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Will You Accept This Moral Quagmire?

Amid scandal and racially charged accusations, the ‘Bachelor’ franchise is in crisis

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

When we first met Corinne Olympios on The Bachelor, she was armed with a hug token. She exited a limo and presented to Nick Viall a coin, which entitled him to one embrace from the Miami native. It was an incentive for Viall to find her later at the opening-night cocktail party, and when he did, she presented him with a sack full of the custom currency. Olympios almost certainly did not bring those coins herself, but rather concocted the gimmick in concert with the show’s producers.

The science behind who gets armed with a prop for these entrances has never been revealed — but it’s safe to say there are contestants whom the producers would like to convincingly push through at least four episodes. These preferred women can be neither totally bland nor completely absurd. The hug token turned out to be a suitable metaphor for Corinne. With 20 seasons already in the can, the producers knew how to create a villain.

Over the first two hours, Olympios’s antics evolved from chaste to quirky to overdetermined. She displayed all the hallmarks of a future Bachelor in Paradise contestant. She was singularly focused on getting her time with Nick so that she could kiss him on the first night, which is the kind of resolve well suited for the Girls Gone Wild–lite spinoff of ABC’s sexually repressed show. Sex is never out of the question on The Bachelor, but the most memorable villains have become such because they refused to wait until Episode 9’s Fantasy Suite. Courtney Robertson is now infamous for her late-night tryst with Ben Flajnik, which led to an ocean encounter that sure seemed like sex (and was later confirmed by Robertson). Similarly, Corinne distinguished herself by removing her bikini top during a pool photo shoot in front of the other women, and then donning a sexy trench coat, which she peeled back to expose a bare shoulder off of which Nick could lick whip cream, à la Varsity Blues. Later, she invited Nick to meet her on a moonbounce (clearly arranged by production), where she straddled and made out with him. Olympios was put in a position to leverage her sexuality, and it made for entertaining television.

The Bachelor was never her natural habitat, though. Corinne was always destined for Paradise. A tendency toward exhibitionism and nudity are not just encouraged in Paradise, they’re necessities. More demure characters, like Jade Roper (who met her current husband on Season 2) or Caila Quinn (who made it to the final three of Ben Higgins’s season) seemed like they were coaxed into their Paradise high jinks. In Jade’s case, that meant defying conventional wisdom to go on a date with Tanner. (They’re about to have a child together, so it was a good choice.) For Caila, that meant expressing great indecision over her interest in Paradise stud Jared Haibon. Though viewers never saw producers prodding Caila or Jade to talk out what they were thinking in any given moment, we also never got the impression they were acting without accomplices, and, frankly, they were boring.

The most outrageous moments came from assertive women like Clare Crawley, who had no doubts about her interest in Jared, though he did not reciprocate. She went for it anyway. Crying virgin Ashley Iaconetti was also adamant about Jared, and, again, he did not feel similarly. She, too, went for it. Self-awareness or emotional inhibitions don’t translate on Bachelor in Paradise. Bold, emotive women dominate. What forum could be better for a woman willing to tell you about her platinum vagine?

Corinne’s Paradise run seemed inevitable because The Bachelor worked hard to make viewers believe her antics were self-generated. But any consumer of wine who switches to something with bubbles when there’s a long night ahead knows that Corinne wasn’t caught snoozing so often because of taxing days. Corinne was often shown with a large glass of white wine, and much like those hug tokens, she couldn’t supply that herself.

Being on The Bachelor makes a run to Trader Joe’s for Two-Buck Chuck impossible. Alcohol consumption is vital to the Bachelor ecosystem, presumably because it makes people who are already loopy from a long day of filming even loopier. It escalates aggression into belligerence. Late last year, Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell, who ended up together on his season in 2016, explained to me that alcohol was available as early as the contestants asked for it. In the case of Corinne, there was no hard evidence that she drank more or less than anyone else who has been on the show. But in addition to her attachment to her nanny and a fondness for “cheese pasta,” Corinne was defined by her tendency to give interviews while holding wine glasses and by her sexual advances toward Nick, which I always suspected were aided by an environment that fosters round-the-clock drinking.

