I came to the current season of The Bachelorette with the zeal of the newly converted. I’d belatedly fallen in love with the venerable reality series during its previous iteration, which starred Ashley Hebert, the relentlessly upbeat dental student from Madawaska, Maine. The producers had stocked her season with a delightful cast of narcissists, cheese balls, gym-rats, crazies, sweethearts, and over-the-top villains, and Ashley was captivatingly bad at sorting what wheat there was from the ample chaff.
The current season promised even greater drama: Emily Maynard, its star, had won Season 15 of The Bachelor, only to have the engagement broken off by Brad Womack, who spoke of having “dodged a bullet” by not going through with the wedding. The slight seems to have rolled off Emily’s back, however—perhaps because such tabloid fodder could not compare to the very real tragedy she’s suffered: Before meeting Brad, she was engaged to Ricky Hendrick, a stock car driver (and son of Nascar mogul Rick Hendrick) who died in a plane crash in 2004. Only after Hendrick’s death did Emily learn that she was pregnant with his child—a daughter, Ricki, now 6.
Emily’s season seemed to offer the usual pleasures of The Bachelorette (the preening, the cattiness, the tears—and that’s just the guys), with a new twist: The woman looking for love is a widowed single mom. And yet, six weeks in, this season has failed to live up to its potential.
Herewith, a catalog of its disappointments:
So as not to uproot young Ricki, this season began in Emily’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., a bland city of corporate headquarters—the Wilmington, Del., of Dixie. You could feel the show’s producers straining to find viable local activities for the contestants. In one ill-advised outing, Emily and a beau strapped on harnesses and climbed up the side of a downtown skyscraper as a lightning storm closed in on the city. Fun! Soon out of ideas, the producers began flying Emily and her suitors for day-trips to West Virginia (where Emily grew up) and Tennessee (to visit Dollywood)—another traumatizing experience, one expects, for a woman who lost a fiancé to a small aircraft accident. The series has since left North Carolina behind, but without much improvement: The week 4 visit to Bermuda was rain-soaked and chilly. And this week’s trip to the visually stunning city of Dubrovnik, Croatia was largely squandered, thanks to a shameless bit of Disney/ABC product placement in which Emily and the guys attended an advance screening of Brave, then repaired to a field where they donned kilts and pretended to be in Scotland while taking part in a series of Brave-themed physical challenges.
2. The Kid
The ostensible excuse for the Brave plug was that Emily’s husband will become a father-figure to young Ricki and so must demonstrate maturity, good parental instincts, and the ability to sit through a Pixar movie. I’d hoped that Emily’s single motherhood would throw a curveball at the hunks vying for her hand in marriage, but thus far it’s mostly made for tedium. When we’re not watching B-roll of Emily lavishing attention on her daughter (who seems understandably annoyed to have to perform for the cameras), the guys are filling Emily’s ears with talk of how good they are with kids. In one awkward set-piece, they were set loose on a playground full of small children and asked to prove their mettle, leading to some overheated sliding and swing-set work.
The two contestants who have expressed trepidation about the step-father role, meanwhile, have been summarily dismissed. Granted, one was Alessandro, who looked disconcertingly like a Geico caveman, and the other was Kalon, whose status as a villain was established at the outset when he arrived to meet Emily in a black helicopter he might have borrowed from DARPA. (Kalon also stated his reservation rather insensitively, referring to Ricki as “baggage” in an off-camera conversation with a fellow contestant. But still.) Emily seems so stung by charges that a return to reality TV wasn’t in the best interests of her child that she is unwilling to even discuss the fact that “winning” this season is a more complicated prospect than it’s been in the past. She has also shown favor to the contestants who have kids at home, even though the example of Tony, a lumber trader from Beaverton, Ore., should give her pause. In episode 3, he broke down in tears and confided that he missed his son. Emily told him she wouldn’t dream of keeping him from his young boy, and sent Tony home—where he apparently grew tired of his son’s company in short order and signed up for season 3 of The Bachelor Pad.
3. The Suitors
There are always some bad—or just boring—apples in the Bachelorette barrel, but this is an especially disappointing group. Kalon certainly looked the part of the villain, with his fashion-forward eyewear and glossy, arrogant chin, but he lacked the courage of his dastardly convictions, especially when compared to last season’s dirt bag par excellence, Bentley. Ryan, a former football player with the vanity of a former beauty pageant contestant (and the physiognomy of fat Elvis), proved the more entertaining bad guy, driving his fellow contestants batty with his unshakable confidence and honey-of-a-ham patter. But Emily finally tired of him this week and sent him packing. Arie, a race car driver, was surely cast to remind Emily of her late fiancé, but he’s got none of the good-old-boy swagger you look for in a Nascar man; his aggressively European kisses are very open-wheel. I had high hopes for Alejandro, strictly by virtue of the fact that he’s a mushroom farmer from Medellin, Colombia, but Emily barely seemed to notice him. (He was dispatched in week 5.)
4. The Bachelorette
As my colleague Stephen Metcalf has noted, one of the questions viewers of The Bachelorette must confront is whether it’s possible “for anything like actual human emotion to bubble up through all of the idiocy and contrivance.” For fans (and Steve has confessed to being one), the answer is “a qualified yes.” Sure, the premise of the show is absurd: That a woman can find a husband a) among a group of 25 guys selected by ratings-minded producers and b) after just a few weeks of globetrotting tourism and some medium-to-heavy petting. But just because the premise is ridiculous—and the dismal success rate of the engagements the show has produced proves it’s ridiculous—doesn’t mean that actual feelings don’t develop over the course of a season.
Though it couldn’t have been more misguided, Ashley seemed to harbor genuine feelings for the evil Bentley. Eventually, she came to care for Ben F., Constantine, and J.P., even if only the last seemed to reciprocate her affection. In part, what made Ashley so compelling to watch was the vulnerability those feelings produced: Recall the last time you went on a date with someone you liked but didn’t know if they liked you back. (Now imagine 5 million Americans watching your first, tentative outings together.) But whether it’s because she’s supremely confident (having won this thing herself not long ago) or because the death of her fiancé has steeled her against the show’s tribulations, Emily betrays very little real emotion, at least thus far. Her anger about Kalon’s baggage comment may have been authentic, but the scenes in which it reared up felt manufactured. And though she’s done her share of necking (on the beach, on the street, on several small couches and under several afghans), none of these guys seem to have touched Emily’s heart.
There’s still time for love, or something like it, to blossom in the last four weeks of this season, but I’m not hopeful. The one guy who seems to have captivated Emily so far is Jef with one ‘f,’ an “entrepreneur” from Salt Lake City. You wouldn’t say that the two have chemistry; on the contrary, what seems to have piqued Emily’s interest is the fact that, unlike the other guys, Jef has been somewhat aloof whenever they’ve spent time together. Is he cleverly playing hard to get—or just not interested? Last week, in an effort to console Emily after Kalon’s “baggage” comment, the always nattily-attired Jef noted that if Ricki were a bag, she’d be a Chloé. The reference seemed lost on our heroine.