In 1896, 40,000 people descended on the fake city of Crush, Texas, to watch, for fun, two unmanned trains run into each other at full speed. AMC's The Bachelorette is kind of the 21st-century equivalent of the spectacle at Crush: It's such a screamingly bad idea that millions of people every week just can't look away.
In place of shredded timbers and exploding boilers, though, The Bachelorette's social rubberneckers are witness to some of the worst small talk imaginable. Despite the frequent scripting (you think the contestants come up with all those terrible puns themselves?), more often than not the show is an 80-minute reminder that we are really, really bad at making polite conversation with strangers, acquaintances, or prospective spouses. Even as The Bachelorette indulges us in the most artificial fantasy imaginable, the forced chats on the show are endearingly and refreshingly real.
In truth, the whole premise of The Bachelorette makes it a breeding ground for the world's most awkward and lame conversations. Thirty men are given just a handful of weeks to form a meaningful connection with the bachelorette — Hannah B. in this current cycle — and, all the while, cameras are stuffed in their faces recording every space-filling "um" and "like." Is one really expected to exude Anthony Bourdain-levels of chill and ease in such a scenario? It doesn't help that the group of men are never the most riveting batch of fellows, and that 90 percent of the spoken dialogue is basically:
The stilted speech, though, is in stark contrast to the antiseptic fantasyland that The Bachelorette tries to construct in every season. It is possible, the show assures, that men and women can fall deeply in love with each other after a handful of heavily chaperoned dates. To build this illusion, the show relies on the confessional format, in which contestants bear their hearts privately and directly to the camera. It's still unnatural, but the confessionals also allow the producers to engineer the perception that the men are Prince Charmings, complete with swoon-worthy romantic admissions that they're bursting to share with the American public.
The small talk alone, then, is what betrays that facade, the only suggestion that The Bachelorette might actually be an uncomfortable, forced, and basically terrible experience. While making vapid statements to one another has long been the meme-able "realness" of reality TV, The Bachelorette's exchanges are particularly painful because both partners are trying really, really hard to act like they are immensely interested in each other. As a result, you get moments like:
Peter the Pilot: Yeah, I just had a really good time.
Hannah: I had a really good time too.
Peter the Pilot: I truly enjoyed that.
Hannah: I like — I like hanging out with you.
Peter the Pilot: I do too. Um — yeah, no, as Miss, like, Alabama, you for sure have, like, some photo shoot skills. You know, my mom was Miss Illinois.
Hannah: No! I did not know that!
Admittedly, you don't put on The Bachelorette for its Shakespearean monologues and Austenian banter. Becca, the bachelorette in the previous cycle, had seemed incapable of making observations about Thailand that were any deeper than announcing "we're in Thailand," in varying inflections over and over, for example. It doesn't help that Hannah B. is uniquely challenged when it comes to saying, well, anything off the cuff. "I just love all the smells," was one revelation she shared with the gents in a recent episode. "It's so nice. I'm sorry, it's really fun." Enlightening!
Bachelor producers, please hire a conversation coach for Hannah B before she premieres as The Bachelorette. I’m scared. pic.twitter.com/sfzAQIcmPH
— realityTVcommentator (@opeeniun) March 13, 2019
But who am I to criticize, really? Like most people, I dread trying to come up with random topics of discussion; 99 percent of the time I fall back on "so how about that weather" or "what do you do for work," neither of which exactly excavates the soul of the person I'm talking to. If you filmed me at a wedding or work mingle, I'd probably also blurt things like "my mom was Miss Illinois" just to fill the silence (she wasn't). It's a thousand times worse when you're trying to impress a quasi-stranger, as the men and Hannah are doing with each other on the show. Plus The Bachelorette shies away from topics that might alienate viewers, so thorny subjects that could actually drive two people deeper into understanding each other's values, beliefs, and compatibility are set aside in favor of, uh, exchanges like this:
Hannah: So tell me about yourself.
Luke P.: I'm from Florida.
Hannah: Okay. What part?
Luke P.: Uh, Jacksonville.
Luke P.: And I actually just recently became an uncle.
Hannah: Oh, awesome.
Luke P.: Yeah, it's been — it's been amazing just to see my brother and my sister-in-law have their first child and I know, like, I feel like I'm behind, you know?
The Bachelorette, though, would be just another case of ridiculous TV wish-fulfillment if it weren't for those cringe-worthy conversations. The bad small talk offsets the fantasy the show works so hard to build, reassuring us that meeting new people is actually hard work, and talking to someone you like doesn't get significantly easier after junior high (sorry, kids).
As much as I enjoy watching a good train-crash of a conversation — and oh boy, believe me, I do — I see a bit of myself in all those faux-enthusiastic chirps of "oh! cool!" I might not care if you just became an uncle, but if we're ever going to talk to each other like normal, relaxed human beings, then we need to survive each other's desperate small talk first.