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‘The Bachelorette’ Premiere Recap: Love Is Just a Game, and the Game Is Rigged

The first episode of what promises to be the wildest season in the show’s history weirdly unfolds as if producers think we don’t already know the twist to come. But if you know where to look, you can see Clare constructing her narrative.

ABC/Ringer illustration

Generally, The Bachelor franchise tells us that every season is The Most Dramatic Season Ever and then attempts to prove it to us by acting as if minor changes in its well-established format are seismic events. If the traditionally scheduled pre-rose-ceremony cocktail party is canceled, we get a solid three minutes of contestants losing their minds over this unthinkable alteration. If a previously eliminated contestant gets brought back onto the show, it’s the main focus for at least two full-two-hour episodes.

This season, though, the opposite seems to be true. The world is upside down, but the premiere of Season 16 of The Bachelorette basically acts as if something as major as the coronavirus pandemic was just a tiny hurdle to hop over. The coronavirus pandemic feels like it should have kept a show about strangers swapping spit across the globe off the air—and for a few months, it did—but now that it’s back, it’s business as usual. To kick off the first episode, Chris Harrison briefly shows us their COVID-compliance measures (several days of testing and quarantining for contestants), but after that, the premiere unfolds seemingly unaltered. Thirty-one men still emerge from limos and attempt to woo the Bachelorette with lame gags. There is roughly as much time spent discussing the season’s drastically different buildup as there is discussing whether one of the contestants DMed a girl before coming on the show, which isn’t even particularly taboo in the world of The Bachelorette. The show needed to find a new filming location ... and it somehow found a resort in Palm Springs that looks almost exactly like its usual mansion. It even has a cobblestone-paved driveway and several extremely yellow rooms for lounging, just like the real Bachelor mansion. The show’s producers seem to think the most unbelievable thing about this season is that this year’s Bachelorette, Clare, is 39. (Normally, potential Bachelorettes throw themselves off the Midsommar cliff at the age of 35.)

The sameness is particularly striking because this season probably is going to be The Most Dramatic Season Ever. I try to avoid getting too deep into Bachelor spoilers here, because I’m sure most viewers are just watching the show instead of chasing down insider TV rumors, but you didn’t need a Reddit account to hear about this season’s huge twist. It has been reported on by every major celebrity publication in this country. Chris Harrison has talked about it publicly. Everyone who watched The Bachelorette tonight knows that Clare is going to fall for a guy named Dale and quit the show less than halfway through the season, when she will be replaced by former Bachelor contestant Tayshia. Yet the show itself only kind of hints at what’s going to happen. It chooses to spend a lot of time explaining Clare’s “journey”—just in case you didn’t see any of her previous four attempts at finding love on Bachelor franchises—but not any time selling us on anybody else’s backstory. (We don’t even get little vignettes about the contestants’ pre-show lives! I love those vignettes!)

Throughout the years, The Bachelorette has routinely struggled with the fact that it is filmed several months ahead of its air date. Spoiling the show has become a cottage industry. But what’s going to happen this season barely feels like a spoiler. And yet, the season premiere oddly plays everything close to the vest, going all-in on Clare as if everything is normal—as if she won’t stop being the Bachelorette in a few weeks. I assume this is for dramatic effect, out of some hope that the “big twist” catches viewers entirely off guard. But big twists generally have a greater effect when people don’t know they’re coming.

Worst Actor: Clare

The hint the show gives us at the future drama is that Clare becomes immediately infatuated with Dale. After her brief first interaction with Dale, Clare turns to nobody and exclaims that she thinks she just met her husband for the first time. Chris Harrison emerges from some nearby bushes to say, “Hold on a second, did you just say that you think you just met your husband for the first time?” With each passing conversation with Dale, she seems deeper and deeper in love.

But there’s something off about their instant connection. Their conversations are … just kind of normal. They don’t instantly bond over anything; they don’t share any hilarious jokes. It’s not like they have no potential, but they’re just having regular conversations, and every time Clare walks away it’s like she got hit by a truck. Yeah, he’s hot, but so is everybody. Maybe Cupid is lounging by the Palm Springs pool and has upgraded his bow technology over the past 5,000 years so that it’s like one of those things Ted Nugent kills deer with.

What is actually happening here seems relatively obvious. After news broke about Clare prematurely finding love and quitting, there were reports that she and Dale had interacted extensively before the show. That clearly seems to be the case—how else do you explain Clare becoming instantly infatuated with someone she’d never met after a run-of-the-mill name-swap and how’s-it-going? How else do you explain her using the H-word on Day 1?

