NEW YORK - "The Bachelor" reality franchise hit the jackpot this season with Andy Baldwin - a real-life Dr. McDreamy.
Baldwin - a 30-year-old doctor, Navy lieutenant, humanitarian and triathlete - is the perfect guy with perfect teeth, and a houseful of wide-eyed, marriage-minded women competing to be his one and only.
But it's not Baldwin or his predecessors who capture the show's overwhelmingly female audience. Rather, it's the catfights, blatant scheming, tears and rejection. Those irresistible dramatic elements have managed to keep the series afloat, observers say, despite declining ratings, an embarrassing track record of failed romances and the indisputably sexist premise.
"This is voyeuristic viewing," said TV historian Tim Brooks. "You can just sort of sit and watch, `Oh, I don't like her' and `Boy, I hope she gets hers' and that kind of thing. And root for your favorites, too."
The bachelor, Brooks said, is "just there to give them something to root about."
This season's batch of "ladies" are displaying not-so-subtle signs of cattiness and ambition as they strut their stuff, size each other up and eyeball Baldwin like a piece of all-American man-meat. They say things like, "I'm here to play the game. I plan on playing the game hard," and "I plan on getting rose after rose, until I get a ring on the finger."
The best line: "Andy is amazing. I can't get over his teeth."
One desperado serenaded Baldwin with the national anthem. Another had a stress-induced breakdown, telling the cameras "it would be relieving not to get a rose."
True to form, a villainess has emerged: Stephanie T., an organ donor coordinator from South Carolina, who was got the first one-on-one date with Baldwin. Of course, she rubbed that victory in her competitors' faces.
All that drama makes Sarah Bunting, co-founder of the Web site Television Without Pity, say "ugh."
Viewers aren't "altruistically interested in seeing whether a good match is made," Bunting argued. "They just want to watch these women embarrass themselves because, evidently, your only self-worth in the culture according to this show is if you're on television and you have a man."
But that's its twisted appeal.
"Girls crying is still the backbone of the show," said Mike Fleiss, who produces the franchise. "You know, because I think women like to see how other girls handle the heartbreak of being rejected, because most women have been rejected, most men have been rejected."
"This season," he teased, "we've got some girls who just totally flip out. We've never had so many tears."
"The Bachelor" was the first of the "rose ceremony shows," spinning off "The Bachelorette" and inspiring copycats including "Average Joe" and "Flavor of Love." Despite a slip in ratings over the years - it drew 9 million viewers last week to rank No. 30 - the franchise has survived the explosion of dating shows and proves an inexpensive, reliable moneymaker for ABC, Brooks said.
To get those ratings, the show milks an unrealistic, retrograde version of romance, often at the expense of some strong personalities who signed on for sincere reasons and are instead served up as water cooler fodder. Then again, the 25 potential paramours must know what they're getting into when they step out of that stretch limo to greet the (supposed) man of their dreams.
"This show has been on so many times," said Jen Schefft, who was chosen by her ex-fiance, millionaire Andrew Firestone. "Do you not know what's going to happen if you act like this? I would hope that people get a little smarter. So I guess if they don't ... they probably know exactly what they're doing and they're just having fun."
They must be aware, too, that reality relationships are far from guaranteed. Only two of the previous nine contestants on "The Bachelor" - Byron Velvick and Charlie O'Connell - ended up with the women they chose on the series, which debuted in 2002.
(Fleiss says that on the current show, which was pre-taped, Baldwin has found The One and "really loves her.")
Schefft, a public relations exec in Chicago and author of the self-help book "Better Single Than Sorry," said viewers see the show as "comfort food" and no longer get "invested in the sense that if the couples break up, they're so disappointed."
She was the target of outrage after turning down two marriage proposals on the third season of "The Bachelorette." After her non-decision, Elisabeth Hasselbeck of "The View" went so far as to predict she'd be doomed to remain - horrors! - alone forever.
"If one of the guys didn't pick a girl, you'd say he was a jerk," Schefft said. Women, on the other hand, face more scrutiny because they're "seen as these people who want to get married and will get married - and will find a guy and make it work."
Though liberating and mature, Schefft's refusal to provide a storybook ending made for unsatisfying TV. After all, it might be tough to identify with a woman rejecting two handsome suitors. "The Bachelor," though, captivates its audience by letting loose a camera-friendly bunch of beauties and bad eggs. They (mis)behave like surreal sorority sisters, swooning over the president of the best frat on campus.
In turn, they represent anxieties women have about themselves: Am I pretty or engaging enough? What does she have that I don't? Will I ever settle down?
Those questions are amplified by the message - among unattached and partnered friends, around the family dinner table, in pop culture - that a girl can't be happy unless she's on the arm of a special someone. Hurry up, that clock is ticking.
In the warped world of "The Bachelor," that pressure is real.