CULTURE & ARTS
08/31/2016 12:59 pm ET

The Wild, Too-Real Dating Show That Came Before 'The Bachelor'

“Elimidate” contestants weren’t looking to get hitched — and that’s part of its weird charm.
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The camera pans across pristine blue water before closing in on a woman with romantic, windblown hair, her waves whipping gracefully around her face. She’s standing alone, looking around expectantly. Her sequined gown is more formal than the beachy setting calls for. Is she lost? Is she ... OK?

Watching her, we’re held captive by this strange situation, so different from any situation we have been in ourselves. This scene isn’t plucked from a wannabee Oscar nom, or even a made-for-TV soap. This is Reality™, as brought to you by ABC’s “The Bachelor,” twice weekly. Its contestants aren’t characters, even if they act in a performative way on camera. They’re Real™ people, with Real™ intentions to get hitched as quickly as possible.

Last year, Lifetime’s popular drama “UnREAL” pulled back the curtain on reality shows, raising questions about meddling producers. The conversation it sparked leaves viewers ― and contestants ― of “The Bachelor” questioning whose motives are sincere, and which scenes are contrived. The show, in turn, has found ways to address the rift between “real” reality and staged reality; contestants discuss which of their housemates act differently off-camera, and single out those they believe aren’t there “for the right reasons.”

The result is that “The Bachelor,” and reality shows like it, have become super-meta, self-referential forms of entertainment. Most viewers seem to watch them on two planes: One that fully embraces the fantasy, the globe-trotting love affairs, and the emotional “journey” towards mature, life-long commitment, another that’s harshly critical of the whole set-up, which whiffs of all the pungent things that make modern love a little icky. 

“The Bachelor,” with its climactic ending ― complete with a Neil Lane diamond ring ― embraces commercialized ideas of romance. The show begins with first impressions and ushers its contestants quickly toward a marriage proposal. The validity of the whirlwind courtship is persistently questioned, but it’s also what keeps viewers hooked.

But before all that, there was a rawer form of reality TV, one that spawned from dirt-cheap budgets and fans’ willingness to make their dating exploits public in exchange for laughs and momentary “fame.” These shows ran on their promise of candor, but their true-to-life structure, absent of narrative tension, might’ve been what eventually did them in. There was “The Real World,” of course, and “Big Brother.” Later, there was “Next,” and what might’ve been the pinnacle of truly real reality dating television, “ElimiDATE.”

For those unacquainted, or those who’ve willingly forgotten, “ElimiDATE” aired from 2001 to 2006. The premise was similar to “The Bachelor,” but on a smaller scale. One man or woman was matched with four members of the opposite sex ― TV was still operating under the presumption of heterosexuality at that point ― and, throughout the night, he or she would make eliminations until only one contestant was left standing.

The result was a show a lot like the early episodes of a “Bachelor” season: attention-grabbing hijinks, interview-style questions slung from dater to date-ees, and an ethnographic study of male bonding behaviors. In one episode, a woman is on a date with four men who seem to run the gamut of age demographics. To cut the tension of the inherently awkward situation, she presents them with a question that might’ve been producer-fed, but is sure to make things worse regardless. “What’s the most manly thing you’ve done?” she asks, fumbling a little. One of them responds immediately: “Skydiving.” Another gets explicit about his past sexual exploits, and proceeds to go in for a dip-kiss.

There is no fantasy. There is no fantasy suite. There’s just you, and these four dudes who are hanging around, trying to kiss you on the mouth.

“I think he was trying to be romantic and playful,” the woman says to the camera later, when she’s alone. “But I thought it was very life-threatening.” Which, if you think about it, is probably the most apt description of a date involving four men and one woman.

To stir the already whirring pot, she throws out another question, seemingly from the depths of her id. She’s fully exposed now, just spit-balling, stream-of-consciousness style. “I want to know, who is really, really, really, really, really good in bed,” she says, and the chorus chimes in: “I am.” “I’m the best.”

She spits out, “I’m horrible, so.”

“We could change that right up,” one man suggests. “They call me Dr. Love.”

Another puts in, “Making love is easy. It’s all in the kiss,” before he ― you guessed it ― initiates a peck.

If this sounds like an absurdist play, or, say, that nightmare you had once where all of your Tinder matches seized on you at once in a dimly lit bar, then you can see that “ElimiDATE,” although certainly not intended as an expressive art form, kind of perfectly captures the horrors of modern dating.

If “The Bachelor” operates on two planes — belief in the potent power of the fantasy and skepticism that it isn’t all just a glittering mirage — “ElimiDATE” exists entirely on one, single, fucked-up plane. There is no fantasy. There is no fantasy suite. There’s just you, and these four dudes who are hanging around, trying to kiss you on the mouth. If “The Bachelor” shows us a vision of our deepest romantic desires, “ElimiDATE” plays our actual love lives back to us in real time, and it’s not pretty.

