Introduction: Most Dramatic Ever
It’s a swimming pool at the edge of the world. The far lip of the pool juts over a vast coastal panorama as if the steep drop-off to the ocean happens here, maybe right under our feet. Everything is water and light and water: the up-close, unreal blue of the pool picked up in the ocean, which takes the color and runs with it, bolting towards the horizon at the speed of a shimmer, colliding with the preposterous, unbroken blue of the sky. It’s impossible to say which part — man-made or natural — is the imitation. It all seems like one thing.
This is the first shot of the first episode of The Bachelor. It’s brief, just a few moments, but the beauty it shows is willful, boggling, engineered for optical illusion. Even if you’ve never been to California, you know this is California. The way every element — pool, ocean, sky — flattens with an eager camera-readiness makes you think maybe people build mansions and pools in places like this not to look at the view, but to be inside it. And the mistake of thinking the ground drops out from under us — maybe that’s the idea. Maybe it’s kind of true. Like there are places where the whole point of beauty, of nature, is to condition us to get something wrong.
It’s just a few seconds. The camera swings left, and standing on the pool deck there’s a man in a summer suit that looks like millennium-era Gap khaki taking a crack at formalwear. “Hi,” he says, “I’m Chris Harrison. And no, I’m not the Bachelor.”
When The Bachelor debuted in 2002, it was hardly a latecomer to the reality TV party, but it also wasn’t leading the vanguard. In summer 2000, when Survivor — with its safe, silly contrivance overlaid with the dark exposure of bare life — turned out to be an explosive ratings-gobbler, it appeared that something about the palate of 21st-century TV viewers had either exposed itself or been whetted. In the glut of turn-of-the-millennium reality TV that followed, The Bachelor was solidly in the middle: after Big Brother and Fear Factor, before America’s Next Top Model and The Simple Life, in just about the same breath as American Idol.
By virtue of its subject (hetero dating), The Bachelor also has ancestral roots reaching back to the 1960s and ’70s with The Dating Game: that game show classic where bachelors numbered one through three (sometimes gender-reversed) compete with ice-breaking trivia for a chance to take a prize woman out on the studio’s dime. The Dating Game ran for a decade in the mid-’60s and then, like the matchmaking undead, was revived three times between the late ’70s and late ’90s. Without the seriality of The Bachelor, Dating was pure game show, suffering no fuss over “reasons,” right or wrong, to sign up as a contestant. A common gig for struggling actors, Dating Game archives are a real treasure trove of before-they-were-famous footage.
There are also Bachelor relations among its own reality cohort, kissing cousins (maybe more like drunk makeout cousins?) like Blind Date and Temptation Island. Blind Date, which ran from 1999 into the mid-aughts, set couples up on multi-part, multi-drink dates then glossed the footage — often pretty dull on its face — with cheeky cartoon thought bubbles. Temptation Island was a kind of false rumspringa, bringing four committed couples to a resort, splitting them up, and surrounding each with a cast of (tempting, hence the name) professional bods of the opposite sex. Temptation was sort of The Bachelor’s inverse — an experiment in romance-busting rather than building — but tapped the same fears and longings. In its own way, it held up monogamy as an aspirational, self-improving end.
Finally, the closest comp by virtue of its shared paternity is Bachelor executive producer Mike Fleiss’s first televised matrimonial extravaganza, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? — Homo habilis to The Bachelor’s erectus. A single two-hour special aired in 2000, Millionaire was a classic, 50-state American beauty pageant with a shadowy sugar daddy (literally: he was only visible in silhouette) serving as both judge and winner’s crown (no “scholarship program” here). Twenty-two million people tuned in to watch Miss-turned-Mrs. Millionaire claim her prize of on-the-spot wedlock to the moneybags. Just as soon as the couple had honeymooned-slash-met, it was revealed that FOX had done poor vetting on their “millionaire next door” (as Fleiss had called him), who had a restraining order from an ex-fiancée on the grounds of domestic violence. He’d also fudged his professional creds, his name, and quite possibly the barely plural millions for which he’d been cast. Whoopsie-daisy! Better background checks next time.
Despite this unalloyed failure, Fleiss remained convinced that America was thirsty for reality TV–made marriage. (After all, 22 million had tuned in to watch his wayward liability pageant in the first place.) After striking out at a couple of other networks, Fleiss sold ABC on another show about dozens of women pursuing a single man’s hand. This time the pitch was less beauty pageant and more true love on crack: the usual beats, from meet-cute to matrimony, cranked up by the presence of rivals and the fantasy-making efforts of TV production. A competitive fairy tale. The Bachelor was signed for six one-hour episodes and given an eight-week, shoestring shoot in which to make Mike Fleiss’s dreams come true. It was, for Fleiss, a second chance at (producing) love.
