The wedding of Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter, which was broadcast by ABC last night to an estimated 17 million viewers, felt like a real–life wedding ceremony in at least one sense: It was relentlessly, excruciatingly boring. There were the endless relatives to keep track of. The dreary testimonials to the day’s transcendent specialness. The plodding strains of a poorly arranged Pachelbel’s Canon. The “let me count the ways” sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That familiar, lulling feeling of stupefaction—the desire that it just, please God, end so we could hit the snack table and the open bar—was the only recognizable link to a bricks-and-mortar wedding celebration, which usually involves watching people you like look into each other’s eyes and say … well, an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet. But at least they mean it.
“Meaning it” or not, of course, was the great enigma, the conundrum of last night’s meta-event. Just how much of what they say do Ryan and Trista, who met not long before she accepted his proposal last February on the reality-TV program The Bachelorette, actually mean? What, if anything, do they mean to each other? And what does it mean that all of this means anything to us? The true climax of last night’s broadcast was not the ritual utterance of Ryan and Trista’s vows (or my personal favorite, when they mixed colored sand in a glass beaker at the altar). No, the high point was the sublimely crass moment in which the cost of every item was literally tallied up onscreen, from the $50,000 Badgley Mischka gowns to the half-million dollars’ worth of roses. (All paid for by ABC to the tune of $3.77 million, and all probably subsidized by a single unit of advertising time.) This may not be, to quote the hype, “the wedding of the decade,” but it has to be the only one for which the couple received a paycheck; Trista and Ryan have already bought a house on the million-dollar salary that love built. Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who contributed the $50,000 diamond-and-platinum sandals in which Trista teetered her way to the altar, summarized the madness when he affirmed: “We want this to be the most expensive bridal shoe ever made. She has good taste.” The disconnect between these two statements perfectly illustrates the chicken-and-egg logic of reality television. Is this event important because it’s expensive or expensive because it’s important? You might as well ask whether Ryan and Trista are on TV because they’re in love or in love because they’re on TV. Most reality shows promise at least a modicum of built-in conflict. Ryan and Trista’s wedding was perhaps the only two hours of prime-time television I’ve ever seen in which absolutely nothing unpleasant happened. Even stomach butterflies and cold feet were as few and far between as homosexuals or people of color, and there were ample testimonials to the awesomeness of it all.