Thirty years ago, love was never having to say you're sorry. If you think Hollywood was rather simplistic about this subject back then, consider the industry clueless today.
Love is mysterious, often felt most intensely at the quietest moments, in small acts of kindness and sacrifice. Love deepens over years of shared experiences and trials, which is why love is built, not arranged. Those who build lasting, loving marriages serve as role models for their children. But children have an alternative source of information, too. They could be learning about romance from "reality" TV.
From the boffo-ratings disaster of Fox's "Who Wants to Marry A Multi-Millionaire?" to ABC's slightly less tacky "The Bachelor" (get an Ivy League man, and suddenly the whole find-your-bride-on-TV silliness acquires class?), even TV critics, a very self-consciously tolerant bunch, are wincing at romance being mangled by the "reality" genre.
This summer, Fox has given us the spectacle of a show called "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska." Yet love was neither the subject nor the object. Each bachelorette in question was aiming to earn $2,000 for her "dowry" every time one of the male suitors "pleaded" his love for her at the end of each show. Theoretically, the six women would hope to land a husband by show's end. This "tournament of romance and rejection" is not about love, but self-love: Look at me! I'm on television!
The newest entry is NBC's "Meet My Folks," in which two allegedly responsible parents of a supposedly mature daughter judge three young men, each with an "entertaining" flaw, to find a suitable companion for her. The winning suitor gets a free trip to an exotic locale (like Hawaii) with the daughter. But if these parents really were responsible and protective, why would they agree to this embarrassing setup, enabling their daughter on network television to arrange a week of sex on the beach with a stranger?
In the debut, Randy and Rhoda are selecting a travel partner for their daughter Senta. Their choices aren't good-surprise, surprise. Jason has a fetish to be spanked. Cory cheated on his SATs. Chris slept with the mother of one of his ex-girlfriends. In a blatant ripoff of the movie "Meet the Parents," Dad submits the boys to lie-detector tests asking them a spate of stupid questions, wondering, for example, whether they'll make a move on his daughter. (Recommended answer: You're sending her away for a week with one of us to an exotic locale. What do you think? Why do you care?) Any rational parent would walk off this set with his daughter in tow. But Randy and Rhoda aren't bothered at all: They pick the guy who slept with his ex-girlfriend's mom.
If Senta weren't 24 and old enough to make her own mistakes, you'd hope the show would end like "Cops," with agents from the local child-protection-services bureaucracy putting the poor child in foster care, quickly.
Our popular culture's infatuation with the toilet is strong, the first ratings for this show were pretty impressive, and so the insults to romance will just keep on coming. ABC will air its sequel "The Bachelorette," with last season's runner-up, Trista Rehn, as the all-powerful date-eliminator. On August 13, ABC also promises "The Dating Experiment," a reworking of a Japanese hit that dumps singles in exotic locations and makes them act out situations designed to spark romance. On August 26, NBC will construct the show "Love Shack," hosted by Will Kirby, last seen as the winner of "Big Brother 2." This show will take a single male and female and place them in a southern California mansion "on a quest to find true love," an oxymoron if ever there was one. NBC is also planning "Around the World in 80 Dates." Who knows where or when this trend will hit bottom.
The reality series "Survivor" provided the guilty pleasure of watching people lie, manipulate, and cheat their way to the top in primitive settings. "Fear Factor" kept audiences glued to their seats wondering what the contestants would attempt to eat next. But these concepts almost have-dare I say it?-an integrity in their nasty rituals of competition. There is no morality play here: These shows are trash, and nothing more.
Now the networks would have us believe their new reality shows aspire to loftier ideals like romance and marriage. Perhaps no one watches these shows and takes them seriously. Maybe on a certain level it's easy to laugh because we know, don't we, that true relationships cannot be that plastic. We know, don't we, that true love is patient and kind and not boastful. All we have to do is tell this to several million youngsters who are now learning the opposite from "reality" TV.