Unscripted dating shows that came before The Bachelor generated the standard reality TV goodies: embarrassing moments, interpersonal drama, the ups and downs of competition. But they had a common failing: prodding at schadenfreude under the auspices of dating made dating look bad. Though these shows were allegedly about romance, none was actually romantic.
So, yeah, uh, The Bachelor doesn’t really have that problem. A many-candle-lined, rose-petal-strewn, sunset-lit journey to find The One, the Bachelor’s romance is pitched to take your breath away, suck oxygen, smother. The show has never been coy about its ambitions. In the very first episode, Chris Harrison tells us: “This is not an ordinary relationship show — the stakes are considerably higher here. This is about something real. Something permanent. You know, the whole till death do you part thing?”
It may have been joining the spate of crass human spectacles hurled up in TV to ring in the 21st century, but The Bachelor parades shamelessly into lofty rhetoric past centuries have left to their poets. From the beginning, the show asserted its right not to choose between high and low, professing to expose the drama of real people acting out of loneliness and fear, then pull it together for the payoff of happily ever after. And with this blunt promise, The Bachelor reassured viewers that it was okay for us to want it both ways.
At its beating, rose-red heart, The Bachelor is basically just two things: it’s a game show, and it’s a love story — more particularly, a marriage plot. And before you think about it too hard, the pairing sounds so natural that it’s hard to believe someone even had to think it up. Like, wait, was that not already a thing? After all, the game show and the marriage plot are, arguably, the defining innovations of middle-class entertainment of the 20th and 18th-into-19th centuries, respectively. Both genres are so endlessly popular and endlessly replicable that the twain shall meet seems more like a command than a proposition. The Bachelor as inevitability.
But if public competition meets love-’n’-marriage Romance sounds like a harmonious populist twinning, the moment you think it through it’s obvious the genres ought to be mutually exclusive. Though both game shows and love stories offer a fantasy of delivery from regular life, they propose that different forces compel the ascent. The game show publicizes the ordinary individual as a competitor who channels luck and skill to author their own fate. The marriage plot reveals that even the ordinary individual may be chosen and moved by the benevolent authority of a fate beyond their control. So on the one hand, The Bachelor is a competition, and it’s anyone’s game. On the other hand, it also purports to be an expression of romantic destiny: a series of turns plotted to reach a preordained end.
That illogic isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. In fact, it’s the very crux of The Bachelor’s tenacious, addictive endurance. Because in its refusal to choose between a game show’s effort and a love story’s kismet, I argue that The Bachelor is the ultimate specimen of American entertainment, mimicking a similar refusal to choose between foundational myths at the heart of the nation’s identity and self-image. The show presents as an open playing field, freely available for any individual to enter, meet, and conquer. Then when someone actually wins, their victory is recast as the inexorable allotment of fortune. Differently put: for weeks the show dramatizes the pursuit of individual happiness, only to claim in the end that it was manifesting destiny all along. And so The Bachelor delivers that oxymoronic, impossibly American dream of working hard for your innate exceptionalism, of pulling yourself up by the boot straps to step into your fate.
In the beginning, the show sent out Chris Harrison to assure us that this wasn’t just fun and games. And yet it still needed to deliver a Bachelor for whom 25 women would be inspired to compete. The Bachelor could not merely be eligible — he needed to be a prize.
The first Bachelor, Alex Michel, was, believe it or not, a pedigreed brain. As though lifted straight from a ’90s teen flick, the photo montage of his life narrated by Harrison shows a dork rescued by “contact lenses and countless hours in the swimming pool,” achieving homecoming popularity and varsity athleticism, and then whipping those specs back out to give his valedictory address. With a lit degree from Harvard and Stanford business school for postgrad, Michel’s résumé hinted at erudite sensitivity but management salary. Having plucked him out of thin air, the show confirmed the Bachelor as a worthwhile love object using real-world indicators of status. 1
For a few rounds in its shakier middle years, The Bachelor would, as it did that first season, foray into the real world to drum up a lead, trying on a different variation of prestige each time. Between 2004 and 2008, the spread of Bachelors included the silver-spooned heir to an all-American fortune (Andrew Firestone, of the tires), a naval officer (crisp uniform at the ready, natch), a pro football player (who could barely keep his dates’ names straight, but we didn’t know as much about concussions back then), a pseudo-royal, a pseudo-celebrity (actor Charlie O’Connell, lesser brother of Jerry), and a posh-sounding Brit.
