Oh, Chad.ABC

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.]

Early on in this season of The Bachelorette, the guys, in their copious downtime together, put together a little ceremony. To celebrate the departure of Chad, the show’s resident villain and the contestant who was as literal a meathead as you can get (the show’s camera crew managed to get several shots of him, at various times, threateningly chomping on cold cuts), the remaining dudetestants threw him a mock funeral. “Gentlemen,” said Wells (Radio DJ), solemnly, “we are gathered here today to celebrate arguably the worst person anyone has ever met. Tonight, we say farewell to quite literally the [expletive] person who has ever been on either The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Chad: farewell, sweet prince. Death to tyrants.”

This was, to be clear, absurd. (The guys would proceed to find one of the Costco-sized tubs of protein powder that Chad had brought with him onto the show, each take a handful of the stuff, and then scatter the powder, mock-ceremonially, to the wind.) But the faux-funeral was a perfect sendoff for a villain whose particular brand of villainy reveled in the ridiculous. The Bachelorette, following the practice of its brother show, tends to reduce its human participants to characters, and often to chyrons. The show lists, as a matter of chyronic course, only four things about each contestant: First name, age, current place of residence, and profession. (The professions of the current season included “Hipster,” “Erectile Dysfunction Specialist,” and “Canadian.”) Chad is, officially, a “Luxury Real Estate Agent,” but it was clear from the beginning what he more meaningfully was to this season of The Bachelorette, as it engaged in its ad-absurdum reductions: the show’s villain. But Chad wasn’t just any villain: He was a uniquely ridiculous villain. He turned that classic trope of reality TV—the stuff of Omarosa and “Nasty Nick” and Angelina—inside-out, highlighting the absurdity of its demands. Chad was a reality TV villain who used his villainy to mock reality TV itself. He was performance art, with protein powder.

It was Chad who had said, in The Bachelorette’s also-absurd pre-premiere questionnaire, that his “greatest achievement to date” was “being born good looking.” (Oh, Chad.) It was Chad who threatened violence against several of his castmates. And who took to whistling, menacingly, as he walked around the Bachelor/Bachelorette mansion. Chad, at one point, he scraped his fingers down a glass door, the resulting squeeeeak duly creeping out the guys on the other side. He chose solitary workouts—he used that tub of protein powder, enterprisingly, as a weight for his pull-ups—rather than hanging out by the pool with his fellow fellas. He accused JoJo, the season’s eponymous single lady, of “nagging” him.

This last one was too much. That was the height, despite Chad’s punch-drunkenness and his horror-movie antics, of his villainy. One of the unwritten rules of The Bachelorette is that you fall in love, immediately, with the Bachelorette in question, and your love will make you unable to question or doubt her superiority to every other woman on Earth. “Nag” does not have a place within this idealized moral universe.

But Chad—oh, Chad—ignored those mandates. He took the show for what it is, which is an absurd farce that contestants use to maybe “find love,” but more often to transform themselves, via the alchemy of television, into B-list celebrities. (Ali Fedotowsky, a contestant on The Bachelor and then a star of The Bachelorette, took a job as a correspondent for E! News; Ben Higgins, from the last season of The Bachelor, may now be running for office.) Chad reveled in that absurdity. He refused to operate by the show’s many, many unwritten rules, and instead portrayed himself—or, more accurately, let The Bachelorette’s producers portray him—as a kind of dada hero. Chad was decidedly campy in his villainy (sometimes literally, as when he and Alex found themselves fighting over JoJo during a double date in the wilderness of Pennsylvania):

Chad: Get over it. Have a glass of milk, man.

Alex: I don’t like milk. Don’t like milk. Don’t need it.

Chad: You should. Milk’s delicious.

