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posted: 12/16/2012 5:00 AM

'Bachelor' endures even if its couples don't

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  • Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum will be wed on "The Bachelorette: Ashley and J.P.'s Wedding" airing Sunday on ABC.

      Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum will be wed on "The Bachelorette: Ashley and J.P.'s Wedding" airing Sunday on ABC.

  • Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum will be wed on "The Bachelorette: Ashley and J.P.'s Wedding" airing Sunday on ABC.

      Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum will be wed on "The Bachelorette: Ashley and J.P.'s Wedding" airing Sunday on ABC.

 
By Emily Yahr
The Washington Post

Try taking a look at ABC's "The Bachelor" franchise by the numbers, and it's impossible to count the hot tub scenes, candlelit dinners, dramatic confrontations and on-camera breakdowns that have populated the reality dating show since its debut in 2002. Yet one statistic is clear: After a decade on air, the show -- along with its companion, "The Bachelorette" --- has spawned only three successful relationships.

Still, the series has lasted a decade and is one of the longest-running reality shows in history. Its place in the pop culture landscape is firmly cemented, and the franchise's third set of televised nuptials -- "The Bachelorette: Ashley and J.P.'s Wedding" -- will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC, a few weeks before the 25th edition kicks off in January. Through legal controversies to claims that the show is a sham, "The Bachelor" still endures.

But how?

That question fills the Internet with theories and think pieces -- inspiring guilt-ridden blog posts with titles like "'The Bachelor': Why Smart Women Watch (and Love) It" -- and there's no shortage of answers. The show, in which an impossibly beautiful person is presented with a couple dozen equally beautiful people from which to choose his or her soul mate, provides escapism. It can be train-wreck TV at its finest. Viewers want to distract themselves from everyday life. Women want to see a fairy-tale romance. Watching crazy contestants makes viewers feel better about themselves.

Whatever the reasons, people are still fixated on the show, which generally resembles a dysfunctional romantic comedy come to life. Though the ratings have dropped over time, the latest iteration -- this past summer's "Bachelorette" -- averaged about 8 million viewers per episode, and it exploded across tabloid magazine covers and social media when star Emily Maynard (appearing on the series for the second time) broke up with her fiance, season winner Jeff Holm.

Seriously, what about the fact that only three couples have found enduring relationships on a show that promotes everlasting love as its goal?

"I think that's one heck of a batting average," said Mike Fleiss, the show's creator and executive producer, in a phone interview.

Fleiss, the man responsible for such specials as "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" and "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People," doesn't pretend that he knew the show would be a long-lasting success. Back in the first season, he said, no one had high hopes. There was trouble with casting because people were uncomfortable with the idea of being on camera while dating. One day, a member of Fleiss' staff arrived at work, ecstatic because her psychic had told her that the show would last four seasons. Fleiss thought four might be a stretch.

"Saying this exceeded our expectations," he said, "is an understatement."

Fleiss has his own theories about why the series has succeeded where others have failed. Not only are the stakes high when people are at their most vulnerable and emotional, he says, but viewers find it comforting that "The Bachelor" proves it doesn't matter how attractive or tan or rich you are -- everyone needs help finding love. Plus, the central theme -- the quest for a soul mate -- simply never gets old.

"All reality shows appeal to people for different reasons," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "But the idea of finding someone perfect for you? That's a very deep need people have. And that's why the show has lasted."

As for the concept of finding that perfect someone on a television show, Fleiss knows that the odds are low, which is why he's thrilled with his 12.5 percent success rate.

He waves off questions about the series trying to stack the deck with contestants who will garner the most press and tabloid headlines. "We always try to find the best wife material for 'The Bachelor' or husband material for 'The Bachelorette,'" Fleiss said. "That's what we do fundamentally -- that's our first goal.

"But," he conceded, "there are enough crazy people in the world that if you bring 25 of them together, two or three or four of them are going to be a little nutty. So those are the characters that usually emerge as tabloid favorites."

Emerge they have. There were Season 14 "Bachelor" Jake Pavelka and his winner, Vienna Girardi, and their public blowup when their relationship fell apart. Or Season 16 winner Courtney Robertson, one of the show's most despised villains ever, who infamously stole "Bachelor" Ben Flajnik away for some late-night skinny-dipping. (Robertson and Flajnik broke up earlier this year.)

And let's not forget the second successful relationship, Season 13's Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney -- with the asterisk that Malaney was the show's runner-up, and Mesnick actually proposed to Melissa Rycroft in the season finale. He later was able to reverse course, dumping Rycroft and choosing Malaney on a horrifying-but-riveting live "Bachelor" after-show. (Mesnick and Malaney were married in a 2010 televised special and are expecting their first child next spring.)

Throughout all the drama, manufactured or real, viewers of the show stay invested -- and in some cases, still have hope, despite the chaotic nature of the program.

"The show hasn't made me bitter about love -- if anything, it makes me excited," said Kerry Jones, a freelance writer from Tampa, Fla., who has blogged about the series. "I do genuinely believe that many of the couples on the show did fall in love at some point, but getting engaged after two months is where the craziness kicks in."

As for Sunday's wedding of Season 7 "Bachelorette" Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum, it will be the first non-scandalous "Bachelor" nuptials since the Season 1 "Bachelorette," Trista Rehn, married winner Ryan Sutter in 2003 in a three-part miniseries.

The story: Hebert was the second runner-up on "The Bachelor" Season 15, then got her own "Bachelorette" season, choosing Rosenbaum in the summer of 2011. Cameras captured the wedding in Pasadena, Calif., at the beginning of December, a day that Fleiss calls "magical."

"Even the most cynical viewer will realize this is not a made-for-television romance," Fleiss said.

He then ventured a guess about the future of his franchise's latest couple: "I bet they're married forever."

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