Photo: Byron Cohen (ABC)

“What you are about to see has never been attempted before on television.” With this baldfaced lie, ex-NFL quarterback Jesse Palmer kicks off a reality TV show where a bunch of women reveal their personalities (and bodies) to a guy hidden behind a wall whom they know nothing about, and hope he’ll propose to them. Quelle romantique!

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You could argue he’s technically not lying, in that there’s never before been a show called The Proposal on ABC in which women are paraded about like cattle at an auction, albeit cattle who have to answer invasive questions about their sex lives to someone who doesn’t even show his face in return. But to pretend this is something new is ridiculous. Top to bottom, this is a loose reworking of Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?, the turn-of-the-millennium Fox special that routinely lands on lists of “worst TV shows of all time.” (Not coincidentally, The Proposal was created by the very same person as that misbegotten program—Mike Fleiss, who also oversaw the birth of ABC’s gargantuan Bachelor franchise.) When the premiere episode of this new series began, it seemed there was no way ABC would be dumb enough to bring back the most appalling and cringeworthy elements of a roundly scorned TV special from nearly 20 years ago. But as it turns out, ABC is exactly that dumb.

The shudder-inducing concept is just what it sounds like: One man (or woman—progress!) introduces themselves via voice-over to the studio audience, then takes an assigned place behind a wall where they can’t be seen, to sit, like an especially empowered Peeping Tom, and watch as 10 contestants are paraded out to present themselves as potential spouses. After three rounds of “competition,” there are only two people remaining, at which point the suitor comes out from behind their time capsule back to 1950, and decides whether or not to propose marriage to their final choice. At that point, presumably the contenders have a choice to say yes or no; I don’t know for sure, since ABC redacted the last eight minutes of the advance screener, ostensibly to prevent the secret of whom the first suitor chose from leaking, but more likely because the entire set, live audience and all, collapsed into a black hole of shame.

Where to begin with the post-mortem of this deranged exercise? The best that can be said for The Proposal is that it is so bizarre at times that it becomes a satire of itself, an unintentional comedy of Dada-esque proportions. I wrote down a few of the voice-over introductions of the women, because they were the only part of the show that implied someone, somewhere, knew how fucking stupid this whole endeavor is:

  • Lady number one, Jessica, was introduced with a hearty, “Loves to party and loves the Pittsburgh Steelers. She also loves white-water rafting, archery, and science.”
  • A motivational speaker’s key piece of info was her pride in “tending to her massive collection of dolls.”
  • Kendall, presented as a professional “baton twirler. She’s been twirling batons her whole life—and sometimes, the batons are on fire. Kendall is also a neuro-psychologistlogist.”
  • An ER nurse is presented with the tip that she’s “very proud of her calves.”

After the initial introduction—i.e., the women come stand on the stage—without further ado, he sends three of them home. Perhaps their sartorial choices displeased him? Whatever, it leaves more time for the swimsuit round! Yes, in 2018, a major TV network figured it was crucial to the success of The Proposal that there be a swimsuit portion, something so retrograde and objectifying that even the Miss America pageant no longer includes it in the competition. So we’re treated to the sight of seven ladies strolling out and delivering a vague statement about their beliefs under the collective delusion that being “vulnerable” in this way is empowering. (There is nobody remotely approaching plus size, of course; one of the women even includes a “before” picture of her recent weight loss just to emphasize the “no fat chicks” policy of The Proposal.)

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From there, it’s another three women cut, almost solely based on looks—and while no one’s disputing physical attraction is important, when the entire remainder of your process for choosing a fiancée is one question followed by your best friend asking another one, perhaps making almost half the process appearance-centric is a wee bit obnoxious. If this all fell under the rubric of “This is idiotic, let’s have a laugh that we’re participating in this,” then maybe it would be fine. But ABC wants to have its shallow exploitation without admitting that that’s all it is; host Palmer continually reassures the castoffs how “brave” they are for doing this and how they’ll find Mr. Right someday. Thanks, guy who couldn’t even manage to give the rose to the right woman his first night as the Bachelor, that’s very thoughtful.

The Q&A portion is deeply unenlightening. Our first suitor is a cop who lost his leg below the knee a few years back, so “Could you date an amputee?” gets asked, as does, “Could you date a cop?” (Wouldn’t it have been great if one of the women said, “Ew, a cop? Fuck no.”) By the time we reach the third and final round, knocking one more woman out to leave three, the questions are asked by our anonymous man’s best friend. Ironically, one of the women’s answers gets her cut, yet it isn’t asked of the others—meaning the other two women might have the exact same deal-breaker of an answer, and our officer of the law would have no idea.

But that complete lack of clarity regarding the women he’s debating getting down on one knee in front of is just a small portion of the geyser of bad ideas spewing from this ill-considered step backward for human dignity. It’s not a complete waste of time: There’s some tawdry enjoyment to be had from the rubbernecker appeal of such a wreck. But it fades, quickly, and soon all a viewer is left with is the knowledge that two people are going to have to walk off stage, potentially engaged to be married, and say, “So, what’s your name again?” Too bad it didn’t carry over the wealth gap from its Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire? progenitor; at least then these women might have the promise of a sweet alimony arrangement to compensate for enduring this televised ritual seppuku of their pride.

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