L-R: Stills from UnREAL and The Bachelorette’s tabloid episodes.
Last night on The Bachelorette, the producers faced a sudden crisis. Thanks to the exit of one meat-scarfing, steroidal maniac known as Chad Johnson, there was a sharp, frightening shortage in one thing that powers the show — there was no more drama. So apparently, someone behind the scenes decided to go full on UnREAL by introducing a tabloid plot we saw back in season one, episode four of the Lifetime show, when producer Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) sneakily plants a tabloid — with a story about suitor Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma) texting with his ex — on set for the contestants to find. When the girls, as expected, become upset by the rumors, she makes Adam face the girls and explain himself.
On last night’s episode of Bachelorette, a similar plot unfolds. Copies of gossip magazines magically appear in contestant Vinny’s makeshift barbershop, allowing the other men to read all about a different Chad, JoJo’s ex-boyfriend Chad Rookstool. According to a report in In Touch, Rookstool claims that immediately after JoJo’s time on The Bachelor, she went back to him, suggesting that her relationship with Ben Higgins was a complete sham. Even worse, Rookstool said that JoJo instantly dumped him the moment she realized she might become the next bachelorette. The picture he paints is of a woman who has committed the worst possible crime against the franchise — she is not there for the right reasons.
The contestants, reading this sweaty, crumpled copy of In Touch, reeled back in horror. How did the magazine get there, anyway?
And then, the narrative began to truly eat its own tail. Mid-talking head, as JoJo giddily describes her date with foregone-conclusion Jordan, saying she is so happy, “she doesn’t think anything could take away this feeling,” a producer interrupts her. “I want to show you this,” an offscreen male voice says, before handing JoJo an equally well-loved-looking copy of the magazine.
What follows looks remarkably like JoJo’s authentic initial reaction — her ex-boyfriend has smeared her in the tabloids, making her look like a publicity-hungry manipulator rather than a damsel in distress searching for love. There are several seconds that are just silent, as JoJo reads the piece. “Why are you showing me this?” she asks the producer. “I think we need to address it,” he answers, telling JoJo that the contestants are upset, and she needs to explain herself.
Of course they need to address it! Not because they actually need to, obviously, but because they’ve purposely introduced it into the episode in order to create drama. And they’ve edited the episode to show themselves doing it. Just as Rachel promises on UnREAL, The Bachelorette has created a problem, and now it’s pointing a camera at it.
We can’t say for sure that The Bachelorette is directly responding to — and re-creating — UnREAL’s influence. But it doesn’t really matter. After over a decade of creating narratives about people falling in love, and simultaneously creating a paratexual free-for-all that picks apart exactly what is and what is not “real” on the show, The Bachelorette has now come full circle. As a part of the show, we now get to watch producers make that show happen.
It’s amazing. It’s terrible. It’s manipulative and Machiavellian and dirty, and in giving us a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes machinations, it’s also closer to honesty than The Bachelor or Bachelorette ever usually gets. (Well, as honest as a piece in a highly suspect gossip magazine used to elicit drama on a reality TV show could ever possibly be.) We’ve always known these people are puppets. Here, said the show’s producers. Look how fun it is to also watch the strings!