Staggered between these representatives of real-life cachet were leads cast from within the franchise’s own universe. With the introduction of The Bachelorette in 2003, led by Trista Rehn, runner-up from the inaugural Bachelor season, the show established a tradition of selecting a love object from among the previous season’s final rejects. This was sometimes the case for The Bachelor (in all but the examples mentioned above), and always for The Bachelorette. After a while, when reaching sporadically into the world at large didn’t turn up anything all that great anyway, the show gave up on taking in leads from outside the Bachelor mansion altogether. Since 2009, every Bachelor and Bachelorette has been an internal hire.
As a result, the criteria the show holds up as exemplary of Bachelorhood — and, by extension, marriageability — have changed. Turning away from education, class, and other line-items of societal value, the worth of the lead is now established through the only currency that changes hands within Bachelor society itself: love and its loss. Being elevated to love object is a salve to the wound the show itself inflicts. You earn true love by getting dumped on TV.
The world The Bachelor has built as the staging ground for its love stories is particularly and fundamentally cruel. This isn’t an agnostic roll through the win some, lose some bingo tumbler of real-life romance: it’s a goal-oriented pilgrimage with a rigorously enforced quota of repercussive pain. Everyone but the hero or heroine and their beloved — that earned-but-chosen one and only — is collateral.
To be real, what we’re talking about here is a kind of religion: The Bachelor universe is patterned by the simplicity of sacrifice’s call and redemption’s answer. That reliable toggle from Bachelor to Bachelorette and back again is essentially Christian morality with all the bennies of reincarnation. From our god’s-eye view in front of the screen, we follow the broken into their next life, bear witness to their rebirth and reward. Culling its heroes and heroines from those felled in the name of the journey, the show chugs onward, giving the audience permission to believe that our voyeurism is useful. Without all the pain and drama we are hungry to witness, there would be no love stories to tell.
TV is the medium of repetition. This has not stopped being true as TV has gone prestige. It has not even stopped being true (yet) as streaming services have transformed what kinds of shows can be tried out, gambled on, and produced. Even through wide-scale developments in what is made and of what quality, television has not shaken its deep bond with reliability. To be a viewer of a TV show is to be a repeat customer at the trough of a feeling.
If this aphorism holds any weight, The Bachelor is the most TV of them all. It’s been around for a donkey’s age, and in 16 years — 22 seasons of The Bachelor and 13 of The Bachelorette — the show’s format has changed practically not at all. Rather, it has doubled down, taken its tendencies and codified them into rules, sanctifying its inaugural accidents and impulses as traditional.
And it’s not in spite of this conservative urge but because of it that The Bachelor has become more relevant over time rather than less. Which brings me to another of The Bachelor’s contradictions: it’s both a relic and a prophet — a time-traveler from first-gen reality TV that would prove itself a harbinger of Tinder. Its format has come to mirror realities its audience (which skews young, aging at a slower rate than the show itself) will find familiar. A smorgasbord of bullet-point prospective partners isn’t so different from swiping left and right. And the aggressive surveillance of reality TV is only an exaggerated version of something most of us have learned to live with and which many — particularly but not only those who were raised with it — have embraced as a means of tweaking, filtering, and even making a sense of self.
The Bachelor secures contemporary relevance not only in what it says, but in how it says it. The show has a dialect, a Bachelor-speak that is both internally consistent season to season and crucial to the show’s moments of highest drama. Contestants vie for the commodity of “one-on-one time” in which they might develop “a connection” with the Bachelor. This connection is confirmed by “the rose.” The greatest threat to the Bachelor’s “journey to find love” is the production-ensured inevitability that some of the competing contestants are not “there for the right reasons.” The Bachelor vernacular speaks directly to what have grown into the dominant anxieties of contemporary social life in general, and romance in particular: the fear that our connections are inauthentic, our gestures empty, our socially mediated lives at once overcrowded and isolated. In The Bachelor’s case, TV stayed the same — it’s reality that changed.
The threat posed by unscripted TV shows in the era of The Bachelor’s conception — that reality itself might suffer by virtue of having been uttered in the same breath as television — seems quaint and folksy now, like a cute story about terrified Parisians leaping out of the path of the Lumière Brothers’ train.
We’re all veterans of reality TV. From factory farm to table, we know all the gory steps by which the sausage gets to our plates. And we don’t really care. We maybe even love it more. It’s not unlike appreciating a sonnet for its rhythm and rhyme: you don’t have to pretend that a poet thinks in iambs in order for their work to mean something to you.
