2-ring circus: Reality TV feeds urge to merge

In the beginning, Rick took Darva to be his lawfully wedded wife. Could it have been only three short years ago? It seems like an eternity since the oh-so-desirable Rick Rockwell (he of fake fortune and restraining orders) plucked the winsome Darva Conger (she of hasty annulment and subsequent Playboy spread) from among a parade of 50 gold-digging single gals, who apparently didn't care who they married as long as he was rich. (If you recall, Rockwell was hidden from the women until he'd made his choice).

Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? carried the broad stereotyping of single women to a new high, while dragging the sanctity of marriage to a new low.

And viewers ate it up with a spoon.

TV developers sped to their drawing boards, determined to feed this newly discovered appetite for watching real people in their desperate quest to find "the one." Some cable networks created kinder, gentler views of going to the chapel. But the major networks took a cue from that other runaway hit of 2000, Survivor, and week after week concocted ways of eliminating would-be-weds from the conjugal jungle. The more tears involved, the better.

The producers finessed creating Jackie Collins-style fantasies of romance (mansions, champagne, single red roses), while ensuring some serious prime-time voyeuristic sex (the most real aspect of these shows is how quickly participants take the plunge, so to speak, although for most of us there's usually not a cameraman in the room). Mix in individual participants' "candid" conversations about their "true" feelings, and the chemistry for keeping viewers committed every week was set.

In the three years since Rick and Darva exchanged their "I dos" and "I don'ts," no fewer than 10 nuptial reality shows have successfully wooed the Nielson ratings. And more are waiting in the wings.

So how do these altar-ed realities differ from each other? What's the humiliation factor? And how likely are real weddings to materialize? Allow me to provide some tough-love TV marriage counseling. Read it and weep (as you would at a wedding).


Getting real now on a small screen near you:


The BachelorABC, Wednesdays, 9pm. The Bachelor's set-up is simple: One guy, 25 wanna-be wives. The bachelor gradually whittles down the field until he settles on "the one." The harem– er, women– share a mansion, accompany the bachelor on lavish dates that only a production team could dream up (spa visits, yacht cruises, mechanical bull rides), and talk about their real "connection" with our man (my friend Kim suggests a drinking game requiring a shot whenever the "c" word is mentioned). Every week the bachelor ritually confesses to the camera how hard it is to choose and then takes an excruciating amount of time to distribute single roses to the prospective brides still in the running. As ominous music (reminiscent of Survivor's tribal council) swells, the camera cuts rapidly among tense rose-desiring faces, before dwelling on the brave little rose-less rejects.

Will a lasting marital bond be formed at the end of The Bachelor's third season? Empirical evidence points to no. The first season's Alex opted for boob-enhanced Amanda, but the romance quickly hit the skids when Amanda confessed to TVGuide that she realized you can't find love on TV (No!). The second season ended with Aaron's proposal to Helene, but that relationship, too, is now TV history.


Mr. PersonalityFOX, Mondays, 9pm. The latest variation of The Bachelor formula, Mr. Personality features 20 men in numbered masks– all courting a single beauty, who supposedly will select "the one" based on his personality. However, the show's trailer promises upcoming hot tub scenes, so clearly there's no attempt to hide bodies or racial differences, just receding hairlines. As if that's not enough to make you click on by, Monica Lewinsky (wish I was kidding) plays gal pal to the bachelorette, who, during the first episode, gathered information about the beaus by dancing with each, receiving gifts from the guys, and listening to astrologers' assessments (this, Lewinsky suggested, would provide "a lot of information"). The 10 dismissed men humbly removed their masks, so our gal could see if she'd accidentally sent away a hottie. It was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Will wedded bliss result from this "real" attempt to get beyond the superficial (you know, with astrologers)? We'll just have to wait until the end of the season, if we can stay awake that long.


A Wedding StoryTLC (The Learning Channel), weekdays, 10am, 10:30am, 2pm, 2:30pm (that's right, four episodes, five days a week). Clearly geared to the stay-at-home mom who wants to relive the last day she actually got some recognition, A Wedding Story profiles engaged couples from various backgrounds as they head toward their exchange of vows. Here's the formula: The couples first explain how they met (the guys are always especially gushy), then the families arrive for the big day, after which the bride and groom nervously get ready for the ceremony, followed by the tearful "I do's" and the happy post-wedding reception. Now that I've watched a few episodes, my new fantasy is having Trinny and Suzannah from BBCAmerica's What Not to Wear swoop in and save style-challenged brides from wearing the wrong wedding dress.

How real is it? On A Wedding Story there are no cold feet, no hangovers from raucous bachelor/bachelorette parties, and no sniping between family members. Nevertheless, the couples are real (all they get is a nice video out of letting America crash their weddings) and, according to web reports, most remain married.


