I was trying to explain the premise of The Proposal, ABC’s new dating reality show, and failing. “It’s like The Dating Game?” my friend said, to which I thought: Well, but not quite. It was important to get it right. I had just watched a screener (the last 10 minutes of which were kept from reviewers, for spoilers) and needed to share the incomprehensible bizarrity of what I had just consumed.
It’s like The Bachelor, I explained, except the entire series of eliminations happens in a single episode. At the end the bachelor or bachelorette proposes to the “winner,” who then can either become instantly engaged to this person who they have just met or turn it down and risk disappointing an entire live studio audience. Also, no one knows what the proposer looks like until we whittle everyone down to the final two contestants.
Clearly, I did not manage to communicate all this in my explanation, because the person I was speaking to did not look confused or shocked. Last night, I finally watched the premiere episode of The Proposal in its entirety — not because the show is so wonderful, but because I had to confirm if my memories were correct or not. I’m happy to report they were. The Proposal is one of the most bonkers show on network television today, and here’s why.
The show takes place on a stage in front of a live studio audience. Beginning with 10 people, the contestants are narrowed down through a series of challenges. After each round — an initial presentation, a bathing suit round, and two question and answer portions — the proposer, whose face is hidden, eliminates the eligible single people until we are finally left with two. The proposer then reveals themselves and decides which person they will propose to. (An engagement ring jeweler is on site.)
Clearly, the most efficient way for a completely obscured person to sift through 10 unhappily single people in one night is to have them walk back and forth across a stage as they present themselves for each round. Thus, the format of the show (which host and former The Bachelor Jesse Palmer refers as a “soul mate” pageant) makes sense, whatever “making sense” means in the context of a reality dating show. But the bathing suit and Q&A stages inefficiently merge the spectacle of Miss America with the intimacy of getting to know a romantic partner, and as a result, the competition feels more soulless than swiping through Tinder. It also results in Palmer explaining the progressing challenges with unsuccessfully salacious lines like:
“Well now they’re about to bear their souls and their bodies as they reveal what’s most important to them… in their finest beachwear.”
“To help him decide Mike is going to ask the ladies a series of questions about things that matter to him most. And nothing is off limits. It could be politics, religion, past relationships. Even. Sex.”
In the premiere episode, a woman is eliminated when, in response to a question from proposer Michael’s best friend, she admits she doesn’t want to have children. Fun show!
Every pageant with a tuxedoed host needs a fittingly lavish set, and while this one certainly checks the boxes for “shiny” and “pretty lights,” it also has a dark, supervillain vibe that makes it seem like a contestant could fall through a trapdoor at any moment. The fact that the proposer is hiding in an enclosure called a “pod,” equipped with its own surveillance screen, doesn’t help things. Additionally, contestants are forced to walk down a flight of curved stairs while they are first being introduced. Almost no one looks competent walking down a flight of stairs in heels. Even fewer look competent doing so in roller skates, as one roller derby enthusiast in the premiere episode did.
The proposer isn’t the only person on the show obscured from view. Though Palmer is the host, an unseen, glamorous-sounding woman tells us who the contestants are in the early stages of the competition. Some people she described blandly but pleasantly, like contestant Morgan who “loves the beach” and “hates parades” and Stephanie who “loves cooking, singing, and following dreams.” Others were like contestant Kendal’s intro announcement:
“Kendal is a 30-year-old baton twirler from Los Angeles. She’s been twirling batons her whole life and sometimes the batons are on fire. Kendal is also a neuropsychologist.” Did “neuropsychologist” come in a little late for anyone else there?
Later, as the women arrive for the bathing suit portion of the show, the announcer weaves in some weak puns. “She was dumped on New Year’s Eve!” the announcer says as contestant Morgan takes to the runway in a black one-piece bathing suit and heels. “But that hasn’t stopped her from making a resolution to find love.” When emergency room medical student Riona enters the stage, we hear this: “She’s never had a boyfriend and her grandfather offered to have her eggs frozen. But when it comes to love she’s hoping to land sunny side up.”
The fact that this show takes place in front of a live audience certainly brings the creepy factor down, as opposed to if it were in a private mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Nonetheless, the audience’s enthusiasm feels misdirected. Partially made up of the contestants’ family and friends, they cheer and coo as each vying single person presents themselves — which would seem supportive if it weren’t for the fact that they are cheering these people on to commit themselves to a stranger they know nothing about and none of them or us have ever even seen.
Literally the entire premise of the show
At its bones, the show is a pageant competition where the winner gets a hazy commitment to someone who may or may not be cute. The facade of familiarity that shows like The Bachelor foster is swept away on a show that builds up to one possible engagement per episode. And unlike the original Dating Game where audiences could see everyone involved, viewers are kept at an uneasy distance by also not being able to see the person with all the choosing power.
The entire episode hinges on the moment the proposer is revealed and we get to see their face, which means for the time leading up to the reveal, the person we are supposed to be rooting for has all the familiarity of an at-large serial killer. That’s only compounded by the fact that they’re presented as cloudy, silver, human-shaped blobs in the requisite interstitial shots showing them in their day to day lives. Then the rest of the episode hinges on whether or not the winning contestant accepts the proposal from our now revealed, still very much unknown stranger. That, my friends, is one too many hinges for any show.
Is this some sort of elaborate ABC-sponsored performance art piece critiquing the institution of marriage as performed on reality television for over a decade? Probably not, no. The Proposal is just the latest reality show gamble that someone in power approved. It is, at least, fantastically bizarre television.