The term "docuseries" has seen a rise to prominence lately, as more high-minded unscripted fare (like, say, Push Girls) strives to separate itself from the reality ghetto. The reality television umbrella is broad enough to fit all these shows underneath it, of course, but the term now inspires such derision that no one wants to own it anymore. Bachelor Pad is the type of show that exemplifies why "reality" has become such a shameful descriptor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, for anybody who is buying what it's selling. If your idea of a good reality show involves convening a gaggle of superlatively distasteful people and subjecting them to endless humiliation, there's generally nothing better on the dial than Bachelor Pad.
The last season of Pad, the trashy competition spin-off of ABC's weirdly earnest The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchises, featured what has to be among the meanest things I've ever seen on a television show. It came in the form of a challenge called "Target on Your Back," in which the contestants stripped down to bikinis and painted targets on each other with body paint. Then they stood blindfolded on pedestals, as the contestants of the opposite sex were asked to identify the player that best fit the description given by host Chris Harrison, and throw an egg-like orb filled with blue paint at the person's back. The projectiles looked more humane than being pelted with a paintball gun, but not by leaps and bounds. So imagine the humiliation when a person is standing, practically nude and blindfolded, as Harrison asks the mystery assailant which girl in the house he's least attracted to, and a marathon moment of dread culminates with being smacked with an object filled with a viscous fluid—an experience that would be unpleasant even if it wasn't being used to highlight how ugly your housemates think you are.
That's about par for the course for Bachelor Pad, which is almost admirable in the transparency with which it pushes its contestants to emotional extremes. What's perhaps most fascinating about Bachelor Pad is how inconsistent it is with the rest of the Bachelor franchise. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are notable for how defiantly straight-faced they are, even as the viewer at home knows it's a given that the relationship that forms out of that process will crash and burn. Those shows, even as they manipulate the process and the contestants in the most detestable way, are steadfast in presenting the show as a romantic fantasy, and a legitimate way for two people to fall in love with each other. Then, when those contestants don't succeed, after being presented as people who someone would want to conceivably marry, the most attention-starved among them migrate over to Bachelor Pad, where the craven, slutty, jealous, duplicitous aspects of their personalities turn from weaknesses to strengths. Because the object of Bachelor Pad is not to fall in love with someone you've never met; it's to win a quarter of a million dollars. But there are still attractions, hook-ups and fantasy dates, which is where the evil genius of Bachelor Pad lies. It takes people so delusional in their romantic optimism that they thought competing on The Bachelor was a sound idea, then forces them to choose between winning the money and playing out their vision-board love stories on national television.
The rub with this season is that it doesn't seem as though they could find enough of the Bachelor extended family to participate in the process. Granted, I don't know this for sure, perhaps the decision to draft fresh-faced contestants who didn't compete on either show but consider themselves "superfans" was a move on the part of the producers to freshen up the show. But given that the familiar contestants who did participate include Erica Rose and Michael Stagliano, who were both on the show last season—Stagliano actually won the damn thing—it seems like getting people to be on this show is easier said than done. In a way, this sort of acquits the original Bachelor and Bachelorette. As weird as it seems to many of us, many of those contestants are genuine in wanting to participate in a process that will ideally culminate in their wedding. (This is why on those shows, there's no more damaging a critique to level against a fellow contestant than that they "aren't really here for him/her/love.")
But what this means for this season of Bachelor Pad is that it’s bound to pale in comparison to seasons past. The beauty of the show is that it pits people with contentious histories against each other in a competition that will require them to create alliances and vote each other out. With fewer returning contestants and more new faces, there are fewer failed relationships and intraseason rivalries to fuel the drama. There's certainly nothing on par with last season's reunion of Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi, whose romance ended in a particularly ugly tabloid war, and whose return to the show to air their dirty laundry resulted in the buzziest moment of latter Bachelor seasons when Pavelka lost his shit and made his ex-fiancee cry. Instead we have less intriguing backstories, like the frenemy relationship between Blakeley Shea and Jaclyn Swartz, who competed together in The Bachelor 16 and apparently still don't get along. There's also Kalon McMahon, the arrogant suitor with obtrusive dental veneers that attempted to woo Emily Maynard in the Bachelorette season that just ended. Apparently, he and BP stalwart Erica don't like each other because (in a Bravo-esque scripted reality flourish), they know each other from the "Houston social scene" and have made rude comments about each other in the tabloids.
Worse still is that the addition of the "superfans" adds nothing to the show other than to make it trashier, creepier, and more surreal, but to no lasting effect on the competition or the relationships. In the segments that introduce them, the superfans are shown as potentially unhinged Bachelor obsessives. "In my dreams, I've already gone on some dates with a couple girls from the show," says David Mallet, a 28-year-old MMA fighter. There are a pair of twins, 22-year-old Brittany and Erica Taltos, who are somewhat interesting in that Erica is allegedly a virgin and Brittany is decidedly not. (But don't worry, Erica pledged to her sister that getting her V-card punched was totally on the table if it would get them further in the game.) All of the superfans admit to harboring crushes on contestants who are in the house, so for the returning stars, it's presented much like it is to the audience: These people have been obsessed with you from afar for years, and now they're living with you. The desperation is coming from inside the house! Including the superfans might have shaken things up if the producers had drafted a cast that comprised familiar faces and enthusiastic fans in equal measure (much as Survivor did in its 16th season) and forced the old and new to form new alliances. But the superfans are far outnumbered to begin with—especially since, for whatever reason, the twins only count as one contestant—so it comes as no surprise when two of the fans are sent packing first, a pattern that will no doubt continue until only alumni remains.
When that happens, the main gimmick of the season will be in the rear view, and Bachelor Pad will have to rely on a cast that doesn't seem up to the challenge of delivering the voyeuristic gut punches that put the first two seasons in the upper echelon of guilty pleasures. There will still be plenty of drama, and if one wanted to fill a bathtub with hot tears born of romantic betrayal, installing it at the Bachelor Pad mansion would be a good first step. But there was a time when Bachelor Pad seemed like something more than a glossier version of MTV's The Challenge, and this season's premiere suggest that time has passed.