paradise after the 2017 season, Harrison stated, “I will keep [viewers] as informed and up to date as I possibly can. We’re sorry for any inconvenience and disappointment this may have caused the cast, the crew, and our loyal fans.” It seems not to matter to Harrison that his show fails its leading women regularly, with contestants themselves speaking out against racist and misogynist cyberbullying and attacks: As the living, breathing mouthpiece of the series, Harrison continues to lead viewers from one Bachelor series to the next, impervious to the fallout of previous shows and seasons.

Dystopian television is here, and it’s coming for our love lives—whether through song, or otherwise.

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So who is it, exactly, who is so sucked into The Bachelor franchise, and why? “Whether we like them or not, we come to know and care about the casts on these shows,” explains Erin Crabtree, a digital writer at Us Weekly who covers entertainment and has been reviewing the show for various sites since 2015. “The Bachelor uses a special model, where they incorporate contestants you already know into future seasons and spinoffs, which gives you an immediate reason to watch even if you’re not sold on the premise.” In 2019, research from Broadcasting & Cable and Inscape found that the Southeast and Midwest tuned in more than other parts of the United States, with hotspots including Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Of the series, specifically the January 2020 premiere of The Bachelor, Rob Mills, an ABC exec, told the Hollywood Reporter, The Bachelor franchise is a great example of how broadcast can create a cultural dialogue that both resonates and entertains.”

Crabtree attributes much of this to the bones of the show. “The Bachelor has its own culture: a vocabulary, twisted love connections, and backstories you only understand if you watch the show,” Crabtree explains of the franchise’s obsessive fandom. “You might feel like you’re missing out in a future season of The Bachelorette if you don’t watch Listen to Your Heart. In a 2017 CNN piece, Sandra Gonzalez explains that “Bachelor Nation remains united and as passionate as ever” despite the fact that, as as she acknowledges, “The Bachelor is not what most would call a great, or possibly even good, show.” Instead, it’s about one thing: the drama. Crabtree elaborates, telling Bitch, “Viewers live for the drama the show provides, but that’s not always a good thing. Hannah Brown was built-in entertainment as the Bachelorette, and her season was enjoyable because she spoke her mind and gave fans someone to root for. On the other hand, Peter Weber’s season of The Bachelor had plenty of drama, but his indecisiveness and lack of focus frustrated fans to the point that they were over him pretty quickly.”

Drama remains key to the continued viewership of reality shows, and helps explain why so many are tuning in to Listen to Your Heart despite its repetitive, formulaic nature. Too, it explains why streaming platforms like Netflix have leaped so readily into the reality-television space, specifically the dating reality-television space, recently: In 2020 alone Netflix has released The Circle (January), Love is Blind (March), and Too Hot to Handle (April), each with its own increasingly bizarre premise. Just as The Bachelor complicated its challenge by adding music and lyrics, Netflix has complicated the reality-dating show by adding its own ingredients: The Circle takes place via social-media conversations and profiles; Love is Blind takes place in “pods” that don’t allow the show’s daters to see their potential mates until they’re engaged; and Too Hot to Handle’s gimmick is requiring a house full of contestants to refrain from engaging in any sexual activity, masturbation included.

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Despite the interest of these shows in testing new realms and finding new limits, their formulas remain the same: Even if contestants never see each other, or aren’t supposed to be attracted to each other to begin with, they are always thin, they are generally white, and they are conventionally attractive in a generic, Western sense. The only limits these shows are actually pushing is just how far they can go into controlling their participants via a series of tasks and requirements that go above and beyond the will-they-or-won’t-they that once felt like the root of these series.

It seems as if it’s not just The Bachelor that’s falling into a reality television rut. Just as The Bachelor franchise continues to see just how far it can stretch its reach, Netflix’s own original reality dating shows follow close behind, creating a space where viewers can escape their own lives not only by seeing who falls in love with who, but seeing just how far producers and writers can reach their hands into the romantic and sexual interests of contestants. It’s no longer just an edit here and a forced bit of gossip there; it’s a question of who they can convince to stay in a pod for a month, or who they can convince not to masturbate for an eight-episode stretch.

It’s not that I’m concerned with The Bachelor and its ilk ruining the world; if anything, they’re more at risk of ruining their own worlds than that of its viewers. The Bachelor is milking its own brand to death—and relying on our willingness to get sucked into whatever they do, no matter what damage they’ve done to destroy their own brand (in Popsugar, writer Maggie Panos asked, “is The Bachelor irreparably broken?” just this February) Whether the series is allowing Bachelorettes like Brown (Season 15), and Rachel Lindsay (Season 21 and the first Black Bachelorette on Season 30), to endure toxic, abusive behavior and obvious racism from supposed love interests, pushing damaging messaging around purity, or hand-waving its creator’s, as the franchise’s universe expands, so do the critiques of it. And while Listen to Your Heart is a relatively neutral watch in comparison to the other franchise spinoffs, it suggests that there’s only more of The Bachelor coming, whether we want it or not.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.