A great frustration for me as a critic of television, and a viewer of television, has been the ongoing dominance of “The Bachelor” franchise — a series that requires herculean endurance on the part of the viewer to find moments of genuine oddity. Over the course of punishingly long episodes, “The Bachelor” tends toward the most rote sorts of provocation, placing contestants who have been cast for their ability to approximate normalcy into extreme situations.
After all, “The Bachelor” runs on happy endings, and so we must be rooting for its leads (the Bachelor or Bachelorette, and the credible options for them to pick at the end) to really find love. The outcome is preordained, and the show exists to force its contestants toward the proposal. But in order to keep us interested, the gauntlet of humiliation contestants must go through on the way to the altar gets amped-up: These basically level-headed people must be destabilized more and more by a show that seems consistently unclear as to how to balance the search for love with the search for attention.
Which is why Netflix’s booming Lachey-hosted empire is so welcome. Nick and Vanessa Lachey emcee “Love Is Blind,” the smash dating series; they now take on “The Ultimatum” (launching Wednesday), a series from the same creator, Chris Coelen, that inverts the “Love Is Blind” formula to great success. These shows both feature high-concept premises and an aptitude for casting individuals who exist outside conversations about relatability. Coelen’s shows escalate from relatively simple set-ups to wild heights of human behavior, all because contestants are (or appear to be) left to their own devices.
Take “Love Is Blind.” On that show, in which the show’s subjects begin isolated and unable to see one another, freewheeling conversation is the order of the day. Its stars have been cast in part because they’re the type of folks who might fall in love with a voice on the other side of the wall. While the savvy viewer can only assume that the “Love Is Blind” stars are subject to some producer goosing, it doesn’t enter the frame: What we see is surprisingly unadorned with tricks and thus free to spread out. Both seasons have featured confusing reversals on the part of contestants, twists only explicable by the logic of the human heart. After the contestants get acclimated to the oddness of their surroundings, the show plays out with a sort of anything-could-happen spontaneity, without the series of artificial-seeming challenges that a “Bachelor”-style show would impose.
Indeed, the challenges arise from the contestants’ personalities, which remains true on “The Ultimatum.” Once again, a big adjustment — in this case, that couples of long standing are now entered into open relationships in order to test their commitment — gives way to the show’s cast freely conversing with one another, testing out different combinations without the schematic feeling of castmembers on “The Bachelor.” Part of what makes the conversations on “The Ultimatum” feel fresh is that the show itself has an open relationship with its format.
And part is, well, the willingness to cast people who are irreducibly themselves, who seem at once to intuitively understand the standards of behavior expected of them by reality television and unable to resist pushing those standards further. In “The Ultimatum,” for instance, a young woman is told, fairly diplomatically at that, that a potential partner doesn’t consider her a match. Her seething disbelief, demanding that this fellow repeatedly clarify what he could mean by saying he isn’t attracted to her, exists outside the context of a rigorously structured series: The pair will have to continue swimming in the same pond, and there isn’t the too-easy catharsis of one or the other being dismissed.
Such a moment likely wouldn’t happen on “The Bachelor,” or it would be edited into a highly dramatic speed bump on the path towards the happiness of catharsis. Coelen’s series occupy a more unsettled place, one that uses the tools of reality (big organizing ideas, people attuned to the dramatic) to create stagings that look like our world.
Perhaps nothing speaks to this more eloquently than the presence of the Lacheys, one of whom, Nick, is well-known for a candid reality show he taped with his now-ex-wife, Jessica Simpson. He was roundly mocked in the first season for introducing himself as “obviously Nick Lachey,” but there’s a certain truth in the statement: To dedicated reality viewers, he’s a superstar in precisely the way “Love Is Blind” contestants might hope. He’s notorious not for his seamless path through love but for the messiness and confusion of his personal life, playing out in public in a manner that shattered the tidiness of his past reality-show image. He and his second spouse Vanessa have found for themselves a franchise that does just the same for civilians: These shows are for viewers, and cast members, who are unwilling to accept the simple kinds of narratives producers create.