Love U.TLC (The Learning Channel), Fridays, 10pm, and Saturdays, 3pm. On this new entry into the reality line-up, engaged couples endure a series of tests designed to expose them to the worst marriage has to offer. One minute they're throwing out each other's prized possessions, the next they're paddling a leaky boat together. Three "professors" two men and one woman, a la American Idol watch the taped proceedings from a set lined with faux bookshelves and offer insights into whether the couple has what it takes to make a marriage work. When the tests are over, the couple hear the "professional" assessment of how well suited they are for each other and receive advice on how they might relate better.

How real is it? The situations and set are contrived, but– oof– the emotional responses are all too real, as when one bride-to-be snatched directions out of her fiance's hand, and he hissed, "Screw you!" The professors somberly declared that neither was being very respectful. They're smart, that's why they're the professors.


Rejoining reality next season:


The Bachelorette ABC. On this gender-reversed version of The Bachelor, 25 maybe-grooms vie for the affections of a single woman, who picks them off with hokey roses before settling on her man. The first season's bachelorette was none other than Trista, the final cast-off from the first season of The Bachelor, who apparently had no problem mending her broken heart and moving on. After getting up close and personal with several potential hubbies, Trista concluded Mr. Right (Now) was really Ryan (and not that no-good, breast-fixated Alex, for whom she had declared her love months earlier on The Bachelor).

So is there actually going to be a wedding? Apparently so or Trista and Ryan are milking their 15 minutes of fame for all it's worth. Oprah has even offered to have the couple marry on her show. What could be more real than that?


Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in AlaskaFOX. Everyone knows that the best place for desperate women to hunt husbands is Alaska (and apparently you don't even have to club them into submission on an ice floe). So that's where this series shipped its five singles from the lower 48. Through a process of elimination, each woman eventually settled on a prospective mate and shared on overnight date with him. Hands-down winning the award for highest humiliation factor, the show's producers then had the women wear wedding dresses as they waited on an icy lake to see if the selected bachelors would show up in a plane to whisk them away. Two did. Two didn't. And one plane contained that single's ex-boyfriend, there to ask for another chance.

After their adventure in rugged Alaskan reality, did the couples who flew off into the sunset end up tying the knot? Guess again. But there's always next season...


Gay WeddingsBRAVO. The most real of all the reality shows, this extended variation on TLC's A Wedding Story followed four gay and lesbian couples from socially diverse backgrounds for eight weeks, as they planned their weddings and dealt with the homophobia they encountered. Doubts and despair? You bet. Family feuds? You bet. Real love that propelled them down the aisle? You bet.


Terminal reality:


Joe MillionaireFOX. Running a close second to Looking for Love in the humiliation sweepstakes, Joe Millionaire combined the worst of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and The Bachelor, sending 20 starry-eyed women to a villa in France to compete for the affections of Evan, the reputed heir to 50 million smackeroos. What the gold-diggin' gals didn't realize was the fact that, in truth, Evan was a construction worker who made less than 25 grand. In this ridiculous show, the sidekick/confidant was the butler, who delivered gifts of jewels to the squealing singles. The show ended with Evan picking down-to-earth Zora, who, of course, still waltzed by candlelight with him even after learning he was poor and had lied to her for weeks."

I'm sure you'll be as shocked as I was to find out Zora and Evan have gone their separate ways. She's now on a speaking circuit, and he's become a model.


Frontier HousePBS. Yes, in 2002, even Public Broadcasting got into the reality game, challenging three families to move to rural Montana and live as if it were the late 1800s. Longtime fianc├ęs Nate and Kristen wed during the third episode and then spent their first months of married life living in a literal Little House on the Prairie. Now that's a way to get real with what marriage demands. And Nate and Kristen actually won the contest for authenticity and preparedness over the other two families. Ah, love. As far as I know, they're still living in wedded bliss.


Married by AmericaFOX. In this boring foray into arranged marriage, "experts" matched five tired-of-being-single contestants with five prospective mates each. The likely spouses were then weeded out first by family and friends and finally by TV viewers (imagine having your life partner picked by dial-in voting). The resulting couples became instantly "engaged" and went off to live together for five weeks (a premise that makes you kind of miss Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown). Week after week, "experts" assessed each couple's compatibility and commitment. Those deemed unworthy were forced to return their rings and terminate their relationships (who cares if they'd been going at it like bunnies? Those were the rules). The two final couples walked down the aisle in identical weddings, but they were able to opt out at the final moment with an "I don't." Despite the lure of $100,000 and a luxury car for saying "I do," no one ended up hitched.

The only entertaining part of this tedious show was the post-non-wedding fallout. Although the families of one couple hugged each with relief at not having to be in-laws, the other couple's parties ended up creating some Jerry Springer-esque moments. While the dejected bride huddled bawling in a closet, her Axl Rose-but-uglier friend confronted the groom and cursed him, asking, "How could you do this to her?" Uh, dude, reality check, she went on TV to shack up with a stranger. Get real.

More wedding reality scheduled for the future:

Who Wants to Marry My Dad?/Who Wants to Marry My Mom? NBC.

Rich Guy/Poor Guy ABC.

Race to the Altar NBC.


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