In fact, in the case of The Bachelor, I’ll go so far as to say that a kind of realism has become integral to the romantic flight of fancy. Understanding the conditions under which the show is manufactured has only served to confirm that the thing the show aims to cultivate — what Chris Harrison in the first episode calls “one of the most wonderful things love has to offer: marriage, but with love and romance” — is resilient, will bloom in even the most constrained, scrutinized, and contrived circumstances. Viewers remain safely on the inside of the joke, aware of the preposterousness of the situation while also allowing ourselves to be carried away by its results. It’s a form of emotional engineering so effective it seems to work on an almost cellular level — the entertainment value equivalent of a Cheeto’s ability to disappear when it hits your tongue, leaving you with all the caloric intake but still hungry for more, certain you’ve consumed only air.
Being given permission to toggle between contradictions is insanely powerful. It’s addictive. And even as it gets us hooked, The Bachelor lets viewers feel like we’re empowered to look at the picture in front of us and decide for ourselves which elements are man-made and which are natural — what is camera-ready performance, what is real emotion.
Which begs the question: what does it even mean for a feeling to be real? With its burlesque of real life, The Bachelor suggests something about the role performance plays in the production of all romance. Sure, The Bachelor may be absurd, but so is falling in love anywhere, with anyone. Even more ludicrous is the fact that we’ve lugged a mercantile tradition for exchanging women as goods into the 21st century and made it an object of worship. (I’m very happily married, by the way.) The tension between the lofty rhetoric of romance and the banal pragmatism of marriage is something we live with in every part of our culture, not just on TV. Romance is a story; marriage is a contract.
No matter what The Bachelor may say, the truth is there are no right reasons to go on a reality TV show looking for a spouse. There are also very few wrong ones. Mostly, there are just reasons, and as with the contingencies that enable us to do most things, they’re neither good nor bad — they’re just descriptive. They’re just there.
And besides, if one really is looking for heterosexual romantic life partnership, I’m not convinced that The Bachelor is such a bad way to go about it. Dovetailing with its increased reflection of the world we live in, the show has really turned around its batting average on successful coupling. And while it’s true that the show has a pretty terrible track record for converting engagements to marriages, it’s also true that no Bachelor marriage has ended in divorce, and every married couple now has children. A generation of Bachelor spawn. Not that procreating means happily ever after or whatever, but my point is that the unions yielded by The Bachelor seem just like all marriages: arrangements that answer to a complicated knot of social, economic, and biological needs and desires. There are no right reasons — but there are plenty of right conditions.
There’s something I want to be clear about from the beginning of our own journey: I fucking love The Bachelor. I may be a critic, but I’m also a fan. Consider me a regular at the feelings trough. And I don’t think The Bachelor is good at being bad, or good in spite of itself: I think it is truly great television — compulsively entertaining, bizarrely moving, and harrowingly smart. I think if we let it, The Bachelor has something to teach us: something about a when and a where (today, and America), but also something that reaches further and deeper, something more basic about what it means to be human at all.
Each episode of The Bachelor culminates in a rose ceremony: a weekly rite by which the lead reveals whom he’d like to keep on the show, winnowing down the dating pool until there is just the one who was right there in front of him all along. For this ceremonial dumping (or romancing, depending on which side of it you’re on), contestants gather in rows while the Bachelor calls forth the names of those he’s chosen, asking each one whether she will “accept this rose” as a token of his continued interest.
It wasn’t always going to be roses. Or there’s some debate about it, anyway; in an oral history for The Cut in 2016, Chris Harrison recalls that the production team considered other trinkets and tokens as a way of visualizing the week’s winners. But in Mike Fleiss’s memory, things are clearer. As he remembers it, he was always sure: the rose was the rose was the rose.
Now it seems impossible that it could have been anything else, like The Bachelor might have flopped had they chosen garlands or promise rings or pearls. The rose is the perfect Bachelor item, the ultimate symbol of romantic love as both destiny and choice. Consider Juliet on her balcony, already crossed by the stars, talking to herself about knowing the difference between what you feel and what you’ve been taught. The rose reminds you to trust your instincts.
And those Bachelor roses are specimens. Thorn-free stems long and straight as magic wands, each one capped by the kind of deep, decadent bloom that appears at the very end of a growing season, right before everything turns to rot and dies. They’re not natural, of course: they’re plastic, or fabric, or some state-of-the-art material by which only the very best artificial flowers are made. Maybe they smell like some chemical, abusive manufacturing process, or maybe they’re laced with perfume. They might smell like static, like dust. Nothing at all. But they’re clearly roses — what else would you call them?
Of course love is real. That doesn’t mean it isn’t also fake.