Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bachelorette Recap Episode 2: Limousines Hold The Faithful Departed

As a child, my favorite Beatle was Ringo. This was, in some part, due to my affinity for plucky underdogs. Watching A Hard Day's Night and seeing him mope from scene to scene, rifling through a paltry stack of fan letters, sent a swell of vicarious dismay through my young mind and I frowned disapprovingly as the three more popular cavalry of the British invasion bopped gaily from scene to scene.  But on a simpler level, I liked Ringo because he was the only one I could identify. His beaky nose, shaggier hair, and bloodhound eyes meant I could pick him out from John, Paul, and George, who to me were simply three identical mop tops.

And therefore, I cursed ABC in vain as episode 2 saw my north star, Brandon, winked out. No fanfare, neither bangs nor whimpers - he was a chill mist, evaporating in the dawn of reality television. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the remaining candidates!

Rest easy, chill one. May your dreams be as deep as your V-neck.

Brandon is consummate Bachelorette chaff - easygoing, different enough to not blend in but not enough to generate producer interest. A self-described "hipster" (in 2016, a surefire sign of a boring human), his gawky frame, long hair, and permanent beanie were easy reference points amid a millieu of close-shaven gym rats. Brandon's screen time came primarily as he meandered cheerfully in the background, singing along to James' guitar licks, schmoozing with other houseguests, and generally enjoying the mansion experience. His lone highlight play came in episode one, when he delivered a flawless "Damn Daniel," savaging both the Canadian candidate's graceless pool entrance and clumsy "Damn, JoJo" introductory line. Brandon departed without so much as a talking head confessional, but it was vintage Brandon: his zen equanimity will be missed, and fondly remembered.

Returning to the action the showrunners cared to capture, the episode's action proceeds apace. Luke, the gallant Texan who bestowed a pair of boots on JoJo on opening night, turns surly and peevish. We get several talking heads where he lamented losing a group date challenge to Grant. The once-laconic cowboy became a sniveling Gollum, bemoaning his lost precious. He seemed remarkably surprised to have been bested in a firefighter competition to Grant, a real-life firefighter, whose gallantry goes largely unrewarded as JoJo directs her affection toward Wells instead.

Wells seems remarkably self-aware and good-natured, making several cracks at his own abortive attempts to lug firehoses over obstacle courses. JoJo gives him a rose for his dogged determination - Amy informs me that "participation trophies" are mainstays of early Bachelorette episodes. Wells admits as much to the camera, and is bemused by the quirks of the show's mechanisms. I begin to empathize with him, but warily - I know even this minor questioning of the Emperor's clothes will be his downfall sooner rather than later.

Derek, another erudite challenger, receives a one-on-one date. The theme is "choices," but talking openly about the agency of the show's contestants and protagonists is a particularly black bit of comedy in a show where the participants are on house arrest with no unregulated access to the outside world. We follow them as they elect to pursue the "air" over "sea", "north" instead of "south" and "Golden Gate Bridge" rather than "Lombard Street." Amy and I found ourselves more curious about the paths not taken, curious if any PAs were dispatched to alert the waiting crews that the plan was off, or if they merely stayed stuck in time, Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns left brimming with romance's Potential Energy.

One pilot only lies, and the other only tells the truth. Both flights are delayed.

Alas, these mysteries are left unsolved. Derek and JoJo enjoy a romantic picnic, and Derek receives a rose, which he says "validates" the experience of the day. The three-syllable word piques our interest and vaults Derek into the 99th percentile of all-time Bachelorette contestants.

The episode's second group date features a trip to ESPN and a "power ranking" of the dates, which is as arbitrary and pointless as their rankings of any other league. Rodger Rodgers says "quarterback" four times in one sentence. James Taylor, the unfortunately-named singer-songwriter, emerges victorious, and, in a bizarre bit of intimacy with JoJo, admits to being insecure about the looks of the other contestants and out of his depth. JoJo, starved for emotional honesty, loves it, but I imagine anything more than a small dose will prove grating in the long run. I look forward to finding out.