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette thrive on the pursuit of fantasy, even if it’s ultimately farce. There has to be something believable about the resulting couples for these shows to sustain themselves. Even though the success rates are low, the pairings have to make sense. Consider JoJo Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers (Bachelorette 12): a woman from a family with a reality TV past and a man with a famous brother — makes sense; they’re still together. Or Ben and Lauren (Bachelor 20): two attractive people with a shared faith — makes sense; their relationship lasted for well over a year before ending this spring. Even Nick Viall and Vanessa Grimaldi: two people who love to debate each other are giving it an honest try. Corinne was never going to win The Bachelor, because a Corinne victory would have been a victory for sexual prowess over chaste romance. The franchise defies that idea.

Given Corinne’s implied reliance on social lubricants on the show, where intoxication is only hinted at and never confirmed, it’s hardly a surprise that the extent of her imbibing has become a point of contention in an ugly scandal. Last week, production of Bachelor in Paradise Season 4 was suspended after it came to light that there were allegations of sexual misconduct between Corinne and DeMario Jackson, a contestant from Rachel’s season of The Bachelorette, currently airing. Tuesday, Warner Bros. announced that it has concluded its own investigation, which found no evidence of sexual misconduct. The production company issued a statement explaining that it worked with an outside law firm — though there’s no mention of involving law enforcement in either Mexico or the U.S. — to determine “that the tape does not support any charge of misconduct by a cast member. Nor does the tape show, contrary to many press reports, that the safety of any cast member was ever in jeopardy. Production on this season of Bachelor in Paradise will be resuming, and we plan to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety and security of all participants.” TMZ reports the show will air as originally planned. Apparently, Jackson’s lawyers have seen the footage that Warners says absolves him, while there’s been no indication of whether Olympios was afforded the same access.

Since she entered the public consciousness five months ago, Olympios has been depicted as a symbol of quick and seamless escalation — that’s what the show’s editing would have you believe. She went from emboldened young woman equipped with a silly token to aggressive make-out-seeking villain in the span of one (very long) evening. But she is not a perpetrator of that culture; she is the victim of it. And following Tuesday’s announcement from Warner Bros., this scandal involving Corinne is poised to become another bullet point in her character profile instead of the grave landmark moment it could have been. The Bachelor franchises largely repeat the same major beats season after season. The cast is constantly changing, but the crafting of villains, the grooming of a future lead, and the narrative rhythms are well known. The show remains vital thanks to its compelling casting and minor reinventions of the format. The modern Bachelor villain evolved from women like Courtney, who famously sneaked over to the Bachelor’s hotel room outside the parameters of a cocktail party. But over 33 combined wrapped seasons, incremental change gives way to significant shifts.

Even though production is resuming and the internal investigation found no evidence of misconduct, Bachelor in Paradise plans to “implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety and security of all participants,” suggesting the previous procedures were insufficient. There are discrepancies among the different accounts of what occurred before production was halted, but Vulture provides a helpful timeline. Filming was suspended after the producer assigned to Corinne during The Bachelor filed a complaint questioning whether Olympios was capable of consenting to a sexual encounter between her and Jackson. Since the scandal surfaced, there have been conflicting reports from castmates and unnamed sources about the sequence of events, who was present, and who is in the wrong. The show has decidedly sided with DeMario (though mercifully it doesn’t plan to air the footage in question), and it’s a finding that results from a mutating culture that has been building for a decade.

Warner Bros.’ shocking decision to resume filming and air Season 4 of Bachelor in Paradise comes at a precarious moment for The Bachelor and its associated franchises. They have never been more culturally resonant. The 21st iteration of The Bachelor, which aired from January to March, was the only returning network show to gain in under-50 audience over its previous season this year. And after years of private concerts by largely unknown musical acts and cameos from B-list celebrities, the properties finally have enough cachet to secure appearances from legitimate celebrities like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mila Kunis, and Ashton Kutcher. Cynically, this scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for the network and its Monday-night jewel. Warner Bros. had an incentive to wrap up its investigation quickly, and in a way that would allow filming to resume. The decision to move forward with a beleaguered Paradise season can only be seen as a move to capitalize on the franchise’s momentum.

