Mar 26, 2013

Starbuck and The Bachelor

Recently, I experienced one of those moments of serendipity where the contrast of two cultural events leads to some surprising insights. Within a few days of each other, I saw the final episode of The Bachelor, followed by the French Canadian film Starbuck. The Bachelor tracked, in its most recent season, a man choosing from 25 women to be his bride, or as he liked to put it as many times as possible, “the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.” Starbuck is a fiction film about a 42-year-old man who discovers that he has fathered over 500 children through a sperm bank.

The obvious similarity between Starbuck and The Bachelor is that both stories focus on the male role in the mating dance. But what we should study as writers is how each works through a particular genre to make its case. Starbuck uses one of the eight sub-genres of comedy, the traveling angel story (for the story beats of Traveling Angel and the other 7 major forms, see the Comedy Class). The Bachelor relies on the love story and one of the major forms of television, the reality show. 

Starbuck appears to be just another example of the low comedy, also known as gross out comedy, that has taken over Hollywood for at least a decade.

After all, the entire movie is based on the comic contrast of a vast number of human beings resulting from one man’s seed. But that would be a serious misreading of the film. The high concept premise is just the setup for the overall comic story structure – the traveling angel form – that is the real secret to the film’s success. 

Of the eight major comic sub-genres, the traveling angel comedy is the only form I have never seen fail at the box office. I recently did a structure breakdown of Intouchables, a very successful traveling angel film from France. Other examples include Amelie, Chocolat, and Mary Poppins

Starbuck twists the traveling angel form in that the hero doesn’t enter a community in trouble. The writers establish him up front as a total screwup who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and clearly is in no position to be a true father. He then discovers he has biologically fathered over 500 children, and 142 of them are suing to find out his identity. 

Now the traveling angel element kicks in. The hero clandestinely meets a number of his offspring, all of whom have problems. And this man who is incapable of being a father in his own life tries to help, and care for, the children he created in a test tube twenty years before. 

Notice this is comedy of contrast and structure, not comedy of dialogue. Comedy based primarily on funny dialogue doesn’t travel well, because it’s based on language and cultural references unique to a particular country or region. Comedy based on big structural contrasts is the only type of comedy that works for a worldwide audience, because the laughs come from character and action. (Sure enough, remake rights to the film have been sold in France and India, and a Hollywood version, called “The Delivery Man,” starring Vince Vaughn, is coming out in October.) 

By hanging the jokes on the traveling angel story structure, Starbuck can move from the low base of animal humor to the heights of community and true fatherhood. Instead of packing as many petty jokes and gags as the writers can fit into 109 minutes, the script has a foundation of heart and character change that makes the humor icing on a very tasty cake. 

Starbuck uses comedy to strip the man’s role in the mating game down to its lowest biological denominator, then builds to love. The Bachelor uses the love story to dress up the man’s role with romance, but the reality show competition makes it really about the biological survival of the fittest. 

Again, to understand how The Bachelor story actually works, you have to look at how the genre plays through the medium, in this case the love story through reality television. Of course, reality shows are not “real,” they are written, in that producers create conflict situations for the contestants to resolve. Which is why they should be called “surreality” shows, because they take real people and put them in a highly constructed and dramatic world. 

The Bachelor, like many reality shows, is designed to produce as much conflict and humiliation as possible. This is one reason why The Bachelor is a more dramatic – and sadistic – show than The Bachelorette, because when the women are sent home they almost invariably cry. Rejection and humiliation in love in front of a national audience, what could be better than that? 

There is another medium besides television The Bachelor love story plays through, and that is the game. The Bachelor is a tournament of love. When love is turned into a game, emotions are forced into bite-sized slots. The participants know it’s a game played for an audience, but they can’t help feeling the emotion. Of course, this is fast food emotion, freeze dried emotion. When the game is over and the cameras shut down, the two winners find out that love in the every day is a very different animal. 

Part of the severe contrast of love and game comes from the compressed time of the love story. The couple on a date never gets a chance to experience one another, because they are so conscious they are on a filmed date, and they are dating on deadline. So they are always meta-dating, talking about how well the date is going, about how right they are for each other, even though they’ve barely said word one. 

Probably the central problem contestants have on the show is reconciling these dual and conflicting requirements of love and game. They want true love but they are also competing to win the game. Indeed, the worst thing one player can say about another is “she’s here for the wrong reasons” – ie, to win this game, or win the larger game of becoming a reality TV star, which means she doesn’t really care about love. 

But this conflict between love and game is ultimately false. Far from being a highly unrealistic love story played out in compressed time in front of cameras and a national audience, The Bachelor, and even more so The Bachelorette, mimic what is really happening in the mating game. In real life men compete to see whose seed gets to impregnate the highly prized egg. Women compete to see whose egg gets to benefit from the male with the best resources. Love is the feeling human parents create to try to extend a single moment of mating to the years it takes to successfully raise a child. 

Like any reality show, especially one based on competition, The Bachelor has certain story beats that the producers (read writers) create. You know they’re coming, but the women fall for them anyway. I love to count the story tricks the producers come up with while they are actually happening. 

And the women’s responses to these story beats are totally predictable, at every stage of the plot, all the way down to repeating the same lines of dialogue. The show appears to be about romance, and the game is all about choosing a life partner, about free will of the heart. But these real people, who are not reading from a script, are mouthing the same lines and experiencing the same jealousy and heartache. They are programmed to do and say this stuff. 

The producers don’t have to write the lines down in a script. All they have to do is create the competitive, survival-of-the-fittest situation, with at least one death each week, and the women are guaranteed to say the lines anyway. 

This pre-programmed, mating game quality is even more apparent on The Bachelor than on The Bachelorette. On The Bachelor I can often tell who the guy is going to pick by how he looks at a woman when she gets out of the limo the first night. It’s remarkably obvious, at least for the final 2 or 3. That’s men. And while it gives The Bachelor a slight detective quality - as I try to figure out if I’m right about who killed the bachelor with a lightning bolt – it also makes the entire season one long stall. When a woman is choosing from 25 men, it’s not so easy. A woman needs to hear what the guy has to say, even if he’s only saying a pre- programmed line just a little bit better than the next guy.

Success as a popular storyteller in the worldwide markets of film and television comes down to how you play out your genre in your medium. Doing something unique is never easy. But if you know your forms well enough to twit them, you can come up with something that will stand out from the crowd.