Paradise Lost: The Other Side of Reality TV

Image via Shutterstock/ABC.
Image via Shutterstock/ABC.

It turns out that, after all the rose ceremonies, hook-ups, and knock-down drag-out fights, the most dramatic moment in Bachelor history won’t be televised.


The franchise’s drama, which is orchestrated by producers and induced by a toxic mix of alcohol and incentivized bad behavior, came to a head after a producer on Bachelor in Paradise blew the whistle on alleged sexual misconduct between two cast members that occurred as cameras rolled. While few details about the situation have been confirmed, we know that production on the show has been suspended, the cast has been sent home, and a formal complaint was filed by a producer. An internal investigation has been initiated in response to the allegations of misconduct.

Many members of “Bachelor Nation,” as the franchise’s viewers are called, initially expressed disappointment on social media that their favorite summer show won’t air, and some questioned what the big deal is. Why would a show, whose entire premise is based upon watching people get drunk and hook up, halt production over a drunken hook-up?

As it happens, there is a limit to just how dramatic something can be before it becomes potentially illegal. And Season 4 of Bachelor in Paradise might have crossed that line.

Reality television has been around long enough for viewers to see how the participants become exaggerated versions of themselves, circumstances are manipulated to create drama, and the shows are edited in a way that doesn’t show the full story. What audiences may not realize is just how contrived the context is and how destructive and traumatizing the experience can be for cast members during filming and after airing.

As a cast member on MTV’s Road Rules and several seasons of its spinoff, The Challenge, I have watched as reality television has grown and changed in response to increased competition, desensitized audiences, and a race to the bottom to produce the most outrageous and scandalous content. What began as a “social experiment” (and a cheap way to produce television devoid of actors and script writers) to document what happens when “people stop being polite,” became a highly profitable genre that hinges upon increasingly shocking narratives designed to capture audience attention with warped regard for cost.

My time on MTV began nearly two decades ago, in 1998, before Survivor and the reality boom that followed. The Real World and Road Rules maintained a documentary-style approach to production. There were fights, fraternizing, and friendships, but the narratives developed organically through the “larger-than-life,” diverse casts living under one roof. Those early years included almost no intervention from the producers, who had to hope their efforts to cast uncensored and authentic personalities would translate into compelling television. As reality television caught on, however, that changed. Over my seasons, I watched as producers became more heavy-handed in their involvement and more involved in “story,” using techniques that now are considered par for the course in the creation of reality TV. I was asked to recreate scenes if the cameras missed the shot. Producers would reveal what other participants had said about us to induce conflict. They would often explicitly and implicitly encourage cast members to hook-up, and in the case of The Challenge, create competitions that simulate sexual acts to encourage sexual tension and get erotic content.


Drama doesn’t always happen naturally, and given the pressure to keep these highly profitable franchises afloat, producers will go to great lengths in the moment to ensure they get shareable, watercooler stories. These efforts include providing virtually unlimited alcohol and removing “distractions,” which amount to literally anything that might prevent cast interaction including, but not limited to, books, televisions, phones, games, and computers. On The Challenge, producers even banned watches and clocks from the house, creating a Las Vegas-style environment that disorients the participants’ sense of time (and among other things, encourages people to stay up too late partying).

While being without technology and other distractions for four to 12 weeks (depending on the show) might seem like a nice break, it essentially creates a telegenic—albeit voluntary—prison. Phone calls home are limited (and sometimes forbidden), and often used by producers as leverage to get more content. One Challenge cast member was only allowed to call home if she promised to talk about the recent death of her father. The boredom created by these conditions doesn’t get featured in the episodes of course, but it is overwhelming, and cast members become agitated, frustrated, and on edge. When you combine that feeling of being caged with the stress of trying to win money or find love, people behave in ways that appear crazed to viewers.


One season I was on, a cast member chugged a bottle of wine and Jack Daniels and got into a fistfight with another cast member. I stayed in the corner of my bedroom praying he wouldn’t come in. Cameras never stopped rolling, and the police were not called. The cast member was kicked off the show, but returned for a subsequent season. While he was punished in the moment, his erratic and dangerous behavior was ultimately rewarded with more airtime.

