The Antihero, as Seen on Reality TV

The Antihero, as Seen on Reality TV

 

Chris Harrison makes a lot of empty promises. 

It’s not possible for every season of The Bachelor to be the “most dramatic season of all time” (especially after that twenty-minute, uncut, post-production breakup between Ari and Becca K. That shit was DRAMA). 

And yet, year after year, season after season, we come back. And here’s why: Over time, the puppeteers of Bachelor Nation have learned to employ some of the most historically celebrated and sophisticated plot devices, and produce some of the most fascinating antiheroes on television, all under the guise of “shitty reality tv.” (My words, not theirs). 

The antihero has been a bedrock of critically-acclaimed TV drama over the last thirty years. Unlike more traditional hero characters, the antihero is defined by nuance: they are often villain-like characters who viewers root for despite (and occasionally because of) their faults. Antiheroes in TV are historically a marker of edgy, dark, “real” content, and shows like The Sopranos (1999–2007), Breaking Bad (2008–2013), and Mad Men (2007–2015) have established their place in the canon using this antihero-approach to storytelling. TV’s antihero is traceable to Greek tragedy’s “tragic hero,” a character doomed by one fatal flaw. Unlike the tragic hero, antiheroes don’t necessarily have only one flaw, nor are their many flaws always fatal. Nonetheless, the journey of a tragic hero and that of an antihero largely run parallel. There are six major elements of a classic Greek tragedy: plot, characters, thought, diction, song, and spectacle.1 Each of these elements takes on a varying level of importance in Greek tragedy—and in The Bachelor—but together the elements create a landscape conducive to viewer catharsis. Surely, love for The Bachelor isn’t universal, but to those who do subscribe to Bachelor Nation, that final proposal is a climax worth all the emotional distress of the prior two months. 

Like the Greek tragedy of its time, The Bachelor is one of the best modern portrayals of the human condition. It tackles broad contemporary social questions of gender, race, sex and sexuality, romantic love, and anxiety about the future. It does so always clumsily, sometimes inauthentically, and occasionally not even on purpose, indeed reflecting the way these national conversations unfold. 

Comparing Greek tragedy to The Bachelor may strike you, dear reader, as heresy. But before you discredit me completely, let’s discuss some of these elements. 

The antihero is a fixture of The Bachelor’s ensemble of characters. Although the antihero of a given season is not always the central character, as the tragic hero is in Greek tragedy, the antihero always plays a crucial role in the development of the story. The tragic hero is a victim of hubris, and their overzealous pride is generally what causes them to make one fatal blunder. It goes without saying that there are more than a few Bachelor contestants who are victims of overzealous pride (i.e. overconfidence, i.e. assholery). In order to discuss the antihero framework of The Bachelor franchise, we can examine one of the more talked-about antihero figures from the most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise.2 You know where I’m going with this, right? Blake . . . oh, Blake. 

Blake Horstmann, runner-up on Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette (2018) was picture-perfect, former-homecoming-king Husband Material. Or, at least, that’s how the editors originally sold him. Then, Blake made the fatal faux-pas (antihero!) of sleeping with two other members of the “Bachelor family” in the same weekend (I’m pretty sure Blake’s tombstone will read “Stagecoach Attendee, 2019”), only to be confronted by them and a slew of other women he’d been “talking to” this summer in Paradise. For the first two or three episodes of the season, Blake retained his hot-shot status, and was being pursued by multiple women on the beach. Then, as if within a matter of minutes (for us it literally was a matter of minutes), his reputation went from Hero to Zero among his peers and viewers across America. Caelynn, one of the women who he’d slept with that ruinous weekend, stood up to him for “silencing” her when it came to their past relationship, and in an emotional moment I don’t think any of us were prepared for, Caelynn tells Blake he was treating her like a “dirty secret” and Blake responds as though he hadn’t yet given it a second thought.3 

There was a wide range of fan reaction to this storyline, and likewise to this particular scene in Week 1, Part 2. The strong inclination toward defending Blake is very clear, however, when scrolling through comments on the YouTube page. Many commenters can just “tell” that Blake “didn’t know the extent of this” or that they see “genuine shock on his face.” Caelynn, on the other hand, is “actually ashamed of her behavior and is projecting that onto him,” and, further, “needs to get an Oscar for this acting performance! Really!! She’s a horrible person!” Or as one commenter writes, is “crazy and a manipulator,” which they then follow up with (a nuanced personal reflection on the matter): “Girls like that scare me.” One viewer added, “sounds like a victim player lol.” I pulled every one of these quotes from the ten most liked comments on the page (all ten of which, by the way, support Blake).4 

These viewer comments bring up two very important aspects of the Bachelor narrative, one which reflects Greek tragedy and one which, in some ways, defies it: The Bachelor’s own “chorus” and its timeline (plot). 