But are all of these shows now doomed, even if claims of sexual wrongdoing are dismissed? The corroding culture of The Bachelor has also reached The Bachelorette. Monday night we watched Rachel, the first black lead in franchise history, carefully address the racism demonstrated by one of her suitors. Lee, the singer-songwriter from Nashville, is an instigator who targets the black men on the show, and his now-private Twitter feed decries the work of Black Lives Matter and insults the appearance of feminists. Warner Bros., ABC, and Rachel are aware of the gravity of finally casting an African American to carry one of these shows. In the frankest racial discussion to date, Rachel speaks to her off-camera producer about the pressure she is under as a black woman in her position, but she quickly cuts herself off to speak in more generalized, race-neutral language about her anxiety. As frivolous as The Bachelorette may be, casting a black woman is significant, and the season is sullied with brazenly racist behavior. (Show host Chris Harrison claim that they did not know about Lee’s tweets at the time of casting.) But it is part of the same misguided ethos that could foster an environment where sexual misconduct can occur.

Until Monday night’s brief monologue from Rachel, the show had addressed race only indirectly or in casual instances, like when Rachel told Fred she remembered him from childhood because they were both black at a mostly white summer camp. The conflict with Lee is the most significant incident yet, and still the animus between Lee and Josiah or Lee and Eric has not been explicitly identified as race-related. The Bachelorette doesn’t have a native language suited to discussing topics this weighty — it’s never had to do so. It’s well versed in creating and discussing villains, though: Other contestants go to the lead to complain about the problem-causing person, and the lead must then confront the supposed villain, and judge for him or herself who is in the wrong. In the case of Lee, there is no question that he is wrong. But while the show has evolved to feature a black woman, the other tropes have not similarly progressed. There’s a carelessness in assuming one huge evolution would not require other changes.

All of the Bachelor shows have failed to control for smarter audiences and savvier cast members who know that screen time directly translates to social media endorsement deals. But far worse, the shows have also flattened everyone who appears on them, molding them into archetypes from which they cannot break free. Rachel is the woman who prioritized her career and is finally ready to focus on love. Her race is discussed in marketing and publicity, yet hardly at all on the show. Corinne is spoiled and sex-crazed. Her drinking is only gleaned, but not confirmed. These shows never pretend to care about the individuals who populate them, only their necessity in the dynamic of the story (which is one of the reasons why fantasy leagues have sprung up as the show has become more popular). But in light of the Bachelor in Paradise scandal and the uncomfortable racial overtones of Rachel’s season, the ethical shortcomings have never been more obvious.

The remaining question is whether either of these failures matter to the future of the show. Will the audience keep watching? The Bachelor audience is heavily female and affluent — an advertiser’s dream — and precisely the crowd you’d expect to take a stance against this kind of malfeasance. Warner Bros. promises new procedures to protect the cast, and hopefully that prevents anyone from being in a situation that some would identify as sexual assault. For me, Paradise will forever exist under the cloud of this episode. I can’t help but wonder what compromises are made to yield the TV product I once gleefully consumed. The pastime of watching attractive people paw at each other is far less palatable now.

Yet The Bachelor and the fantasies it promulgates have survived three presidents and three network administrations. Its weekly installments ballooned from 60 minutes to 120 in 2016. Somehow the simplistic vision of love on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and the vacation fling fun on Bachelor in Paradise have held our gaze. It’s growing, in fact. The extra media attention allows viewers like me to adjudicate the wrongdoing on my own terms while joining Rachel on her journey. The saga of Corinne and DeMario is not over, though. There is no preordained, producer-concocted stunt that can undo this story, no token to unlock a happily ever after.

An earlier version of this post misidentified a Bachelor alumna. She is Courtney Robertson, not Courtney Robinson.