On shows like The Challenge and Bachelor in Paradise, producers claim a zero-tolerance policy regarding violence, yet they lay the table for precisely the behavior they appear to prohibit. They incentivize physical violence by promoting those acts in trailers and teasers, cast members who initiate them are asked to return, and they often purposefully cast people who have known conflicts with one another (the Challenge even had a “rivals” theme on several seasons).


Additionally, every aspect of the participants’ lives during filming is controlled by producers including when and what they eat, when they can use the bathroom, and when they can sleep. These authoritarian tactics are imposed under the pretense that it is a television set with a schedule, but the “set” is also where the cast lives, and the benefits of these rules to producers go beyond logistics. The directives establish a hierarchical relationship between the cast and producers, wherein the participants are at the mercy of the producers for everything, and the cast knows the way to get more airtime, privileges, and possibly a good edit, is to be compliant (with the crew) and controversial (with the cast).

When producers remove every conceivable distraction, provide endless alcohol, and make airtime the currency, it’s not surprising that bad behavior becomes normalized. Among reality shows, Bachelor in Paradise is particularly transparent about the role alcohol plays in its storylines. In previous seasons, they’ve had a bar in the house manned by “Jorge the Bartender,” who is portrayed as comic relief and a de facto therapist to the lovesick cast members who come to him for advice. He even has his own Twitter account (although it’s unclear whether it is his real account, one that is approved/connected to the crew, or even a parody).


Oddly, despite The Bachelor franchise’s tongue-in-cheek (and booze-filled) approach to love, participants are expected to make long-term commitments, with many couples becoming engaged in the final episodes, and a few couples ultimately getting married. Most recently, Carly Waddell and Evan Bass, who met in Paradise, were slated to marry on the now-defunct season, though ABC has not announced if or how they’ll air the wedding. Unlike many other competition-style reality shows, Bachelor in Paradise forces participants to romantically pair off without any obvious financial incentive, but if you don’t find a match you are sent home. Being sent home means less airtime, less airtime means fewer social media followers, and fewer followers means less income. Cast members misbehave as a means of job security. The more scandalous their behavior, the more likely they are to become a recurring character.

On television, the houses the cast members live in appear aesthetically idyllic, but don’t let the sweeping aerial shots, beach scenes, and swimming pools fool you. Dozens of people live there during filming (not including the production crew who are omnipresent), and are often dirty and unhygienic. (Let’s just say you probably wouldn’t want to get into one of those Real World hot tubs.) And cast members are forbidden from leaving the premises. It’s a gilded cage with 24-hour surveillance.


In addition to the “reality” portion of filming, which is when the cast interacts without structure, there are interviews (the moments when the cast member is looking directly into the camera) where producers ask participants about their feelings, thoughts, desires, and regrets. These interviews are designed to elicit emotion, sound bites, and more drama. The questions asked guide subsequent narratives, plant seeds of discord among the cast, and reinforce outrageous behavior as producers often encourage cast members to confront and share their feelings with each other.

As a viewer, it would be easy to dismiss the questionable practices of producers if only because cast members continue to return season after season on “all-star” style spin-offs (after all, Bachelor in Paradise is just that). How bad could the experience be if the participants seem to be clamoring to return? And despite the dysfunctional relationship between producers and cast, many cast members develop friendships with them and other crew members. In fact, I met my husband while filming The Challenge. He was an audio mixer (they put our microphones on us every day), and while we were forbidden from speaking during production, we’ve been inseparable since the wrap party and married for seven years. The “fourth wall” between cast and crew is complicated, and bonds can be formed through the strange dynamics on set. Likewise, many of the producers genuinely care for members of the cast. In the end, though, they are hired to create compelling television, and if they fail to accomplish that they are unlikely to be re-hired.


