When my girlfriend told me I should watch the first episode of a reality show called Bachelor in Paradise – just the first episode – I snootily turned my nose up (figuratively speaking – I actually just sighed heavily, rolled my eyes, and assumed it was going to suck). The idea of watching former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants – to me, strangers – spend five weeks at a beach resort in Mexico with the (constantly-verbalized) goal of “finding love” sounded like…not the best use of my time. But, alas, I love her. And not only would it make her happy if I watched the first episode, I could use this down the road as leverage to get her to sit through a Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch or Steve McQueen movie of my choosing.
Win-win, as long as I could power through the 90-minute premiere. Lo and behold: I enjoyed it. And I watched the second episode. And the third. And the fourth. And the whole season.
It’s not rocket science: you pick someone to root for (Tanner), someone to hate (Ashley I.’s sister), and someone to like ironically (Mikey T.), and you’re hooked. But there’s more going on than just rooting for favorites. I know a lot of people look down on reality TV as trash, but…really look at it. As someone who obsesses over movies, screenwriting, and story structure, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the great time-tested filmmaking tools being used on Bachelor in Paradise.
1. It’s all about conflict
The general consensus among screenwriters is that basically every scene has to either advance the plot or have some sort of conflict (or both). Think about the first few scenes of Toy Story (1995). It opens with Mr. Potatohead sticking up a bank – in Andy’s imagination – and being stopped by Woody (he brought his dinosaur, who eats force-field dogs). It’s low stakes, but it’s conflict. After the opening credits, Woody discovers Andy’s birthday party is today, and he has to break the news to the other toys. Conflict. They’re all distraught over it, and he has to try to reassure them. Conflict. He sends the Army men soldiers for recon on the birthday presents, who have to covertly get past Andy’s mom and the partygoers. Conflict. Rex knocks the batteries out of the baby monitor before they can find out about Buzz. Conflict. They have to hurry back to their places before Andy comes back into the room. Conflict. Woody, feeling shunned by Andy, has to put on a happy face to introduce himself to Buzz, who believes himself to be a space ranger on a strange planet. Conflict.
You get the idea. A scene without conflict is usually a boring scene. Bachelor in Paradise knows this. With twenty-ish people to choose from, the show always focuses on the story with the most conflict/drama. The people that coupled off early on were mostly ignored throughout the show (sorry, Jade and Tanner) because they didn’t have much conflict. The people that dated around, that were completely hung up on one person and cried over him, that backstabbed people, that used manipulation in order to get a rose, those are the people that got the most screen time. By far. And whenever a conflict was resolved, the show moved on to the next conflict.
And to make sure the conflict was always clear, they sometimes needed…
2. A reminder of the stakes
In Back to the Future (1985), Marty deals with some serious consequences: if he can’t get his parents to fall in love with each other, he’ll cease to exist (in a horrendously paradoxical bit of storytelling that makes zero sense if you think about it for more than two seconds but we as a society have collectively decided to forgive). That picture of him and his rapidly-disappearing siblings, the one he keeps pulling out and inspecting, serves mostly as a visual ticking time bomb, but it also serves as an incessant reminder of those stakes. It’s constantly there in case the audience ever forgets what’s on the line.
When you have dozens of characters with dozens of backstories pairing off, going on dates, experiencing doubts, and crying over one another, it’s easy to forget why specific actions or conversations are important. Ok, so Tenley’s agreed to go on a date with Michael, but why is that a big deal again? Ashley I. just saw Jared talking to Claire, but how does Mikey T. fit into this? So wait, how many guys was Samantha texting before Paradise?
Luckily, the show is always more than willing to pull out that picture of Marty and his siblings and remind the audience what’s going on at all times, usually by having mah boi Tanner (the Resident Commentator) explain everything in a talking head. This is helpful for those viewers that missed an episode, weren’t paying very close attention, or are just kinda dumb. Tanner (and Carly) gotcho’ back.
That takes care of the micro-stakes for moment-to-moment stuff. But fear not: the big picture macro-stakes are taken care of too. Let’s just say that if you took a drink every time someone says “I came here to find love”, you’ll be drunker than Chris Bukowski.
(To non-watchers: that’s really drunk.)
3. It’s nice to have an antagonist
Darth Vader. Hans Gruber. The Joker. Agent Smith. Hannibal Lecter. Regina George.
While you may need an occasional reminder of the stakes, you never need a reminder that those dudes are the bad guy. Just like Joe on Bachelor in Paradise.
Joe went on a date with Juelia, a good-hearted widowed single mother who’s so good-hearted that you forgive her for spelling her name wrong, and he told her he’d love to go on more dates with her. Once she gave him her rose (allowing him to stay in Paradise), he cold-shouldered her and dumped her for a hot piece of Satan named Samantha. He led on and backstabbed a widowed single mother, who just Came Here To Find Love (and, jokes aside, to find a father-figure for her daughter). And holy SHIT does this show play up how villainous Joe is. He comes off as comically antagonistic; he couldn’t have been more of a bad guy if he was twisting his mustache and tying a girl to some train tracks.
Actually, he don’t need the twisty mustache. Don’t change a thing.
Stories need a good guy to root for, but I understand how Bachelor in Paradise struggles with this (given there’s so many people to potentially root for). Even if you have trouble picking someone to root for — my advice, pick Tanner — you’re sure as hell going to have no problem picking someone to root against. And sometimes that’s just as important.
