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The Proposal TV Show Review
“Behind every successful man,” said Samuel, a “musically inclined” law student from L.A., “is a powerful and wonderful woman supporting him, and I’m excited to meet her tonight.” He was introducing himself as a contestant on The Proposal, the new caboose on ABC’s Monday night romantic contest show train that makes The Bachelor look like Notting Hill. Samuel seemed like a nice enough guy, and his intro statement was the kind of boilerplate insight you’d find on an earnest Facebook meme. But in the context of this godforsaken show, it thwacked a chunk out of my faith in humanity—or at least America.
The Proposal is essentially a season of The Bachelor or Bachelorette condensed into an hour (or 40 minutes, minus the car commercials). The eligible man or woman is placed in a bizarro “pod”—in the language of one contestant—near the center of the auditorium, and you don’t get to see them until there are at most eight or nine minutes left in the program. In the meantime, their backstory is told with deeply unsettling cutscenes featuring a ghostlike apparition making its way through an all-American country field, or something, while acoustic music plays.
The contestants have no idea what the person looks like, and they really don’t know much of anything about him or her until the final segment of the show. They don’t have what most people would recognize as a conversation at any point. Except, like Samuel, most contestants spend the entire time suggesting they’ve already met their soulmate. Whom they haven’t met. Or know anything about. And at the end, either the male bachelor emerges from the pod to get down on one knee and propose marriage to a female contestant, or multiple male contestants propose to the bachelorette. (The entire production is thoroughly heteronormative and holds on tight to traditional gender roles.) In the two episodes I’ve seen, everyone agrees to get married on the spot.
The Proposal demands that viewers completely suspend their reasoning faculties, critical thinking skills, and any expectation that what is happening on their TV screen might be real.
Again, the show does not even do the yeoman’s work of The Bachelor, which at least offers viewers hours and hours of make-believe so that when you finally get to the Final Rose, the two people thirsting for celebrity might at least know their respective hobbies, or whatever. The Proposal doesn’t bother. It asks the viewer to simply accept that these people really are in love after seven-and-a-half minutes, even though the contestants basically declare up front that they will perform interest in whomever emerges from the pod.
That is to say, The Proposal demands that viewers completely suspend their reasoning faculties, critical thinking skills, and any expectation that what is happening on their TV screen might be real. Just stop asking questions and enjoy the circus. It is, from a certain standpoint, a show for a nation that has given up.
The early signs are that this is such a nation—or at least, that it’s home to plenty of people willing to get in on this dance. The Proposal’s second episode pulled in 3.7 million viewers, holding steady from week one despite having to switch out episodes because one of the contestants on the original Episode Two was accused of “facilitating sexual assault” in the lead-up. The Bachelor is facing a controversy in the same vein, but it remains a juggernaut in the ratings stakes that is as good a lead-in as The Proposal could hope for.
In effect, the latter is like a turbo shot of espresso for your Bachelor latte. Oh, you didn’t get your fill of People Who Want to Be Paid to Make Club Appearances in the Future performing affection at each other? Stick this needle in your arm.
I’ve never seen The Bachelor, but I’m told by the same sadists who assigned me to review this new offering that contestants often have absurd job titles—something continued here, with professions that include “baton-twirler.” I’m also told that there have been other shows with the shotgun romance premise, like Married at First Sight, where they actually get married on-screen at the end of the same program. But there is just something uniquely unsettling about The Proposal in our current national moment.
There are the product-placement diamond rings, presented at the beginning with the expectation they’ll be used no matter what. There are the nauseatingly vacuous contestants. “I want to be the Instagram couple that everybody looks up to,” says Jeremy. “I love being around people, I love events,” says Nate. There is the generalized reality show premise that these fame-hungry masochists are here to be ground up and spit out by the TV infotainment machine for our enjoyment. “His ex-girlfriend broke his heart,” says the announcer of one of these Gladiators of Embarrassment. Let’s all feast on his entrails.
And we’d be remiss here not to mention the show’s host, Jesse Palmer, a former Bachelor contestant himself who’s sort of like a godless Tim Tebow. “Are you expecting a proposal?” he asked Episode Two’s bachelorette when she finally emerged from the pod. Gee, I don’t know, Jesse. What’s the name of this show again?
“We’ll see what they’re willing to do,” Palmer continued, referencing the remaining men desperately seeking her affection. Was it a cage match? Would they break a pool cue in half and let them go at it on-stage? Ah, no. They trotted out some proto-wedding vows they had clearly written beforehand and tried very hard—with varying success—to memorize.
“Are you expecting a proposal?” Gee, I don’t know, Jesse. What’s the name of this show again?
The saving grace of The Proposal, though it doesn’t really save anything, is that the producers seem to go a little more hands-off than other reality shows. If it’s scripted, they’ve found contestants who frequently fuck up the script in various ways, from the bachelorette who fell while climbing off a platform to the contestant in Episode One who went deer-in-the-headlights for a full seven or eight seconds when the bachelor asked if she was OK with dating an amputee.
Still, there is no redemption. Like all of these romance contests, The Proposal makes a mockery of anyone still talking about “the sanctity of marriage” in this country. Ah, this is why they’re fighting same-sex matrimony—to protect this hallowed institution that we all hold so dear. “I take marriage very seriously,” said the runner-up in Episode Two, as he got down on one knee to propose to a woman he met eight minutes before.
The Proposal also goes to the extraordinary lengths of incorporating the contestants’ parents in the bloodbath. More than once, the camera panned to a father’s anguished face as his child—who has forced him not only to accept her participation, but to participate himself—said something mortifying on stage. Meanwhile, the parents, who presumably met at work, or through mutual friends, or something boring like that, hold hands for dear life. In Episode Two, the bachelorette’s parents are trotted out on stage to ask a group of men we’re supposed to believe includes their soon-to-be-son-in-law various questions to determine if they’re worthy of their daughter.
More than all that, though, this show asks the deeply unsettling question of whether there are millions of Americans ready, willing, and able to unplug their brains—or whether we have really just given up on believing anything at all. The audience, which is panned to frequently, has a Jerry Springer vibe: People are there for the freak show, to see the fights and the fireworks and f0r someone to embarrass themselves in front of the world. Often, they almost laugh too hard. There is a vicious sort of cynicism at work there, one that threatens to drown a nation where, increasingly, we all assume people do things for the worst possible reasons at all times—and that, as a result, they deserve their misfortune. Who cares if these starfuckers embarrass themselves? They signed up!
This show encourages us all to gaze long into the abyss, as we have done for years. Few would doubt anymore that reality television has had a profound effect on the American psyche. The suspicion of people’s motives, the pessimism about what their real prospects actually are, the feeling that whether something is real—even if it’s doggedly presented as such—doesn’t really matter. The Proposal represents the lowest common denominator in this regard. It does away with the pretense and the ceremony and just shovels the garbage at you at industrial pace. Nobody believes what they’re seeing, and nobody cares. It shows no respect for the viewer, and in the process, it seems to make the point that maybe we don’t deserve any.