Portia’s Suitors: ABC’s “The Proposal”

My wife and I met in the Seventies; we worked at the same publishing company and dated for far too long. Then I came to my senses, and we were married on April 29, 1984.

Watching three episodes of ABC-TV’s “The Proposal” occasions this remembrance. A woman (or man) looking for a spouse sits in a kind of isolation booth (as it was known on the old “The $64,000 Question,” but here called the “Pod”) and listens to ten suitors serially make the case for why he (or she) would be the perfect spouse. In successive rounds, ten contestants vie for “love” until the last two suitors make final pleas, now face-to-face with Pod Person.

It’s not exactly The Merchant of Venice with Portia judging the Princes of Aragon and Morocco, plus Bassanio and another. The Washington Post called “The Proposal” the “guiltiest of guilty pleasures.” If that’s true for you, for shame!

Host Jesse Palmer promises that this “has never before been attempted on television” and that the contestants have been vetted by a “blue-ribbon panel of matchmakers.”

The introductions in Round One are as banal as at a county-fair beauty pageant: “she loves walks on the beach but hates parades;” “he’s a Lord of the Rings fan.” The ten hopefuls amble down curved steps, and a woman in Episode One did her ambling uneasily on roller skates. “Her favorite animal is the sloth.”

Round Two is a swimsuit competition, for years a feature of the Miss America Pageant, though lately found degrading and jettisoned. In “The Proposal,” it seems the prime-time-TV equivalent of sex on the first date. And even in the era of CrossFit and Pilates, this baring of skin is embarrassing: for some of them and all of us.

These are mostly nice looking young folks, every one a child of God, but there’s an element of desperation in baring bodies and tales of loneliness or stories of broken relationships to a Pod Person you can’t see, not to mention a TV audience of 4,000,000.

A Q&A session brings uncomfortable moments. In Episode One, the Pod Man is a police officer who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. He seemed a solid citizen. Or did until he asked one of the three remaining women, “How physically adventurous are you in the bedroom?” Really, Officer?

They answer, and Officer had a kind of a quaver in his voice when he said although he’s daily on the streets with cops, he’s never seen such bravery as in these women parading in bathing suits. Seriously, Officer?

One of the three tells him she doesn’t want kids, and you know she won’t make the cut, which she probably intended.


There’s only one “winner,” but the luckiest contestants are those cut loose in Round One. The Pod Person has named seven to move on, and the three not picked head glumly back up the stairs. But better that, frankly, than to be among the final two, who now lust for victory.

They’ve been exposing themselves for the better part of an hour, and getting dumped at the end must feel terrible – even though, at the start, they had neither an inkling of victory nor faith in the process, because THIS IS NOT THE WAY COURTING IS SUPPOSED TO BE.

I’ll admit I liked it when one of the two remaining women told Officer she had to seek her dad’s approval (he is in the audience). “I’m a traditional woman.” Dad nods warily. The other finalist asks for the approval of . . . her dog (he is in the audience). And “Toby” pants happily.

Mr. Palmer intones: “Will he propose marriage, and will she accept?” O, the drama.

Officer chooses Dog Mommy and falls to one knee, offering her a ring provided by a jeweler, Neil Lane.

“As weird as this sounds,” Officer says, although it’s the point of the doggone show, “will you marry me?” Yes! They kiss! And kiss. And kiss . . . and now even Jesse Palmer seems uneasy.

I’ve no idea how long is the process of taping “The Proposal” (47 minutes on-air), but it’s self-evidently insufficient to make anything more than a proposal to grab a drink after the show. The notion that you can spend a few minutes with somebody and then propose marriage trashes courtship, engagement, and marriage.

Of course, “reality TV” is often unreal. The several “Housewives” are all but agitated with cattle prods by producers and the various “House Hunters” have already bought one of the houses they pretend to appraise. (The producers move them out of the house they’ve just moved into, so we’ll believe they’re seeing it for the very first time.)

One guy tells the Pod Woman of Episode Two that he wants them to become the ultimate “Instagram couple,” and the aforementioned LOTR fan says he’s looking for his. . .“precious.” How’d that blue-ribbon panel approve these losers?

“He won her hand in marriage,” as the saying goes, and courting has never been as competitive as on “The Proposal.” In Episode Three a female suitor is introduced as “the virgin from ‘The Bachelor,’” another show from the same producer. She didn’t win that one but makes it to the final two here. Alas, she doesn’t “win,” and as Virgin walks back up those stairs, Mr. Palmer tells her, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Ah, but there is.

Poor Virgin deserves better than two nationally televised rejections. And she should know better.

As the episode concludes, Mr. Palmer says: “I urge all of you to take your own leap of faith.” Really, Jesse? What’s faith got to do with it?


*Image: The Merchant of Venice: The prince of Aragon rejected [by Portia] as a suitor by Liebig Co. (artist unknown), c. 1880 (The Liebig Extract of Meat Company [LEMCO] was a producer of canned, boiled beef paste: as the ad says “true essence of meat.” The designers of this ad card from an Italian affiliate were possibly unaware that a 16-oz can bearing this particular Shakespeare reference could be said to contain “a pound of flesh.”)

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.