While many fans know reality shows are produced via manipulation of people and circumstances, the role that control may have played in the current Bachelor in Paradise controversy complicates things. There have been reports claiming producers on this season of Paradise were literally creating narratives; producers had reportedly specifically told Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, the two individuals involved in the incident that led to the misconduct allegations, that they were supposed to hook-up, establishing the story of their “romance” before it happened. TMZ has reported that after producers informed the cast members of the intended narrative, the cast members drank “all day” and as their interactions escalated sexually, other cast members became increasingly disturbed that production was not intervening in what allegedly became a situation in which Olympios was not able to consent.

At minimum, it appears that many reality cast members are willing to take the good with the bad. They sign iron-clad contracts, commodify their lives, and in exchange get lots of attention, money to appear, and potential deals promoting the likes of detox tea and hair extensions on social media. The truth is more complicated, however, and a cast member returning to the show isn’t necessarily evidence of a fair trade between producers and participants. To appear on even one season of reality television, cast members are often forced to quit their jobs, which in some cases upends their careers. The “opportunity” to be on national television feels like a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and participants willingly abandon their professions in the hope of breakout stardom.


But stardom usually doesn’t come, and 15 minutes ain’t what it used to be. The market is saturated with z-listers from reality television. The likelihood of it being a professional liability far outweigh the chances of superstardom. And once you’ve entered the reality world, it is easy to get caught in a cycle of appearing as a way to make a living. I have referred to my relationship with the shows as an abusive one because after each season I swore I’d never return, but after time passed, I would forget and be lured back by the competition, money, and attention.  

Cast members know that in order to be asked back, they must provide producers with drama, which in the eyes of production is their only value. While the line between a participant’s “real” life and filming is minimal, the distinction for producers is clear: They are making a television show. They are creating entertainment. Anyone not facilitating or contributing to that goal will not be asked to return. The greatest sin a reality cast member can commit is to be boring.


Chosen from previous seasons of Bachelor and Bachelorette, this cast of Bachelor in Paradise season was anything but boring, and know exactly what viewers want to see. Fan favorite Amanda Stanton, whose last season engagement to Josh Murray ended amid a flurry of social media posts and accusations, was back to find her next suitor. Olympios and Jackson themselves were known as franchise “villains,” the ones fans love to hate.

Bachelor Nation’s “guilty pleasure” won’t air this summer and possibly ever again. If the investigation leads to the demise of the Bachelor franchise, cast members will be left to find new careers in the wake of GIFs, memes, and viral clips of their binge-drinking, brawls, and breakups. These shows are huge money-makers, and will continue to exist until that changes. And while this incident might end Paradise, and potentially scare advertisers away from the franchise, and Bachelor Nation might become a ghost town, there will always be the next reality hit. Audiences love their escapist television, and there will always be people more than eager to appear on them, more producers eager to make them—asserting that the environment they create is markedly better than the bad ones you’ve read about—more executives pleased that their hit is still making money.


More personally, Jackson and Olympios will become fodder for gossip publications, forced to reckon with the true price you pay when your life becomes entertainment, while producers, the production company, and ABC may have to answer questions about whether they were simply documenting events as they unfold or developing an environment that led to a cast member saying she couldn’t remember what happened to her during a sexual encounter. In the end, “guilty pleasure” seems too nice a phrase. Perhaps when we’ve asked whether cast members were there “for the right reasons” we should’ve more regularly been asking the same of the show’s creators.

Susie Meister is a former cast member on MTV’s Road Rules and The Challenge. She is a PhD in Religious Studies and host of the Brain Candy Podcast. Twitter: @susie_meister


Interesting read! My wife and I don’t watch a ton of TV, but make a point to keep up with The Challenge (Real World is hit or miss, and let’s not talk about how much I miss Road Rules).

You can certainly see, even just on-screen, how the restrictions have loosened over time. The sorts of conduct that had cast members ejected back in the 90s are laughable compared to what contestants get away with now. And it seems as if the standards vary depending on who the offending parties are.

I thought it was interesting to see more seasoned veterans Darrell and Veronica come back to the franchise lately; I assumed they had just aged out of appearing, or that the nature of the competition had left them behind (not the case for Darrell, seemingly the case for Veronica).