Vulture is holding the ultimate Reality Rumble to determine the greatest season of the greatest reality-TV shows, from The Real World on. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until Vulture’s Margaret Lyons judges the finals on March 25. As round 1 continues, Lisa Gabriele pits The Bachelor’s 13th season, featuring the whoops-changed-my-mind Jason Mesnick, against the gloriously filthy, loogie-filled first season of Flavor of Love.
Re-watching reality shows that you heartily devoured in their original run is a little like popping old gum back into your mouth. Usually no amount of muscular chewing of the desiccated confection will release anything fresh or new, its original pleasures long diluted. Not so with season one of Flavor of Love and season 13 of The Bachelor. These shows are still so surprisingly yummy, I did not mind their powerfully funky aftertaste, or the way my eyeballs felt coated in drugstore lip-gloss. But before I hand out my own rose, a quick summary is in order of what makes Jason Mesnick’s 2009 season of The Bachelor (now in its 18th iteration) the greatest entry in the series — which is saying something, considering how little this show changes.
Mesnick became a fan favorite as the “sensitive single dad from Seattle” during 2008’s season of The Bachelorette, when doe-eyed Deanna Pappas ripped his heart out by choosing wifty snowboarder Jesse Csinsak instead of him. Mesnick was known for easily accessing his emotions, as displayed in one Bachelor crying bout so wrenching that it had him bent over the rails of a hotel balcony (a melodramatic move labeled “The Full Mesnick” by jeering ex-Bachelorette contestants).
Like every Bachelor before and since, Jason Mesnick is what passes as a “great catch”: blandly handsome, financially stable, and utterly astonished at his good fortune at being surrounded by so much common beauty. He was the perfect fit for the role of the central groom-to-be, right down to the barely concealed fecklessness that shocked everyone in the most dramatic “After the Rose” special ever. But, as Bachelor host Chris Harrison would say, “More on that, coming up … in a moment.”
Let us now consider Flavor Flav’s undeniable appeal. He came to his authentic fame in the ‘80s as a member of Public Enemy, one of the greatest hip-hop groups in music history. His reality stardom was christened later, and less loftily, on VH1’s The Surreal Life and its spinoff, Strange Love, which documented his sure-let’s-go-along-with-it tumultuous “relationship” with his Surreal Life housemate, ‘80s B-movie Amazon Brigitte Nielsen. (She has a puffy, baffling cameo as the “sage ex” on Flavor of Love.)
Flavor of Love was basically a Bachelor parody, asking the question, “What if The Bachelor were as entertainingly unhinged as the women?” After all, in Flavor of Love it is Flav, not “the ladies,” who makes the flamboyant entrance, tripping out of a limo and into the Encino mansion where two dozen women stand around appearing less like potential fiancées than bored groupies. Flav doesn’t even bother learning their real names, instead christening each hopeful with nicknames such as Peaches, Bubblez, Oyster, Serious, Sweetie, and the final unforgettable trifecta, Pumkin [sic], New York, and Hoopz. Instead of roses, the chosen few receive Flav’s trademark giant clocks around their necks because they “know what time it is.” It is the first of many hints that this show will be more about flavor than substance, less about finding true love than attaining the kind of precarious stardom that reality TV sometimes offers. In fact, one contestant shrugs off the question of whether Flav may or may not be taking care of his (at the time, six) children, because it had nothing to do with why she was there.
On The Bachelor, of course, it is the women who exit the limo and grab the spotlight, the bachelor often being the least interesting thing about The Bachelor. And this season the contestants seemed even more maniacally driven to win, fetishizing Jason’s “single dad from Seattle-ness”; the wannabe stepmoms practically leak breast milk at the mere mention of Jason’s son, Ty. This is the season in which: a grade school teacher from Batavia, New York, proudly announces that she resigned from her job in order to compete for Jason’s heart; another rival obsessively Googled the names of Jason’s extended family, including the birthdays of his nieces and nephews, earnestly reciting the dates as proof of her undying devotion; and a gorgeous brunette, sensing her imminent demise, screams, “I just don’t know how much smarter or prettier I can get!” as if solving those “problems” was the key to imminent victory. This is the season that starred Jillian Harris’s old nose and Melissa Rycroft’s new veneers. (Both women would go on to busy post-Bachelor careers, Jillian as one of the more popular Bachelorettes, who currently co-hosts a home-makeover show in Canada, and Melissa, who has not stopped working since, well, that day. You know, the most dramatic “After the Rose” special ever. That’s coming up in this essay … truly.)
