The Proposal Is the Perfect Reality Show for Our Stupid Times

The contestants of The Proposal stand on stage.
The poor contestants of The Proposal with host Jesse Palmer.

Early in the first episode of The Proposal, ABC’s invigoratingly dumb new dating show, which premiered Monday night, host Jesse Palmer sold the series by promising that “what you’re about to see has never before been attempted on TV.” On The Proposal, 10 women are paraded before a single man whom neither the audience nor the women can see. When he narrows the field to one woman, he then proposes to her, or “proposes” to her, or whatever you call asking someone to marry you when there is no expectation that you will actually get married. When someone Bachelors you?

The “never before attempted” Proposal is a faux–high stakes version of the long-running The Dating Game, as well as a reboot of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, a hit from reality TV’s early, skeezy era. But The Proposal comes from the creator of The Bachelor, airs immediately after The Bachelor, and is hosted by Palmer, who was once a Bachelor himself. It’s mostly a version of The Bachelor, stripped down to its game show bones, at which point it becomes clear just how starkly vacuous both The Proposal and The Bachelor really are.

In the first episode of The Proposal, the mystery man making all the decisions was named Mike, a 29-year old cop from Bakersfield, California, who had his right leg amputated below the knee after a car accident. Despite being the ostensible focus of the episode, he’s a blank, literally a blurry body with an uplifting story but no distinguishable personality. The 10 women, meanwhile, are jammed into Bachelor archetypes: the earnest, appropriate potential wife; the unbalanced contestant (“I’ve battled a lot of anxiety and depression. Clearly I’m over it!”); the accomplished black women who get rejected remarkably early.

Season after season, The Bachelor has gotten away with proffering a harem of women to one man by framing it as a quest for true love—even though dozens of seasons in, we all know true love is hardly ever found. The show obscures its icky premise with mood (romantic tropical locations, the soulless model homes that pass for fancy on reality TV), promises (host Chris Harrison’s assurances that love is truly in the air), emotions (the good-faith efforts of the participants—or at least the production team coaching and editing them—to state and restate their commitment to being there for “the right reasons,” while feeling all their feelings on camera), and, of course, drama. But The Proposal, unlike The Bachelor, does not take place over a period of weeks. It has no ambiance, no emotional connections. It has a premise, not promises. And it has no dramatic throughline. The Proposal trying to manufacture romance is like a chef trying to make a meal out of half a Rice Krispies Treat.

Over a brisk 30 minutes, Mike had to cull the field of 10 women—who included an Olympic weightlifter, a neuropsychologist, a doctor, a woman who arrived on roller skates, and another who described herself as “the Jennifer Aniston of Long Island”— down to two. After rejecting three basically on sight—“This is harder than I anticipated,” he hemmed, referring, I assume, to his difficulty remembering their names—Mike was wooed by the women as they wore bathing suits. What’s no longer good enough for Miss America is still good enough for The Proposal. There followed a round in which Mike asked terrible “deal-breaker” questions that could elicit no honest response—“Could you date an amputee?” “How physically adventurous are you when it comes to sex?” All the while, the show itself kept dropping information to steer him away from the unwifely prospects. This woman is older than 40! That one doesn’t want children!

With Jessica and Monica, two appropriate potential spouses, left, Mike finally revealed himself, muscular in a sharp dark suit. “I was a little skeptical,” Mike told Jesse, “but I could possibly propose and fall in love.” He sounded exactly like a Bachelor. At this point, though Mike had told the women almost nothing about himself, the women were expected to pitch themselves to him yet again, to essentially propose to him. Jessica, after asking her father’s permission—he was in the audience and granted it—gave a very heartfelt speech stolen wholesale from romantic comedies. “I can’t promise we’re not going to have a fight … but I can promise you that I will love you … even when I’m old and gray,” she said. I feel it is incumbent upon me to remind you that, at this point, Jessica and Mike had definitely never had a fight because they had also never had a conversation. Jessica finished with a rousing “So let’s do the damn thing.” Then it was time for Monica, who burst into tears while explaining that, though her life is great, “There’s one thing that is missing, and that’s someone like you.”

“I can’t thank you guys enough for putting your hearts on the line,” Mike said, “for doing this crazy, crazy show. I never thought I would find someone as special as you guys, I never thought I would find love, but after hearing what you guys have to say, I have.” Mike then walked up to those special guys and, while Jessica and Monica were standing next to each other, took Monica by the hand and proposed to her. Jessica was left standing there, looking distraught and uncomfortable. Her father, out in the audience, was presumably also distraught to have his permission disregarded so. Monica, of course, accepted the proposal—what was she actually accepting, the obligation to do some tabloid photo shoots?—at which point Monica and Mike kissed, fake fireworks blasted, and the studio audience raucously cheered.

Why should a faceless man, with no demonstrable personality but a lot of muscles, get to pass judgment on 10 women who have eagerly performed their personality—and their swimsuit bodies—for him? (It will be interesting—“interesting”—to see how this plays out in next week’s episode, when it’s a woman choosing between 10 men.) But as retrograde as all this is, The Proposal still feels like a product designed expressly for our moment, when outrage is an end unto itself. Its premise, after all, is outrageous. The earnestness with which this premise is executed—with no winking, with no sign that the show knows its own crassness, with fireworks—is only a further provocation of the hot-take gods. It is impossible to believe The Proposal is for real. But what a lark, what an escape, to be aggravated, even momentarily, by something so idiotic.