But it also reveals the extent to which Clare is rigging the game. Her and Dale’s conversations are so damn awkward because we’re not watching a couple meet for the first time—we’re watching a couple pretend to meet for the first time. They tread cautiously, knowing the jig would be up as soon as one accidentally revealed some piece of information about the other they wouldn’t have known without breaking the show’s rules.

After meeting with Dale, Clare has a conversation with another contestant, Blake. (There are actually two Blakes, Blake Monar and Blake Moynes. Normally they would be referred to by their first name and an initial—e.g., Lauren B. and Lauren G.—but because the two Blakes have the same last initial, they will apparently be referred to by their full names. Give me until Episode 5 to figure out which one is which.) Clare thanks whichever Blake she’s talking to for reaching out to her after the show’s delay in filming, when she was bummed out about her season potentially getting canceled. She’s clear to mention that Blake was the only contestant who reached out to her and that even though it was against the show’s rules—which nobody else broke, according to her—she really appreciated that he reached out. Watching the episode, I thought the conversation felt stilted and unnatural. Thinking about it later, it hit me: Oh yeah, Clare is trying to make it seem like she didn’t talk to Dale before the season started!

Clare is trying to be like Wesley Snipes “accidentally spotting” Woody Harrelson before they hustle some sorry hoopers in White Men Can’t Jump. The thing is, Clare is significantly worse at acting than Wesley Snipes. I suspect she’s going to do a pretty bad job of hustling too, and I can’t wait to see how she slips up.

Best Gimmick: Harvard Boy Bennett

I remember occasionally watching wrestling with my older brother when I was 10 and learning what a “heel” was because of a wrestler named Chris Nowinski. Nowinski’s gimmick was that he went to Harvard. That was the whole gimmick. He wore Harvard wrestling shorts and entered the ring to Harvard’s fight song while people in the stands held up big HARVARD SUCKS signs. Even I, a 10-year-old who had never met anybody who went to Harvard, wanted the Harvard guy to get his ass kicked. Of course, if Nowinski were trying to get a girl, he would not yell so loudly about having gone to Harvard. We know this, because Nowinski actually went on a dating show at the time and didn’t bring up where he went to college until several hours in, and only when specifically asked. Nowinski eventually quit wrestling, got a PhD in neuroscience, and became the leading voice in the fight to inform football players of the lifelong dangers of concussions. There are many more interesting things about him than having gone to Harvard—but when he was wrestling, it was just a good way to let everybody know that he was the one whose ass you wanted to get kicked.

On this season of The Bachelorette, the guy whose ass we want to get kicked is Bennett. Bennett is actively hawking the fact that he went to Harvard. He pulled up to the resort in a Rolls-Royce and refused to take off his scarf the entire night. (The season was filmed in July in Palm Springs, where it’s over 100 degrees every day.) Bennett is a “wealth management consultant,” which is a douchey way of telling someone you’re a financial advisor. He’s 36 and still opens conversations with his undergraduate education. He’s also named Bennett. He is the worst.

I get the sense that Bachelorette contestants, like pro wrestlers, are advised on their gimmicks. I don’t know whether or not Bennett would actually talk about Harvard nonstop in real life, or if some producer merely told him to “play up the Harvard thing.” It doesn’t matter: I’m hoping The Undertaker bursts through a door and piledrives him.

Early Contenders: Our Record-Setting Crop of Semi-NFL Players

I’d like to thank The Bachelorette for toning down the obviously fake job titles. The first Aspiring Dolphin Trainer was funny; by the time we had an Amateur Sex Coach, a Social Media Participant, and the dreaded WHABOOM guy, I was bored. This year, everybody’s job titles are oddly specific: We have a journalism professor, wildlife manager, and a landscape design salesman—not someone who designs landscapes, or who works as a landscaper, but someone who simply sells landscape designs. There is one guy listed as a music manager and another listed as a boy band manager. (Shout-out to the boy band manager for continuing to manage boy bands in an era that does not seem particularly suited to boy band management.)

But most notable is that we have three former football players. At this point, The Bachelorette is a reliable second career for guys who can’t quite hack it in the pros. Jesse Palmer and Jordan Rodgers spun stints on the show into football analyst gigs after their playing careers and reality TV careers ended. Last year, the Bachelor was not-quite-NFL player Colton Underwood, and the runaway star of the following season of The Bachelorette was not-quite-NFL player Tyler Cameron, who played quarterback at Wake Forest; the next Bachelor will be Matt James, who was one of Cameron’s wide receivers at Wake Forest.

