The warped version of reality that airs on shows like The Bachelorette is not, in fact, anything close to actual reality. Sure, many of us would enjoy romantic helicopter rides and dates in exotic locales — but when it comes to re-creating what it's truly like to date someone in the real world, The Bachelor franchise's pitiful success rate for couples who met on the show pretty much proves that attempting to find one true love while dating dozens of people at once is an unnatural and frequently unsuccessful pursuit.
Monday night's episode of The Bachelorette, however, presented viewers with a dose of actual reality that lasted far longer than a one-off look directly into the camera or a meta remark about how inorganic it is to actually believe you could find true love on a dating show. Eric Hill, a kind and handsome professional "explorer" and early front-runner for Bachelorette Andi's heart this season, died in a paragliding accident after he was eliminated from the show, but before this season began airing. The show dedicated the season to him, and briefly addressed his passing at the end of the episode in which he was eliminated. But since Hill died while the show was still in production, the crew faced the unusual and unfortunate problem of figuring out how to tell the Bachelorette and the remaining four contestants about the death of one of their own.
ABC decided to summon all the contestants to host Chris Harrison's house to tell them the sad news all at once, while still filming — a disconcerting yet not completely surprising decision that Harrison has vehemently defended.
Would a show known for its cheesy montages and sneaky editing tactics make Hill's death into just another melodramatic plot point? Would ABC go overboard in its attempt to "remember" him, and end up fetishizing his death? The previews leading up to this week's episode teased the tearful moment, and felt a bit exploitative. But last night's episode was surprisingly honest and transparent in its attempt to show the contestants grieving and processing the news.
The stunned silence surrounding Andi and her four remaining bachelors after they learned of the tragedy spoke volumes more than any canned interview with a producer could, and for once, the producers mercifully spared us from the piping in of melodramatic music. At one point, a camera placed in the doorway filmed the cast as the production team walked on set to comfort them. Andi, still mic'd, audibly sobbed as a producer patted her back and addressed her in familiar tones: "Hi, babygirl." It was a rare, raw moment.
(Screenshot / The Bachelorette)
The Bachelorette's premise and the artifice that surrounds every single interaction a contestant has with the Bachelorette are certainly unnatural. But part of the show's eerie brilliance comes from watching true emotions arise from these completely constructed situations. A terribly tragic and unplanned event like Eric's death offered a different, albeit heavier, glimpse into what happens when life gets in the way of a television show's carefully monitored version of reality.
Of course, some may argue that even this moment was staged for maximum melodrama, but even this ultimate reality show skeptic is inclined to believe that simply wasn't the case. The Bachelorette's producers may be manipulative, but they're not monsters. The scene felt jarring, awkward, and heartbreaking in the way that learning about the death of a friend or loved one often does. It surely hit close to home for a lot of viewers. Isn't that what reality television should be about?
No matter how gracefully ABC handled this death, however, the show will still face accusations of tastelessness (though those will never, ever top the controversy that surrounded Bravo's decision to continue airing Real Housewives of Beverly Hills three weeks after one of the husbands committed suicide). But given all that, host Chris Harrison has vouched for his and the show's decisions particularly well:
"I knew this was going to be a brutally sad moment for all of us, but that's why I felt so strongly we should show it.... How could we not show or talk about an event that absolutely changed and affected everything and everyone on our show? For 13 years we've built this franchise by showing you everything that happens, whether it's good, bad, dramatic, or sad. I just didn't see how all of a sudden because something so tragic affected all of us that we just wouldn't show it; it didn't make sense. What happened was horribly sad and tragic, but to me acting like it just didn't happen and going on like Eric never existed seemed horribly dishonest and disrespectful." [Entertainment Weekly]
Harrison also noted on his blog that he and his team consulted with Hill's family every step of the way in deciding how to handle his death on the show. As Karen Tracy, one of Hill's sisters, told Today.com a few weeks ago: "I have the unique opportunity to watch [Eric] live on, and watch the world get to know him... In some ways, it's only fitting that he is defying death in this way."
That's something we can surely all get behind — a reality show that's providing real catharsis to real people in our often painfully real world.