If reality dating shows are all about channeling the romantic narrative of the fairy tale, what happens when they pivot to the darker side of Grimm?
Now in its 12th season, that’s the question being asked of ABC’s romance fun factory “The Bachelorette,” after much of the first four episodes were dedicated to the antics of contestant Chad Johnson and his increasingly erratic behavior toward fellow contestants as well as bachelorette JoJo Fletcher.
A Realtor from Tulsa, Okla., Johnson has an intimidating physique and an easy smile, along with something of a temper. He got into repeated arguments with other bachelors, including a physical scuffle that ended with claims of pushing and a mysteriously torn shirt.
Much of the fervor surrounding Johnson stems from the fact that, though eliminated in the fourth episode, he appears to be allowed to confront the rest of the contestants in Episode 5, in lieu of being shipped directly to the airport.
Moreover, the conclusion of Episode 4 featured Johnson stalking through darkened woods, tunelessly whistling, then arriving to pound on the door of the cabin the cast was inhabiting, borrowing heavily from tongue-in-cheek horror iconography in a fashion that seemed to marginalize the actual danger domestic violence poses.
Much of the confusion about Johnson’s continued presence on the show seems to revolve around the question of whether he was a legitimate threat.
In a recent ABC conference call, contestant Alex Woytkiw dismissed Johnson as “a Chihuahua,” claiming Johnson “never did anything physical because he was never going to do anything physical.”
“He just liked to threaten people,” Woytkiw said.
Specifically, during one of their several disagreements on the show, Johnson informed Woytkiw that if he continued to interfere with [Johnson’s] pursuit of JoJo he would “lose [his] damn teeth.”
“And when no one stepped in during that confrontation,” Woytkiw recalled, “I figured, all right, we’re on our own here.”
Though Johnson did not respond to requests for comment, a recent Instagram post had the contestant talking about finally watching the show.
“Now I understand why some people hate me!” Johnson quipped.
For Fletcher’s part, she eliminated Johnson in episode four, after making explicit that his behavior was unacceptable. Her previous reticence about booting Johnson sprang from their initial romantic chemistry but also from the knowledge that Johnson had lost his mother six months before the season’s filming.
Even experts in the field are divided over how “The Bachelorette” is handling Johnson’s behavior.
“The production company, studio and network all have a responsibility to keep their contestants safe,” says Andy Dehnart, founder of reality-TV website Reality Blurred. “But they’ve abdicated all responsibility and chosen to put their contestants at risk to generate ratings instead.”
Reality TV blogger Steve Carbone disagrees.
The truth likely exists somewhere between the two.
“There’s no definitive line in the industry with regards to violence,” says veteran reality-TV producer Michael Carroll. “You do want there to be a conflict, but you don’t want anyone harmed.”
Carroll got his start on “The Bachelor” in 2002 as an assistant, before becoming a producer for the show, leaving after nine seasons to work on other reality shows including “Top Chef,” “A Shot at Love II with Tila Tequila” and Fox’s new dating series “Coupled.”
Producing reality TV is controlled chaos, Carroll says. Each contestant undergoes psychological testing, both so that the production can obtain insurance and to provide producers with a window into how that person behaves in different situations.
“You’d like them to fall somewhere on the scale where you know they might react a certain way” — read: dramatic — “but not going so far that it’s endangering the production or the cast,” Carroll says, before cautioning that producers aren’t looking for everyone to be a loose cannon, just “certain people you’ll be casting as the villain.”
Threats and violence are nothing new for the genre. On the second season of MTV’s revolutionary series “The Real World,” a cast member was sent home for ripping a blanket off a fellow housemate, creating an environment where the cast felt unsafe. The latest season of the MTV stalwart, its 31st, featured two cast-member dismissals from the finale for physically brawling.
But Carroll has his own theory as to why people are upset over Johnson’s controversial actions on “The Bachelorette.”
“It’s disrupting the fairy tale. They want to see the process. They want to catch the moment people fall in love,” he says. “This has been three episodes taking away from that.”
All the same, Carroll calls the dust-ups with Chad “fascinating television.”
“I’ve been glued to it. I’m waiting for this guy to crack.”
Not everyone shares that anticipation.
After episodes three and four aired in a two-night special event on June 6-7, a schedule necessitated by ABC’s broadcast of Game 5 of the NBA finals on June 13, Twitter users seemed divided as to Johnson’s continued presence.
“I can’t lie Chad is unstable & scary but he is so entertaining to watch,” tweeted one user, echoing Carroll’s sentiments. But others were far from amused by Johnson’s aggression.
“If ABC wanted to earnestly condemn Chad’s violent tendencies, they wouldn’t exploit it for a 2-night event,” tweeted viewer. “Just cut him.”
Even the Bachelorette herself seemed conflicted. Fletcher posted on her blog after episode three aired, saying of Johnson’s behavior, “Watching it back now, it scares me.”
Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this story.
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)
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