Bloggers gossiped about the "surprise" ending for nearly two weeks. And when star Jason Mesnick finally faced the cameras Monday to dump the woman he'd chosen to be his wife on ABC's unscripted romance competition The Bachelor, fans filled Twitter messages and blogs with cries of producer manipulation and setup.
So why did The Bachelor land its biggest ratings in five years on Monday, drawing 15.5 million viewers to the final, two-hour episode of the pretaped competition, in which single dad Mesnick wrapped up nine episodes by picking Melissa Rycroft to be his bride?
About 17.5 million viewers stuck around for that night's After the Rose special, where Mesnick revealed he had fallen out of love with Rycroft since the taping last year, leaving her for the woman he had originally slotted in second place, Molly Malaney.
Many fans suspect these so-called reality TV shows are hopelessly staged and manipulated. So why do we keep reacting as if they are real, endlessly debating details and implications?
"It's about the possibility, the potential," wrote Andy Dehnart, creator of the reality TV-focused Web site Reality Blurred in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "I think that's why everyone freaked out so much when Jason dumped Melissa on camera; generally, the breakups happen outside the bubble of the show, and thus don't interrupt The Bachelor's well-constructed narratives that suggest it's possible to find true love with minimal effort."
TV Guide noted that, in 13 cycles of The Bachelor and four cycles of The Bachelorette, just three couples have remained together — including Tampa resident Mary Delgado and Bachelor 6 star Byron Velvick, despite Delgado's 2007 arrest for punching Velvick.
And, as Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart first reported, NBC's unscripted weight loss competition The Biggest Loser misled viewers into believing that ejected contestant Dane Patterson ran a full 26-mile marathon, when he was actually picked up by a van at the 17-mile marker and given a ride for 3 miles so he could get to the finish line before race officials packed up. The network has since apologized.
But if it took a bunch of blog postings from other marathon runners and coverage by a major TV critic to get an admission on this bit of tweaking, what else aren't they telling us about how they stage the show?
On The Bachelor, Mesnick's machinations were played for maximum melodrama, with the Bachelor shedding a boatload of tears as he broke up with one woman and settled into a deep kiss with another in the space of an hour. Host Chris Harrison has insisted the finale was not a producer's setup — that Mesnick picked Rycroft around Thanksgiving and they fell out of love over the holidays.
But I remain convinced the choice to play out this awful melodrama on camera, instead of resolving everything between the three people and then bringing them on camera, mostly was about juicing ratings with a spectacle the 7-year-old series had never televised before.
Dehnart, who also believes producers took advantage of Mesnick's change of heart but didn't initiate the breakup, noted that having nonactors play out the melodrama makes everything feel more real to fans — even those who suspect what they see has been manipulated by producers.
I just hope the guy's young son, Ty, didn't get too attached to Rycroft — or Malaney.
Because I have a hunch another breakup is coming. And, with luck, there won't be another After the Rose special around to capture it.