A grown man wears a penguin onesie. An gimmicky moron shrieks his catchphrase (which, if you happen to forget it, is emblazoned on his T-shirt). A puppet expresses his existential crisis in French, with subtitles. It sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but those are all things that really happened during the season premiere of “The Bachelorette.” You know, the real show.
Even if you’ve never seen a complete episode of either “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” ABC’s legendary reality franchises, you probably know them well thanks to the depth of its penetration within pop culture.
Shows like “The Middle” and “Happy Endings” have referenced it directly, while other series like “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Saturday Night Live” and more have created their own fake versions. And there’s also the seminal “Burning Love,” a three-season parody featuring nearly every single one of today’s top comedians playing characters who are ruthlessly competing for the reality TV version of love.
The first season of “Burning Love,” it’s worth noting, featured a contestant who wore a full-on panda suit (and was later revealed to be played by Jennifer Aniston). That originally premiered in 2012 — five years before Penguin Guy made his broadcast debut on the real show. (And he wasn’t even the first to rock a onesie look on the show.)
“Burning Love” is not only hilarious, but boasts a who’s who of a cast: Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Kristen Bell, June Diane Raphael, Ken Jeong, Malin Åkerman, Natasha Leggero, Abigail Spencer, Carla Gallo, Janet Varney, Adam Scott, Ryan Hansen, Joe Lo Truglio, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Jerry O’Connell, Adam Brody, Michael Cera, Colin Hanks, Nick Kroll, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Rudd and a ton of others.
And there’s also Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of 2015. Despite a disappointing Season 2, the series still stands out as a bold exploration of the treatment of women in the media.
“UnREAL” was often described as a parody of “The Bachelor,” even though it existed in a different genre: As a drama about the behind-the-scenes reality of a reality TV show (co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who had worked as a producer on “The Bachelor” for a few seasons), it was at times a very dark story about the artificiality of romance, both on and off camera.
That was deeply appealing to anyone intrigued by the concept of a reality dating show, but unable to conquer one major hurdle. Personally, I don’t automatically reject reality competition TV — I’ve watched plenty of chefs and fashion designers try to prove their talents each week. But in order to really be a “Bachelor” fan, it seemed, you have to genuinely believe that it’s possible to find love within the context of a reality show.
It’s an issue that the parodies don’t have — it’s all complete fiction — making them more palatable than the real thing. Especially because “The Bachelor,” like so many long-running reality shows, has become self-conscious of its tropes over the years, something evidenced during the premiere, when one of the suitors confronted the Catchphrase Guy (no need to validate him by actually mentioning that catchphrase) over the fact that he was clearly working a gimmick for the sake of extra camera time.
Here’s what’s intriguing: that confrontation served to suggest that while some of these guys might have signed up for the show because of a desperate need for attention, many of the other guys were genuinely invested in romance (and thus offended by Catchphrase Guy’s antics).
And allegedly things worked out for one of them. In a recent sit-down interview between current Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay and comedian/”Burning Love” star/”Bachelor” super-fan Paul Scheer for IndieWire’s “Turn It On” podcast, Lindsay confessed that she did find love this season, and she is now engaged.
Whether you believe her or not is up to you. But as “The Bachelorette” tries to sell itself as a true romance, while also attempting to acknowledge the artificiality of its format, the parodies end up blending into what we generously refer to as reality. The lines blur, the snake eats its own tail. The viewers will accept this rose.