The chorus takes on the duty of song, the fifth element of a Greek tragedy. As Kris Haamer writes, the chorus “allow[s] the playwright to prepare the audience for certain key moments in the storyline, build up momentum or slow down the tempo; he could underline certain elements and downplay others.”5  The chorus of The Bachelor is robust. We have, of course, a pillar of reality TV: the timeless, ageless Chris Harrison, who serves as our narrator. (There is probably a strong argument to be made that Chris is the true and rightful antihero of The Bachelor, but I will refrain from such a meta protestation for now.) More important in dictating the direction of each storyline are the show’s editors and showrunner, Mike Fleiss. Who the viewers love, hate, root for, and drag on Twitter is largely determined by who’s getting screen time, which sound bites are chosen, and what kind of background music subtly plays during their scenes. A conversation that, edited differently, might be seen as vapid or awkward can come across as deep and meaningful with the right close-ups and projected ambience (or vice-versa). 

There’s a missing piece here. If the chorus can “underline certain elements and downplay others,” we would be remiss if we did not include the fans, a major player in the Bachelor chorus.6They have the power to dictate contestants’ reputations here in the real world, and thus have sway over the contestants’ actions—the plot of the season. To be sure, much of the plot and timeline of The Bachelor is grafted from that of Greek tragedy, in which the incidents that make up the plot must be cause-and-effect. The world of each story is self-contained (this is referred to as “unity of action”), and each season of The Bachelor is comprised of approximately twelve episodes. On each episode, the Bachelor goes on a prescribed combination of one-on-one and group dates. Behind the scenes, both the lead and the contestants have their phones taken away and are given very little access to the outside world. In Bachelor in Paradise, too, both the environment and the number of dates is predetermined. Each episode, and the incidents that take place in it, seamlessly lead us forward into the next. One of the more important aspects of plot in Greek tragedy, fate, is arguably also one of the major conceptual building blocks on which The Bachelor rests: Contestants repeatedly refer to their “journey,” and more often than not, follow an “everything happens for a reason” precept. 

But, unlike Greek tragedy, The Bachelor does not start on episode 1, and it certainly does not end after the finale. 

The stories seep outside the confines of each episode: from the “After the Final Rose” to social media. This can be both one of the major advantages to the medium and one of its primary challenges. Blake’s presence as an antihero didn’t live solely on our TV screens, but rather extended into real-time interactions between the contestants and the viewers on Twitter and Instagram. (Episodes of the show consistently spark hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of interactions on Twitter.) Blake, reacting to Caelynn’s confrontation, immediately jumps to anxiety over how this will affect him and his loved ones after the show is over. Breaking the fourth wall of “fairy tale” storytelling, Blake laments, “I’m gonna really have to go into hiding  . . . This is real life. I know it’s just television, but it’s my life.”7

This is reality TV, lest we forget. 

This was an uncomfortable moment. Blake forced us to give what would be, taken lightly, an immensely entertaining, unreal moment a reality check: you are watching me, and I am suffering because of it. He is experiencing pathei mathos: learning through suffering; his grief manifests in the likeness of The Crucible’s John Proctor (“Because it is my name!”), it is his name which concerns him—a priority that has lead him to ruin. 

Even so, Blake’s ruin is not total. We still care. The viewers, the fans: we who decide on Judgement Day. Blake isn’t ruined, and neither are his antihero compatriots—in fiction, perhaps, but not in reality. We save them from destruction through bothering to give a damn. 

And why?

Most likely, it’s because we identify with antiheroes—we relate to them in some way. They’ve materialized our worst fears and anxieties and survived them, or they’ve been granted leeway to do (violent, illegal, counter-social-norms) things we never can. Perhaps, too, it’s even easier to identify with “real people” on reality TV than with characters on TV drama; reality TV could be an even more potent soil in which to grow the antihero. The antihero’s presence is ubiquitous on the show, and the variable nature of each actor who embodies its skeleton keeps us interested. Blake was humanized, and his mistakes arguably only sparked more empathy in the hearts of show’s viewers. Or, conversely, maybe this type of analysis makes me some sort of reverse-“bad fan” of The Bachelor—trying to find moral complexity in a show that, at the end of the day, does not want to be morally complex. I’m not sure. But I keep watching—in the hopes that I’ll see some of my favorite antiheroes find love, and that maybe, just maybe, the next season will be the most dramatic one yet.

  1. Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
  2. Bachelor in Paradise is a derivative show of The Bachelor, and though the format differs slightly from its predecessor, the plot devices and ultimate goal remain alike.
  3. Bachelor in Paradise, season 6, episode 1B, “Week 1 Part 2,” aired August 6, 2019, on ABC.
  4. Bachelor Nation. “Can Blake and Caelynn Clear The Air?,” 5:27, August 6, 2019.
  5. Kris Haamer, “The Function of Chorus in Greek Drama,” krishaamer.com, March 25, 2008.
  6. Kris Haamer, “The Function of Chorus in Greek Drama.”
  7. Bachelor in Paradise, season 6, episode 1B, “Week 1 Part 2,” aired August 6, 2019, on ABC.
 
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