Also Chad got a rose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bachelorette Recap Episode 1: Godspeed, You Fleshy Automatons

The Bachelorette, a long-running reality show wherein a bevy of handsome men compete for the romantic affection of a single woman, entered its 12th season on the heels of a remarkably low-key Bachelor (the show's gender-reversed counterpart). That show concluded with Ben Higgins, a winsome, soft-spoken Indianan, proposing to Lauren Bushnell, a charming, upbeat blonde with whom Ben had an instant and enduring chemistry. The other women on the show departed with little fanfare or hullabaloo and the whole procedure felt rather inevitable. Ben was widely regarded as one of the most-loved Bachelor protagonists, which led to a reactionary distaste for him from other Bachelor fans - everyone has their own reason for tuning in, but I imagine that a nice guy marrying a nice woman with whom he built up a (relatively) long-term relationship was anathema to those who watch for the drama and shouting that reality dating shows usually provide.
JoJo, posing in front of a photo Ansel Adams handed in last minute
to his high school art teacher.

I began watching this show circumstantially. My fiancee Amy is a more devoted fan, and I would sit in the room noodling on my laptop as she watched and texted with college friends about the treachery and intrigue of the contestants. Eventually, the action onscreen proved more compelling than endlessly refreshing Facebook and I settled into the weekly routine. I tsked at the lothario Juan Pablo, wondered why district attorney Andi would succumb to the wooing of a meathead, endured the hokey charm of farmer Chris, and rooted wholeheartedly for dance teacher Kaitlyn and nice boy Ben. In the last round, I worked with Amy on her Bachelor elimination bracket, and we pored over the season preview footage for glimpses of contestants the way other people study the Zapruder film. My credentials for reviewing this show amount to an unabashed fandom, a more knowledgeable partner, and my correct prediction that Lauren B would end up as Ben's wife. But enough about me.

As is the custom, the titular bachelorette for this run was plucked from Ben's less-fortunate suitors - in this case, 25 year-old JoJo Fletcher, an outdoorsy Texas real estate developer and the runner-up for Ben's heart. One of the more dramatic moments of the previous season came when Ben confessed separately to both Lauren and JoJo that he loved them - not an unreasonable confession in my mind, but, per Amy, who understands the show dynamics better, a verboten occurrence in the Bachelor/Bachelorette universe. The protagonist is supposed to wait until the proposal to make a declaration of love - this faux pas provided plenty of emotional accelerant for JoJo, who had proof positive of how close she came to finding a lasting love.

Part 1: Preface
The introductory episode opens with JoJo reflecting on her experience with Ben - still stinging from the rejection but hopeful for the future. Her encounter, she explains, opened her to the realization that a love that powerful both exists and is possible down the road. Her introspection comes via voice-over, as the camera trains on our bachelorette strolling, aimlessly and bikini-clad, down a beach at sunset. She perches on a rocky outcrop, looking toward the horizon. The voice-over JoJo speculates about her future husband, while onscreen JoJo wills herself not to flinch as she sits on the uneven crags.

We are then treated to a montage of brief introductions to this season's candidates. Among them are Jordan, football player and younger brother of more accomplished football player Aaron Rodgers, U.S. Marine and identical twin Alex (alas, unlike last season, we do not get both twins as contestants - Alex's brother is married), and, in a rather meta twist, self-professed Bachelor superfan James S. Each describes their careers (or hobbies, in James' case) and purports to be the only man for JoJo.

JoJo, meanwhile, enjoys a tête-à-tête with former Bachelorettes Kaitlyn, Ali, and Desiree. They ply her with wisdom, cautioning her against going with simply the most attractive guy and urging her to seek out a meaningful connection. The advice is well-worn and cliched but the earnestness of the women is pleasant - in a show whose central conceit is intragendered conflict, it is heartening to see these members of a bizarre sorority caring for one another.