And how did they manage to make sure he came off as horribly as possible? Editing.
4. Editing gives you a whole new story
A few months ago, I attended a screening of Australian filmmaker Josh Lawson’s directorial debut The Little Death (2015), which included a Q&A with Lawson himself. It was interesting to hear the actor/sometime-writer/first-time-director talk about all the things he learned making his first movie, but the thing that struck me the most was his comment about the evolution of the movie as you make it. He was paraphrasing someone else – who he couldn’t recall on the spot and Google couldn’t find for me later – but the gist of it is: the movie you write is different from the movie you shoot which is different from the movie you end up with in post. In other words, from script to screen, the movie is drastically changed by rewrites and editing, to the point that you really have three different movies. Editing can change your movie as drastically as a rewrite.
Reality TV obviously involves a lotttt of editing. On this particular show, they presumably have hundreds of hours of footage and interviews and conversations to cram down to 90 minutes (or 45, depending on the episode). But it’s not just trimming the fat; it’s also presenting it in a coherent and interesting way, and spinning it to tell the story that they want to tell. For example, when Ashley S. says something hilariously spacey, they’ll cut to the confused faces of other people and hold on these reaction shots for a good while to create a long, awkward silence.
Ditto for when Ashley I. and Jared vaguely recounted their night in the fantasy suite – they cut to other people who were waiting for the couple to address the elephant in the room (the elephant being Ashley I.’s virginity) for a comically long awkward pause. Were these comically awkward pauses actually there? Almost certainly not. But that doesn’t matter. Editing allows you to tell an entirely new story than the one you shot.
But it doesn’t just let you tell a new story; it lets you tell the best version of the story you already have. The Joe-Juelia situation was already a compelling story, but it was enhanced by intercutting an interview with Juelia, talking about how excited she is to have met such a good guy like Joe, with Joe speaking candidly to a producer about how he’s just trying to get a rose from Juelia in order to meet Samantha. Nothing beats a single mother’s voiceover of how this guy will make a great dad playing over a clip of that dude farting in front of a producer. Damn good television.
Which is a nice lead-in to…
5. Self-awareness is a great quality
I have an extremely modest youtube channel where I do movie reviews/analyses in my free time. Apparently, having this channel has made me a “critic” in some people’s eyes, because I’ve had several friends/family members ask me (politely as they can) if I find myself unable to enjoy quote-unquote bad movies. Setting aside the confusing semantics of this question (If it’s bad, why would I enjoy it? If I enjoy it, why would I call it bad?), I think this question taps into the idea that critics are snobs who only enjoy sophisticated art.
Here’s how I respond to that: tone and intention are very important in judging a movie.
Remember that movie Piranha 3-D (2010) from a few years back? Let me refresh your memory: tons of over-the-top gore and boobs (in 3D). Given that that is the exact opposite of “sophisticated art”, that movie had to have gotten torn apart by critics, right?
Piranha 3-D is almost certainly not a “better movie” than American Sniper by any kind of objective standard you might subscribe to, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a movie that wants nothing more than to throw as many killer fish, dismembered bodies, and naked tits at the audience as it possibly can in 89 minutes…and it succeeds. It knows exactly what it is, and it strives to be the best of what it is – toeing the line between camp and satire. That’s admirable.
With that in mind, I want you to watch the introductory credits to Bachelor in Paradise.
(Seriously. Do it now. The link is there for you.)
That’s telling. The show never takes itself too seriously (except for the times when it deserves to take itself seriously, like during a surprisingly intense and heart-breaking moment in the penultimate episode). In doing so, it gives itself a lot of leeway to indulge in its ridiculousness. Instead of being ashamed of how dumb some people may find it, the show embraces it. So while I was tempted to roll my eyes at the incessant symbol roll that played whenever something “intense” happened (Tenley turned down Chris for a date, oh my!), I also acknowledge that the show was (usually?) in on the joke.
I think this last lesson can be applied to a lot of (though not all) reality TV. In one scene of James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour (2015) – which you’ll be hearing all about when Jason Segel gets nominated for an Oscar, calling it now – the two leads discuss the value of “good, seductive, commercial entertainment” (a discussion which is conveniently featured in the #t=0m49s">trailer, though you should go see the whole movie anyway).
It’s worth noting that these comments are coming from David Lipsky, a pretentious Rolling Stone writer, and David Foster Wallace, who was hailed as a genius after writing what some consider the best American novel in decades. If freakin’ David Foster Wallace isn’t too smart – or “intellectual” – to enjoy what amounts to the junk food of TV/movies, few are.
I will probably continue to ignore most reality TV, mostly because it’s not my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean it’s trash (it’s carefully crafted, or it at least appears to be). Or that it has no value (it certainly has its place). Or that it’s the death of American entertainment as we know it (it’s proof these storytelling tools work). Just because you love the Criterion Collection doesn’t mean you can’t still watch Bachelor in Paradise – I watched Hoop Dreams (1994) and Brazil (1985) during the 6-week run of BiP – because you might even begin to see patterns. You might see that a film in the Criterion Collection and a reality show are really just two varied degrees of art.
Granted, if Rashomon (1950) is a Matisse painting then Naked and Afraid is probably a kindergartner’s shitty watercolor, but that’s better than being a can of paint spilled all over the floor of the garage.