This year, we have more football guys than ever before. Three contestants on this season were signed to NFL teams at some point in their lives. (None ever played in a game, though—it’s possible that playing in an NFL game disqualifies you from being on this show.) One of them is the guy we’ve already talked about: Dale Moss, who played basketball for four years at South Dakota State before finishing off his career with a surprisingly productive season at wide receiver for SDSU’s football team. (Maybe Clare’s eventual screwup will be that she reveals that she knows that South Dakota State’s mascot is the Jackrabbit.)

The second is the show’s breakout MVP candidate: Uzoma Nwachukwu, who caught touchdowns from Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. Nwachukwu, who goes by “Eazy” on the show, is far and away the most compelling contestant—not that it’s a high bar, but Eazy has jokes and a whole personality. I’m almost bummed that next season’s Bachelor is already chosen, because it feels like Eazy would be a good one. (If it’s any consolation, Nwachukwu had more receiving yards in each of his four college seasons than James did in his entire Wake Forest career.)

The third football player is Jason Foster, whom I believe to be the first offensive lineman to make it on The Bachelorette. Foster’s transformation from his playing days to his Bachelorette appearance is pretty stunning—Foster was listed at 300 pounds with the Buccaneers, and is now so skinny you’d think he played wide receiver. (Although he did pretend to be pregnant upon entering the mansion as a callback to Clare’s entrance when she was a contestant.) Unfortunately, the first night doesn’t go so well for Jason—he awkwardly compares Clare’s beauty to his mom’s.

Judging from football players’ past performances on this show, these are the three guys we need to watch—although we kind of knew that already, because Clare is basically married to Dale by the end of the episode.

Most Unfortunate Blunder: Tyler C. (No, Not That Tyler C.)

It is a time-honored tradition for Bachelorette contestants to reveal that another contestant on the show is not who he says he is. He has a girlfriend back home! He’s only on the show to be famous! He hooked up with Bachelor contestants from other seasons! He puts ketchup on hot dogs! It’s almost as if the show recruits contestants who sort of know other contestants in hopes of these secrets being revealed. (Almost.)

In this case, Tyler C. knows a secret about Yosef. Unfortunately, it’s an extremely boring one: He knows that Yosef sent some video messages to a girl who lives in Tyler’s hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.

Like ... OK? Tyler doesn’t say that this girl was Yosef’s secret girlfriend, or that the girl thought Yosef was creepy—just that a single dad attempted to create a connection with another human during one of the strangest moments in modern human history. That’s not too big of a deal, and really, Tyler shouldn’t have even brought it up. Unmoved by his not-compelling-at-all testimony, and despite seeming to enjoy his entrance, Clare dumps him at the end of the episode. And not only that—she keeps Yosef!

On the surface, it seems like Clare has a low tolerance for drama. Tyler tried to stir up controversy when there was none, and she nipped it in the bud. But I think Clare also has her own personal interest at stake here—she’s trying her best to establish a no-gossip zone. After all, she really does not want anybody snooping around, trying to speculate about who was DMing who before the show started. So goodbye, Tyler!

Worst Understanding of What Happened Here: Page

You’ve got to feel bad for the two guys sent home after the first night of this show. They flew on planes during a pandemic and had their brain tickled by testing swabs so they could be on television for approximately 20 seconds.

We’ve already talked about Tyler C.; the other eliminated contestant was Page, a heavily tattooed chef from Austin. He has finger tats and hand tats and a tattoo of his heart located over his actual heart. I don’t remember Page’s entrance or remember him actually doing anything before he was kicked off. But as he leaves, he gives an impassioned monologue about how he was shafted. Clare spent so much time talking to Tyler and Yosef that she didn’t leave any time for him, Page laments. He affirms that he felt he could’ve established a legitimate connection with Clare, if only he’d had time.

First of all, wrong. Clare already picked her guy via DMs. You never had a chance. Second of all, this is a shallow show, Page, and you’re covered in tattoos. I’m not going to issue a verdict on whether being covered in tattoos is hot or not. Some people think it is hot! Some people think it is not! But there are not many in-between viewpoints here. Nobody’s kind of into tats. It’s one of the few superficial choices that I could imagine being instantly disqualifying. If you’re covered in tattoos and you’re kicked off a dating show after the first night, it’s not because you didn’t get enough time to connect. It’s because she doesn’t want the hands she holds for the rest of her life to have pictures on them.