Part 2: The Introductions
We return from a commercial break to find JoJo, resplendent in a sparkling silver dress outside the Bachelorette mansion. Amy interjects with a unpleasant dose of reality - contestants must provide their own wardrobes. This is less onerous in Bachelorette seasons than Bachelor ones, but it is unsettling to think that the candidates are not only giving up their jobs to appear on the show but responsible for purchasing their own outfits. The show's host, Chris Harrison, gives JoJo a few words of encouragement. The contestants' introductions are a whirlwind of well-tailored hunks shambling past our lovelorn ingenue, offering a grating, producer-mandated pickup line in the hopes of endearing themselves to both her and the audience. This early in the show, our gladiators' personalities have not yet begun to pupate, leaving us with little to distinguish them unless they opt for an off-beat costume or entrance - Amy and I owe a debt of gratitude to Nick, dressed as Santa, and Jonathan, bedecked in a kilt, for punctuating an otherwise dreary procession of bicep-hugging Armani suits. Fortunately, the editing staff at ABC offers guidance in the form of emotive orchestral cues: when JoJo meets a genuine, down-to-earth guy, the violins swell in anticipation of romance to be; when she encounters a goofball, staccato notes emphasize the left-field from whence this joker emerged.
Somewhere in Burbank a factory worker is pushing a bin full of these guys
down to the Quality Control department. Source: abc.com

It should be noted that despite a ceaseless barrage of boring peoples' attempts to be interesting, our Bachelorette receives each man with grace and good humor. My fiancee remarked on the incredible depth of forbearance it must take to endure these open-mic Adonises and I agreed. Once the last of the heartthrobs had been packed into the mansion like so many chiseled sardines, JoJo reconvenes briefly with our host, Chris Harrison (his surname a useful life preserver to prevent his disappearance into the abyss of dark suit jackets). He asks if she believes the love of her life might be inside, and she answers vaguely in the affirmative, though the question is rhetorical: what might the studio's contingency plan be if JoJo decides that none of the contestants is a viable spouse and motors off in one of the available limousines? With no one left to distribute roses and thus thin the herd, the bros infesting the mansion would multiply unchecked, leading to severe cologne and whey shortages in the surrounding neighborhoods. Hunting licenses would be granted to curtail the population, some of the beefcakes would be tagged and released to study their migratory patterns, and Chris Harrison would cede his authority to a host more suited to the action at hand - David Attenborough, say. While no doubt this new program would command a sizeable audience, JoJo's optimism relegates us to reviewing the show we deserve, not the one we want.

Our bachelorette makes her debutante entrance into the meat market and offers a few words of greeting to the teeming horde of masculinity thronging around her. They raise their glasses in a toast, and before the champagne can hit the toned stomach walls, JoJo is whisked away for a private conversation by Alex, the Marine. As they sit by the pool, the camera crews are quick to focus on Alex's feet dangling above the marble. More than one talking-head confessional remarks on the military man's diminutive stature - a google search reveals we are the same height. Alex is undaunted by the backbiting of his more statuesque comrades and invites our heroine to watch as he pumps out several pushups, demonstrating his virility if not his capacity for subtlety.

Other candidates press for time with JoJo to varying degrees of success. Pity poor Will, who cadges an uncomfortable smooch by means of a paper fortune-teller - JoJo laments the encounter in a confessional, and the show editors are quick to contrast his attempt with Jordan's. Jordan is our first likely candidate of the evening (the music is quick to confirm these suspicions) and he tiptoes around name-dropping his NFL superstar brother, which I found first admirable and then annoying, like Harvard students who admit to "going to school near Boston." Amy decides to do the job for him and refer to him only as "Roger Rodgers." Nevertheless, Jordan's confidence is a welcome respite for JoJo, who has heard seemingly hundreds of variations of "I'm a little nervous" from other suitors.