Which isn’t to say that “ElimiDATE” was a bad show. It wasn’t. It was a sort of lo-fi proto-“Bachelor,” and that was part of its charm. It lived up to its “reality” moniker, and, at least according to one of the show’s senior producers, it aimed to be fun rather than aspirational.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Chris Lamson explained what he liked most about working on “ElimiDATE.” “The show was a very big guilty pleasure with a lot of people, so there was always a party atmosphere around the production,” he said. “We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, and for the most part, except for wanting to win, the guests didn’t take themselves too seriously.”

With the veneer of romance lifted, the show’s contestants were free to behave in accordance with their own freewheeling desires. Viewers operated under no pretense that any of the contestants would last beyond a first or second date, so the goal, if there was one, became to entertain, and, maybe, to snag a kiss or a hookup. If you’ve got even one cynical bone and have been on a date in the past 10 years, this setup probably holds a mirror to your experiences better than “The Bachelor,” with its lavish dates and myriad modes of transportation (most episodes involve air travel), ever could.

Watching "ElimiDATE" had nothing to do with yearning, or with aspirations. It had everything to do with immersing yourself in someone else’s true, uncomfortable struggle to find love – or, at least, sex.

In terms of casting, Lamson said the most important quality he sought in possible contestants was a willingness to contribute to a “lively, competitive” atmosphere. “The most important element to every cast member was that they had a point of view, and were not afraid to share it,” he said.

“ElimiDATE” did feature contestants of color (although still not enough to consider their selections representative), contestants over 30, heavily tattooed contestants, and contestants with thick regional accents. Most contestants did not adhere to ridiculous beauty standards; most contestants were just people, looking to date, or to go on a show that they could laugh about later with their friends.

“Some guests would be freer with their sexuality, some were more conservative, some were more athletic, some were more intellectual,” Lamson said. “The secret to the show was getting that right mix of characters willing to compete to win the date.”

In that regard, “ElimiDATE” does resemble “The Bachelor.” Both are sure to blend sincere matches in with contestants who, knowingly or not, are there to provide comic relief.

In another “ElimiDATE” clip, a woman goes to a barbecue restaurant with three men. (It should be noted that most episodes of the show ran with the four-to-one men-to-women ratio, rather than vice versa.) One man, clad in a forest green suit, begins behaving rudely, cutting in front of her in line.

“Andrew was just totally, totally disrespectful to that beautiful princess,” remarks Forrest, a Southern-accented contestant who’s filmed sitting on a large rock, with cars and other background noises muddying his voice. Chris, another contestant, agrees. “He clearly has no respect for himself,” he says. “I mean, he’s wearing a green suit.”

It’s revealed that the woman, the bachelorette of the hour, knew Andrew before filming began; they met at Texas A&M University, where he was in the same fraternity as one of her ex-boyfriends. All of this ― the “Surprise! We’re acquainted outside of the show!” twist, the criticisms of others’ motives ― predate similar plot devices on “The Bachelor.”

But we’re not given the chance to get to know Andrew better over the course of several tumultuous weeks, wondering whether the show’s heroine will ever come to see his true colors. Instead, about five minutes in, she gives him the ax.

“Andrew, I know you as a different person. In a different light. This isn’t the person I know. You’re a good friend of mine, but ... ”

“So I’m Elimidated?” Andrew interjects, before knocking a roll of paper towels off the communal table.

“Yeah,” she says, laughing. “I think you’re awesome, and fun. Please don’t hate me?”

Off camera, she confesses, “It finally got to the point where Andrew was just a little too much for me. It was just ruining the date.” Unlike on “The Bachelor,” there are no tearful goodbyes, only petty displays of temporary hurt, which, again, seems more appropriate for couples who’ve only just met. 

Lamson acknowledges the similarities between the shows, saying, “They do it on a grand scale that lasts for weeks ― and we did it in a half hour, but the basic premise is still the same.” But, he adds, “The beauty of ‘ElimiDATE’ was that the format was so simple.”

Indeed, it was. That simplicity was what made the show an absurd, entertaining reflection of modern dating mishaps and successes. Watching “ElimiDATE” had nothing to do with yearning, or with aspirations. It had everything to do with immersing yourself in someone else’s true, uncomfortable struggle to find love — or, at least, sex. But, ultimately, its unfiltered setup might’ve been its tragic flaw.

Maybe, in its early days, reality TV was a little too real. Maybe — probably — we want to believe that reality, like fiction, has a plausible arc, a neat conclusion. A final scene shot on a windblown cliff, a prince and a princess, together, laughing.

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