“In today’s world, people look for love in all different ways,” Jesse Palmer, the host of ABC’s newest dating show, The Proposal, says at the top of the hour. “But this is a new one.”
Indeed it is: The Proposal takes the traditional structure of a Miss America pageant and combines it with the familiar elements of a dating show. One lucky man or woman sits behind a “pod,” while ten suitors of the opposite sex are trotted out, in formal wear, and subjected to a series of sometimes saccharine, sometimes humiliating challenges. Round by round, they’re whittled down, until it’s just the final two. Then the bachelor or bachelorette reveals him or herself. We hear two declarations of love; a choice is made; a marriage proposal is delivered, accepted and sealed with a kiss. The viewer is, at this point, both incredulous and strangely moved. I can’t believe what I’m watching, he might think. Followed by: I can’t believe I kind of care.
As much as Palmer’s opening statements would have you believe there’s something modern about the show—that it is, perhaps, hardly stranger than finding love on Tinder—The Proposal in no way reflects the way people find love in the real world. In reality, it only reflects the way people find love on reality television, by which I mean, The Bachelor(ette) (both were created by Mike Fleiss). And in so doing, it throws into stark relief the fundamental delusions required to make the long-running franchise tick, the current season of which, starring Becca Kufrin, leads into The Proposal every Monday night.
On last week’s premiere, the “bachelor,” as I’ll call him, was Mike—a 29-year-old, California-based police officer who lost his right leg, below the knee, following a motorcycle accident six years prior. As evinced in an opening montage, Mike leads a pretty normal life: good job, good friends, good home. The only thing missing is someone to share it with—a sentiment that will be familiar to any fan of The Bachelor. Interestingly, Mike’s face is obscured from view in his opening video and, from his “pod” near the stage, it will remain obscured until the final round of the pageant. On The Bachelor, it’s a given the suitors will fall in love with the lead, but at least they know what he looks like, and get to spend a modicum of meaningful time with him, in the flesh; on The Proposal, that given is stretched to the extreme. The show is seemingly so confident in its formula that it doesn’t even require an actual man for the ladies to fall in love with, just a few basic details and a voice from behind a wall. From his “pod,” where he can see them but they can’t see him, Mike is manifested to the woman as a specter. He’s a literal fantasy.
The pageant begins with the 10 women walking down the stairs in their ball gowns, as an announcer lists off the kind of variably basic and irreverent facts you might find on a dating profile. There’s Morgan, 25, a brand ambassador. Havilah, 35, is an author and motivational speaker. Nicole is an Olympic weightlifter who “enjoys being blunt.” Alona, 41, appears visibly over-excited, and confirms that her “worst fear is bad grammar.” On a whole, the ladies were more diverse than those you’d find on The Bachelor, with regards to race, body type and age, which ranged from 25 to 41. But that doesn’t stop Mike from immediately cutting three women, almost entirely based on their appearance.
The introduction to the next phase of the competition is a classic piece of Bachelor-esque subterfuge. “They’ll get the chance to show who they really are,” Palmer says of what’s to come. “But since physical compatibility is part of love, they’ll do it in their finest beachwear.”
Thus, Jessica comes out on stage, in a sarong over a bathing suit, and as an answer to one of Palmer’s questions, tells her father, who’s in the audience, that she wants to be vulnerable, so she disrobes, revealing herself in a sexy white bikini before showing Mike a photo collage she made of her family. Soon after, Morgan explains her struggles with anxiety and depression in an equally revealing swimsuit. And Kendall, a neuropsychologist, discusses dealing with traumatic brain injury victims, while wearing what I think may've just been lingerie.
Contained within this stark juxtaposition is the entire ethos of The Bachelor franchise, laid bare (no pun intended): the shallow is given depth, sublimated by the notion that it’s just another step on the noble, wholesome journey to “find love.” In The Bachelor-verse, humiliation is just another word for vulnerability, and even the show’s silliest bits—an obstacle course involving cake and formal wear, say—are excusable, because they’re done in the name of love. The franchise’s success lies in the way it plays on our feelings about that feeling, presenting it as something both unattainable and readily achievable, if only by a codified set of ridiculous rules they set every season. The Proposal’s does, too.
Following the beachwear round, the field is cut to four. Mike has the chance to ask each one of them a personal question—pertaining to “politics, religions, even sex”—and they have 30 seconds to answer. The field is then cut to three, and Mike’s best friend has the chance to ask the remaining ladies a question—the pared-down equivalent of The Bachelor’s hometown dates. When Kendall admits she doesn’t want to have children, she’s eliminated. Just two girls remain: Jessica and Monica. Mike comes out from behind the pod and presents himself for the first time.
“I can promise you that I will love you and be there for you every day,” Jessica says, taking Mike’s hands in hers. Monica expresses a similar sentiment, as the score swells. (You may recognize it—it’s the same one from The Bachelor.)
“I never thought that I’d find love,” Mike says to the two ladies, “but after hearing what you guys have to say, I feel like I have.”
He picks Monica, gets down on one knee and proposes with a classic Neil Lane engagement ring. She says yes. The two kiss for the first time—after having met face-to-face mere minutes before. There is no guile here, nothing tongue-in-cheek. Is this happily ever after? As far as the show is concerned, yes—yes it is.
Watching all this, and feeling some feelings, though also a healthy dose of skepticism, you may be left with a nagging question: what does it mean? As in: does it mean anything? If this is all it takes to make two people fall in love—a brief bio, a few questions, a hug, a kiss—what does this love really entail? Is it really love at all? Are people really this desperate? Am I?
The obvious answer is no, of course not. They’re just saying it because they’re on camera, because the pageant demands it from them, because they have something else to gain. The more disconcerting answer, however, is that it is real, but only insofar as it’s real in that fleeting moment, on stage, in front of an audience, alongside ex-NFL quarterback Jesse Palmer—just like love on The Bachelor is real, if only within the world of the show.