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Lessons of The Bachelor: How to exit a reality show with dignity
A contestant's graceful exit last night can teach us a thing or two about reality television
 
You can try to exit with dignity, but The Bachelor will still Photoshop roses over a still image of you.
You can try to exit with dignity, but The Bachelor will still Photoshop roses over a still image of you. (Facebook.com/The Bachelor)

"This process is just a little inorganic for me," Sharleen, a contestant on The Bachelor, tearfully told the reality show's cameras in a confessional interview broadcast last week. Then, in last night's episode, after allowing herself one last week to weigh the merits of leaving the show, the worldly opera singer showed herself the door, walking willingly into the Reject Limo.

Despite the fact that the "elegant," "sexy," and "different" Sharleen was a frontrunner in bachelor Juan Pablo's eyes, he gave her decision his "total respect." "You have to have guts to leave in this situation," he said, wiping away tears. And with that, one of the very few Bachelor contestants with ample self-esteem left the show to return to the real world.

Compared to the drunken escapades and unbecoming behavior that sometimes lead to Bachelor exits, Sharleen's dignified departure was a breath of fresh air. Her brutally honest commentary throughout the season is also to be applauded. Not only does her "inorganic" complaint likely mark the first time in the show's 18-season run that a contestant has used the word "inorganic" — but it's also the first time a still-competing contestant has spoken so plainly and openly about the obvious flaws of the show's premise.

It's pretty obvious to viewers that when 27 women are cast to compete on television for the affections of a man — a stranger who they believe is the full package based mostly on watching him date and be rejected by another woman on television — the situation is anything but natural. Contestants often allude to "the process" of appearing on a dating show as being "difficult" for them, and regularly mention how hard it is to watch their Bachelor date other women. Yet no one has gone as far as Sharleen in spotlighting the problems with competing against other women for the same reality-show husband while actually competing against other women for a reality-show husband.

Sharleen has been dishing out refreshing honesty from the beginning, when she won the coveted "first impression" rose. Instead of exploding with glee at being the favorite on the first night, Sharleen was shocked and confused. "I guess I thought that I would feel more of this, like, insta-chemistry than I did," she admitted to the cameras. "If I'm totally honest, it just seemed a little forced."

Really, who would have instantaneous feelings for someone they just met? But saying so in the Bachelor universe? That's a no-no. When your presumed prince shows you his affections, a contestant should at least be grateful, and respond in the proper Bachelor vernacular. Not totally in love with Juan Pablo yet? At least say you're "looking forward to the prospect of falling in love" with him.

But Sharleen didn't. Viewers even got mad!

Most fans (and yes, I am one) watch The Bachelor while suspending their disbelief, accepting for two hours each Monday night that perhaps these women really are banking on finding love, a husband, and their happily ever after by being chosen from a pool of women during "rose ceremonies" on a television show. It's unconventional, sure, the women often say to their families during the make-or-break "hometown dates" — but sometimes a girl (and a TV network) just want a fairy-tale ending.

Of course, this is all nonsense. But we all play along to some degree. So it's all the more shocking when a contestant keeps challenging viewers and preventing them from suspending their disbelief.

Producers had to at least expect some meta-commentary when they cast Sharleen. This is clearly who she is. Plus, it's hard to deny that Sharleen's admissions also won over a certain demographic of more cynical viewers, who finally found a "real" contestant they could identify with. If The Bachelor's producers anticipated all of this (I wouldn't put it past them), then that's truly a stroke of genius — and the reason that a show with so many troubling cultural implications continues to make for maddeningly entertaining television.

To wit:

"I wish I was a little dumber," Sharleen muttered before tearfully departing. "It would be so simple."

Preach.

 
Samantha Rollins is TheWeek.com's news editor. She has previously worked for The New York Times and TIME and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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