Luke, a fellow Texan, and Nick, the Santa impersonator, both make significant headway as well. Our heroine seems to gravitate toward self-assuredness early on, and Nick owns his slapstick with good humor. Luke is quieter and more deferential but exudes thoughtfulness - he gifts JoJo a pair of cowboy boots and does not say much about it. Likewise, she finds "bad boy" Chad intriguing - Chad wins my approval by scoffing at the put-on bashfulness of other suitors. He knows the rhythms of reality shows and has already begun styling himself as the brash alpha-male. I enjoy his blunt appraisals but grow concerned during the season preview, which hints that his temerity manifests in acts of violence.

While the budding romances build, ABC recognizes that we need our sentimentality cut with humor, and finds plenty in Daniel. Amy and I initially misread his occupation as "comedian" and groaned in horrified anticipation when he introduced himself with "Damn, JoJo!" - a hamfisted play on a meme created by and for teenagers. Later, in his first one-on-one conversation, he doubles down, trying desperately to clarify what he meant to a bewildered JoJo. While this behavior is bog standard for comedians, Amy and I are relieved to see that his job is, in reality, "Canadian." (Bachelor producers will often provide humorous non-occupations for contestants; this season also features a "Bachelor Superfan" and a "Hipster").

Daniel finds himself on the outs with the other men of the house and, like many seeking solace, turns to the bottle. While several contestants end up inebriated and stumbling, none reaches Daniel's level. Our northerly suitor, backed into an uncomfortable social corner, responds by stripping down to his underwear and diving into the pool. He spends the next few minutes wandering in and out of frame, dripping and cupping his hands over his nether regions. The others avoid his glance.
Daniel contemplates the totality of events that have led him to this point,
and flexes his tricep for the camera. Source: abc.com

Part 3: Roses (spoilers)
As the evening draws to a close, the men are rounded up and shuttled into the rose room. (Amy weighs in again - time is distorted within the mansion, but the eliminations come around daybreak, so it's reasonable to suspect that sleep deprivation plays a factor in the contestant's erratic behavior.) Daniel is re-clothed, and Jordan's smooth operating has earned him the "first impression" rose, granting him safety from being eliminated.

Before the cuts are made, we get a surprise guest appearance from former contestant Jake Pavelka. This proved to be the most nerve-wracking aspect of the episode. I don't recognize the name, but Amy pulls up a clip from a past season that reveals him to be a dead-eyed, emotionally abusive psychopath. He is remorseless and calculating and a remarkably sordid stain in the squeaky-clean annals of a Disney affiliated network show. Amy mentions that, after his Bachelor-sponsored relationship ended, he was placed into one of the spinoff series with his ex, without her knowledge or consent. She spent the rest of her time on that show openly worrying for her own safety. If he is to be an additional contestant this season, the ethical queasiness of watching this show would grow exponentially. We breathe a sigh of relief when he reveals he only wants to wish JoJo well on her journey and departs without incident. Nevertheless, this colors our otherwise favorable opinion of JoJo herself - she describes him as "practically a brother."
The face of a man who has learned to smile through careful study and imitation.
Source: https://twitter.com/jakepavelka1

With the psychopath gone, JoJo begins to dole out roses. Here we get perhaps the least useful talking head confessionals, where guys essentially regurgitate the rules of the show and admit to being nervous - "she keeps giving out roses, and hasn't given me one yet, which means I could go home, which would suck, because I don't want to go home yet" is not a direct quote, but a fair approximation of what's being conveyed. Among the surprises inclusions are Evan, a relatively average-looking ED consultant, lushes Daniel and Vinny, and Brandon, whose contribution to the show thus far has amounted to wide-eyed scowls in the background. Among the eliminated, my biggest disappointment comes in Jonathan, a half-Chinese half-Scottish charmer who arrived in a kilt and made a tired crack about his Scottish half being "below the belt." He seems nice enough, and it feels a bit wasteful to throw half your ancestry's genitals under the bus and not make it to week two. No one eliminated has built up any rapport with our bachelorette, so they leave calmly and ruefully in the light of the rising sun. Inside, JoJo once more toasts with the remaining men - a final moment of calm before the storm of the show. Strap yourselves in.