Again: absurd! But also kind of perfect! Was he shilling for Big Milk? Or was he just being true to himself? Does it matter? The Bachelor is a franchise that comes with its own advertising tie-ins (last season’s was, inexplicably, Manwich; this season’s is Clorox, apparently because The Bachelorette, like life itself, is full of “bleachable moments”). It’s a series of shows that, via their “exotic locations”—including, this time around, Argentina, Thailand, and, of course, Pennsylvania—emphasizes the “place” in “product placement.” Chad’s lactic acidity was, really, no weirder than anything else the show has put forward in its awkward attempt to marry the marketing of products with the marketing of humans. It was even, in its way, a celebration of it. Chad was calling the show’s many bluffs and reveling in them at the same time. It was glorious. It was art.

So it was fitting that, on Tuesday night’s The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All special, while JoJo came back—to “face” Luke and the other guys she’d rejected (or, in the show’s soft parlance, the men she’d “said goodbye to”)—the real drama revolved around Chad. The show’s host, Chris Harrison, teased the appearance, and encouraged the gathered men to speak ill of him before he materialized. Evan (Erectile Dysfunction Specialist): “Chad was real the way Donald Trump is real.” Derek (Commercial Banker): “He’s an episode of Cops waiting to happen.” Wells (Radio DJ): “He’s like Voldemort.”

Chad has also been a U.S. Marine—and yet that mild complication of his villain edit (a villain cannot be a hero) went largely unacknowledged as the show played out. On the The Men Tell All special, Chris interrupted Luke so that the audience might thank him for his service; Chad, meanwhile, was thanked by a shot of him pulling a piece of jerky from his suit pocket and chomping on it, menacingly and weirdly and, well, jerkily.

The Bachelorette is a guilty pleasure in the most meaningful, and legitimate, sense of the term: It is aggressively heteronormative, and it is relentlessly superficial, and it has a terrible record with diversity. It reduces full humans to candle-lit caricatures. It also manages, Moroccan lanterns and roses notwithstanding, to denude romance itself. One of the best things you can say about a show that treats romance as a contest is that it imposes order on a process—“finding love,” in the show’s parlance—that, in the world beyond TV, can often be filled with uncertainty. Going on a trip together, spending the night together, meeting the parents, committing to exclusivity … all of it takes place, with The Bachelorette’s universe, on a rigid timeline.

One of the worst things you can say about a show that treats romance as a contest, however, is that it treats love—that ineffable, unpredictable, mysterious thing—as a mandate. These guys have to fall in love, or more precisely they have to claim to fall in love, with JoJo; otherwise, they will be kicked off the show. Here, love and fame are intimately, and awkwardly, related. The contestants know that, and are made anxious by it; that is what makes contestants’ accusing each other of being there for fame such a consistent feature of the show. It’s what makes claims of “being here for the right reasons” such a reliable refrain, season to season.   

Chad exploits that, too. During Tuesday’s special, he accused Jordan, a finalist and long a front-runner for JoJo’s affections, of appearing on the show as an audition for a sportscasting gig. (Was Chad also, in that accusation, referencing UnREAL, the fictional satire of The Bachelorette that found one of its cast members appearing on the show with the exact same goal in mind? Maybe! Who knows. What is truth. Etc.)

Mostly, though, Chad exploits absurdity itself. And, in that way, he ends up being the realest person on this particular reality show. Tuesday’s The Men Tell All special featured fake candles, and fake roses, and JoJo thanking her “cast members” for being “upstanding men” in their courtship of her. It featured a cameo from the mother of Vinny (Barber), yelling at JoJo that she’d made a mistake saying goodbye to her son. (“You shaved him, you took his facial hair, and you let him go!” the mom exclaimed, angrily, as the audience laughed.) The showed piled absurdity after absurdity. And then it featured Chad advising his fellow dudes about their relationship with JoJo, “Get to know her before you fall in love with her.”

This was not good advice so much as it was the most obvious idea in the world. But the crowd booed. Because Chad is the villain, and because he is a jerk, and because “knowing” the object of one’s love has never, ever been the point of The Bachelorette. So Chad duly returned to his schtick. “Sometimes you choose apples when you should’ve loved pickles,” he told Chris, smiling. The crowd laughed, and Chris rolled his eyes, and all, once again, was right with the world.

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