The caddish editors of The Bachelorette.

The caddish editors of The Bachelorette.

The caddish editors of The Bachelorette.

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Feb. 20 2003 1:31 PM

Seduction and Betrayal on ABC

The caddish editors of The Bachelorette.

Trista and Ryan: edited for prime time
Trista and Ryan: edited for prime time

On Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET, the love affair between TV viewers and the editing staff of The Bachelorette came to a tearful conclusion.

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

Goodbye, Frank, Don, Holly, Wes, Marlise!

Goodbye, Alex, J.D., Julius, Kirk, and Daniella!

Goodbye, Jon, Sang, Valerie, and Ann Marie!

In their secret suites at ABC, that roguish and romantic team shuffled, swapped, and recycled hundreds of hours of footage and audio tracks. They led us on—and it was almost sexy. Over and over they inserted and deleted reaction shots and sound bites, whipping up a tantalizing series of miscues. At every turn, the show wooed our reason, forcefully suggesting that Charlie, the money man, would end up with Trista, the bachelorette.

Does any of the following sound familiar?

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"The person I'm most sexually attracted to is Charlie. … He would make an excellent husband for me. … There's this natural connection between Charlie and I. … He is definitely somebody I could see spending the rest of my life with."

Trista's baited bites of Charlie-worship played round and round, through nearly every episode of The Bachelorette.

Then there were the tepid words for Ryan, the tender-hearted fireman:

"The first night that I saw Ryan, he handed me a poem, and from that minute he struck me. … When he comes out of his shell, he's this witty character. … He has such a gentle nature."

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What a tease. Like novice whodunit writers, the show's producers, in careful collusion with the post-production team, created a detective story in which the culprit was obvious and then, at the last minute, subbed in someone new—in hopes that the audience would enjoy the surprise and blame only themselves for failing to divine the narrative logic.

There was no such logic, of course. Some will say that Trista did sleep with the stuffed Shamu that Ryan had given her, fit awkwardly into Charlie's arms, and seemed to be having sex, often, with Ryan. But the clearest case to be made for why Trista would choose Ryan was that the show had gone so far out of its way to make it seem as if she wouldn't.

Wednesday's finale gave glimpses of Trista's family in St. Louis, where her father and stepmother live in a McMansion jammed with golden furniture, a big fish tank, and paintings of maritime scenes. Both Trista's mother and her stepmother expressed, right off, a giddily erotic preference for Charlie. Trista's father, too, liked Charlie's bluff nature and sentimental fondness for the stock market. Ryan's florid soulfulness, by contrast, freaked everybody out. (And what did Ryan's ladder back in Vail, Colo., think of his lovelorn Young Werther act?) Then, the father was achingly evasive when Ryan asked him for permission to marry his daughter.

So, where were the real clues, laid in for the delectation of committed viewers who'd been paying close attention? There were none. While trouper Trista—evenly self-tanned if sometimes violently styled by José Eber—fretted about her big decision, the editors kept loading the dice. On Wednesday night, Ryan spoke softly about how nervous he was. He seemed hopeless, desperate. Charlie, bronzed and wetly coiffed, showboated: "Trista has her mind made up on who she's going to choose, and I truly in my heart believe that it is myself."

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During the finale show, I swear I even detected some real fraud when Trista, over images of botanical gardens, gave a speech that seemed to have one word dubbed. "Every day, every second I can't believe this is my life, and to be feeling chemistry that happened immediately when I met Charlie is totally mind-boggling."

Finally, as Ryan knelt in his big David Byrne jacket by a romantic birdbath the other night, Trista accepted his proposal and his square-cut diamond. Erect in her cross-back white gown, she said: "I can now tell you without reservation that I am in love with you. And I hope with all my heart that you feel the same." Ryan shot back: "I love you with every ounce of who I am."

Of the three seasons of The Bacherlor/ette series on ABC, this one seems to have produced the most likely couple. (Last season's burly Aaron and wacko Helene will discuss rumors of their break-up at 8 p.m. ET Thursday.) But what do we know? Maybe Trista and Ryan had been fighting and flirting on camera, and all of it was trashed by the wizards of the Avid editing machine.

We keep hearing about how cheap reality shows are to make, and it's true that the chief expenses appear to be limousines and editors. But can they continue to attract viewers by creating only stylized "upsets"? Maybe it's a question of genre. On Wednesday night, ABC, as Fox had two nights before on Joe Millionaire, delivered a pleasing romance—and a shamefully underhanded mystery.