If you’re a feminist, or a modern woman, or even just a “gal” who doesn’t like to be called a “girl”, there is much to jeer on The Bachelor. With its retro-dating tropes, blatant sexism, and Big Brother-style trappings that encourage cat fights between drunk women, the show draws out the worst character traits from what are otherwise probably relatively normal women. Except for the borderline ones. Or the narcissists. Or the alcoholics. Or the creeps. Or the freaks. But as offensive as the show is, many highly educated, vocal feminists (like me and all my friends and Jennifer Weiner) make it must-see TV every Monday night. For some, The Bachelor is a cautionary tale, watched by women grateful not to be that desperate. For others, it’s enjoyed like Mad Men, a gorgeous drama that leaves us scratching our heads that “that shit used to happen to women.” (On The Bachelor, it still does.) But for all the mocking and gawking, we watch because every once in a while, something like real love peeks through all the bikinis and the Botox and general brainlessness of it all.
Love, however, is about the only flavor not on hand in Flav’s mansion, because these “girls” did know exactly what time it was: It was time to party. It was time to make friends. It was time to preen for the camera, in order to secure a bit of reality fame, no one more aware of its fleetingness than savvy runner-up Tiffany Pollard, a.k.a. “New York.” She came to play, promising to make Flav “feel like the King that he is,” all while nearly absconding with his throne. “These are a loud pack of bitches,” New York says, episode one, “and I am sick of them already.” Preach! (Pollard would go on to appear in no fewer than seven more reality shows, many built around her compelling persona.)
While Jason’s withheld roses seemed coated in phony tears, Flav dispatched his “losers” with strangely wise words. “You have issues to be worked out and this is not the place to do it,” he says to Smiley. Comforting New York after a particularly harsh beat-down by her competition, Flav says, “If it don’t apply, let it fly.” From the “romantical” getaways, to the soggy three-ways, to the slow-motion loogie Pumkin launches (over and over again) at her sneering nemesis, New York, Flavor of Love is laugh-out-loud perfection, a cheeky classic in what was even then becoming a tired genre.
And yet, no matter how many weaves got yanked from the roots, you never had the sense that any of Flav’s women were seriously diminished by their rejections. If there were tears during the clock ceremony, it was because the party was over, not because anyone missed a real chance at love. Even the eventual winner, Nicole “Hoopz” Alexander, a low-key beauty from Detroit, remained philosophical when it looked like it might be her turn to fly. “If it’s us, cool. If it ain’t, that’s what it is,” she shrugs, occupying ground as high up from the Land of Desperation as you can get.
While Flav was a madman throughout the season, at least he had consistency of character. Who knew that beneath Mesnick’s boy-next-door exterior lurked an epic cad? On what was, for once, not oversold as the most dramatic “After the Rose” special ever, Mesnick’s blandness dissolved right before our very eyes, revealing the most callow asshole who ever held a fist of cheap red roses. Millions watched Jason propose to Melissa’s adorable overbite on The Bachelor finale. An hour later, millions more watched the prick dump her on the “After the Rose” special, before asking Molly Malaney, the stunned runner-up, for another shot at love. (Note: The special aired after the proposal, but in real time, roughly six weeks passed, creating considerable “romantical” torque.) Instead of slapping him hard across his ass face, Molly cooed that these were the words she’d been waiting to hear, a galling twist that had most of America angrily tossing their glasses of white wine at their TV screens. It was shocking, awful, and memorably delicious, and the fact that they went on to marry and have a baby constitutes a pretty happy ending. I guess.
Hence the problem with Flavor of Love. The stakes were never as high as its fun factor. The show was ultimately too knowing, too satirical, and too aware of the tropes it was skewering to be the victor in this competition. And juxtaposing the obviously campy and game Flavor of Love against The Bachelor also highlights just how desperately earnest the search for love can be. So, with apologies to my feminist friends — to women in general, really — The Bachelor season 13 gets my rose, pricks and all.
Winner: The Bachelor, season 13
Lisa Gabriele is a TV producer who, under the pseudonym L. Marie Adeline, wrote the S.E.C.R.E.T. erotic trilogy, the last installment of which comes out in May. Follow her on Twitter @lisagabrieletv.Round 1: Flavor of Love vs. Jason’s The Bachelor