An Instigator Emerges as the Racial Awkwardness of ‘The Bachelorette’ Grows

 nytimes.com  6/20/2017 5:11:56 PM  2  Jon Caramanica and Amanda Hess
Rachel Lindsay and Josiah, who won the spelling bee on “The Bachelorette.” Bob Leverone/ABC

Another season of “The Bachelorette” is underway on ABC, and unlike Lee, The New York Times is still here for the right reasons. Our resident obsessives are following Rachel Lindsay’s love journey while dancing to the sound of Russell Dickerson’s voice. Can we steal you for a sec?

JON CARAMANICA There was little chance that this season of “The Bachelorette” wouldn’t detour from Rachel’s quest for love into an uncareful study of American racial paranoia, but the intensity of the swerve in the two weeks since the last episode has still been distressingly high.

At the end of the last episode, the show teased that a confrontation between Lee and Kenny was coming, just a few days after — in the real world — some of Lee’s old racist tweets resurfaced. (The way this show and other reality programs cleverly utilize the interplay of real-life content and televised-life content is a subject for a later conversation.)

Lee is an instigator, and one who this week deployed two fallacious tricks — the specter of black aggression and the halo of white innocence — in his pursuit of Rachel, who does not appear to have sniffed out his game. (She also didn’t seem to mind that Peter, when he was rapping, called her a “girl from the hood,” possibly the least sensitive thing a contestant has done directly to Rachel, and that includes lying to her face.)

The racial awkwardness on the show is so obvious that Dean — of “I’m ready to go black and I’m never going to go back” fame — was presented as an astute scholar. “The only people that I’ve seen Lee pick fights with have been not the people that he’s used to seeing on a daily basis, from a cultural perspective,” he said, which is to say: black men. (Iggy, too, seems only to pick squabbles with the black men in the group.)

Regardless, Lee got a rose. There is good television, and there is ethical television, though I’m not sure showing someone with racial animus on full blast being rewarded is both, or either.

AMANDA HESS I, too, have been wondering when this season of “The Bachelorette” would erupt into a reality-television race war, and it seems that producers have found their spark in the cryptoracist good ol’ boy Lee.

Has it ever felt grosser to be a member of Bachelor Nation? The whiplash between the show’s kumbaya images of postracial harmony (Kenny raps! And then … Peter raps!) and its obvious instigation of racist conflict is making me ill. That feeling culminated for me when Lee interrupted Kenny’s one-on-one time with Rachel because he had something “really important” to tell her — uh, that his granddaddy had cancer once and gave him a knife that he then brought on set with him. I’m hoping that thing isn’t Chekhov’s knife (the host Chris Harrison’s knife?), but given the teaser at the end of the episode that shows Kenny with his eye gushing blood, I can’t be sure. (Stay tuned for next week’s “shocking two-night ‘Bachelorette’ event!”)

From left, Jonathan, Matthew, Bryan, Lee, Alex and Josiah on “The Bachelorette.” Bob Leverone/ABC

That Lee — an “alternative-facts piece of garbage,” as Kenny called him — received a rose Monday night speaks to some dastardly producer interference. Mr. Harrison waltzing in to tell Rachel, on camera, that the producers are only there to help her realize her authentic dreams, or whatever, was just another underhanded move. The show seems willing to push Lee’s racist-villain story line far enough until somebody just about loses an eye.

CARAMANICA What’s fascinating to me is that in an internet-tabloid-driven and post-“UnREAL” universe, in which scrutiny of this show’s production choices is guaranteed to peak, producers have opted for a racial powder keg. (There is no universe in which producers were not aware of Lee’s tweets, and also most likely no chance that they didn’t participate in their unearthing.) It may ultimately be a service to put the raw, ruddy face of American intolerance in front of millions of viewers — and continue to do so, as next week, it seems, is when the real face-off between Lee and Kenny occurs — but putting it within viewing distance of Rachel is wearing her down. This week she cried when the friction became particularly hot, though the show didn’t linger, treating her anxiety like any other disappointment on the pathway to love.

HESS And all of that is happening as the other “Bachelor” spinoff, “Bachelor in Paradise,” implodes on TMZ. Production of that show had been shut down after reports that a sexual encounter between two contestants, Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, may have occurred while one or both of them were too drunk to consent — and as producers and cameras looked on. (On Tuesday, Warner Bros., the studio responsible for the show, said that it had completed its investigation into the incident and found that there was no sexual assault. ABC said that “Bachelor in Paradise” was to resume filming.)

The premise of that show — bring together all the aggressive villains from previous seasons, ply them with alcohol, and encourage them to hook up with one another to keep their spot in the open-bar resort — seems set up to inevitably lead to a horrific event like this one. It made me wonder how many unreported sexual assaults have happened on that show. And it’s been interesting to watch the artifice of the whole “Bachelor” franchise unravel as details of the disaster unfold, with leaks claiming that Corinne had a boyfriend even as she jetted off to “Paradise” and that producers had expected her and DeMario to have a relationship as a preset plotline of the season.

All of which heightens the show’s culpability when something bad happens to the contestants it’s manipulating from behind the scenes. To quote another show about questionably ethical entertainment God figures, their violent delights have violent ends.

CARAMANICA After the “Bachelor in Paradise” allegations, Vulture had a reality-television producer write about how situations like that might best be handled. The producer’s conclusion, which I disagree with, was that the cameras should have continued to roll, production should not have been halted and the resulting show could be used as a platform to discuss issues of sexual consent and violence. (If a nonconsensual sexual encounter took place, this is utter nonsense.)

But the piece contained valuable insights into the creation of reality-TV drama. “Reality producers very rarely interrupt good scenes,” the anonymous producer writes. “You’re much more likely to be dragged across the coals by an executive asking why you called ‘cut’ than by one asking why you didn’t step in. Mistakes can be edited out, but drama can’t be recreated.”

This is a reminder that all characters, even on reality shows, are creations of production and editing choices, and that the needs and desires of people in those jobs do not align with the needs and desires of the people whose lives are being produced and edited.

This series has a way of molding participants to its own, often nefarious ends. More specifically, I’m thinking of Josiah, who, by some measures, had a good week — he won the spelling bee! He did push-ups with Rachel on his back! In the premiere, Josiah was presented as, perhaps short of Rachel herself, the most sensible person in “Bachelor” history — a talented lawyer with a devastating back story and a keen warmth.

And also this week, he was a guy who flexes his pectorals for the camera, and drinks enthusiastically, both from a glass and from his spelling-bee trophy. (A lovely homage to Drake and Jay-Z drinking from their Grammys, I presume.) Serious, dutiful Josiah was so-so television — he often seemed flummoxed by DeMario’s relentless bravado, and also Rachel’s at-best mild interest in him. But loose Josiah isn’t much better. He’s a fine just-one-of-the-guys, but any promise that this season might be more thoughtful than usual, and that the show’s representation of black men would be complex and just, seemed to disappear, along with Josiah’s drink, at the bottom of his trophy. A few more weeks of this low-stakes arms race and Josiah is liable to fade into the background or disappear altogether. And when we lose Josiah, we lose much more than the lone person contending for Rachel’s heart who can spell “polyamorous.”

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