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Bringing Order to ‘The Bachelor’

Some advice for Matt James, with the help of a former Bachelorette and an analytics expert

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Matt James, the star of Season 25 of The Bachelor, is a boundary-breaking lead. He’s the first Black Bachelor. He’s the first Bachelor in more than a decade not to have previously appeared on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. He’s tied for the title of tallest Bachelor. And according to a comment by one lust-struck contestant, he has 16-pack abs, which would make him an anatomical marvel.

I don’t even see 16 abs in this picture.
instagram.com/tylerjcameron3

Through the first three weeks of his season, though, Matt’s behavior has been about as conventional as it comes. Sure, he’s boldly embraced the turtleneck despite the harsh responses to past turtleneck attempts. But he hasn’t done anything to overhaul the structure of the series itself. If anything, he’s helped highlight how much the ABC series needs a lead to disrupt the typical protagonist’s approach to finding love—a James Holzhauer of The Bachelor who would optimize the process and produce polarizing, riveting TV. It’s time for a Bachelor or Bachelorette to streamline the series’ inefficiencies, impose order on the chaos that comes between the Bachelor and his would-be betrothed, and make host/hype man Chris Harrison promise viewers “the most pragmatic season ever.”

Let’s concentrate on cocktail parties, staples of the series that traditionally follow the competition portions of group dates and precede rose ceremonies. Since time immemorial (or at least, like, 2002), cocktail parties have tended to be free-for-alls where contestants vie for opportunities to talk to the lead. Almost inevitably, the most aggressive guests make more than one visit, earning the ire of their mansion-mates, while meeker or more courteous contestants don’t get time at all. The first two cocktail parties in Matt’s season, which began with a record-setting 32 contestants, were egregious examples of lousy logistics and unequal exposure. On night one, villain Victoria talked to Matt twice, and several women were left lamenting their lack of time. And on this week’s episode, contestant Sarah Trott stole the spotlight from a few angry group date participants when she crashed a cocktail party and bogarted time despite having had a one-on-one date days earlier.

“It seemed like there were a lot of women he didn’t talk to, and that might be because he’s never been on this show before,” says Rachel Lindsay, an attorney who was a contestant on Season 21 of The Bachelor, starred on Season 13 of The Bachelorette, and currently cohosts Ringer podcast Higher Learning. “So he doesn’t realize the importance of how necessary it is to talk to everyone, because he’s never been a person who’s been left out or been fighting for time.”

Even experienced members of Bachelor Nation have struggled to distribute time to contestants. The disorder endemic to cocktail parties flows from the conceit of the series: As Matt said at his second rose ceremony, “There’s only one of me and so many of you all.” But it’s also partly a product of mismanagement. Matt pledged to “continue to follow my heart,” and while that’s a start, he’d also do well to follow a more rigorous game plan. To offer an analogy the former Wake Forest football star might appreciate: After the hike, the quarterback doesn’t just react to the routes his receivers run. Coaches call plays. Yet on The Bachelor, most leads adopt a passive approach and leave it to the contestants to corral them or not, which prevents the stars from making informed assessments and leads to distracting strife. There must be a better way.

To find a solution to this cocktail-party tumult, I sought out a man who’s found love and efficiency: John F. Shortle, professor and chair of Systems Engineering and Operations Research at George Mason University, and coauthor of the fourth and fifth editions of definitive textbook Fundamentals of Queueing Theory. Queueing theory—a branch of operations research, an analytical discipline devoted to making better decisions—is the roughly century-old mathematical study of improving the process of waiting in line. “If waiting in line is boring, you might think studying about waiting in lines would be boring as well,” Shortle says. “But I enjoy it.”

Shortle typically studies waiting as it relates to air transportation, telecommunications, and other non-reality-TV activities; in 2016, he won an award for a Military Operations Research paper titled “Spatial and Temporal Modeling of IED Emplacements against Dismounted Patrols.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he hasn’t been asked about The Bachelor before, but he reviewed several scenes from Matt’s first cocktail party to prepare. “Are there mathematical models that we can pull out of a textbook and apply to The Bachelor?” Shortle says. “Probably not so much. But I think there’s a lot of principles about designing queuing systems that would apply.”

In a normal scenario, Shortle explains, queueing systems are designed to reduce anxiety, eliminate confusion, and set expectations. Generally, it’s nice to know who’s next in line and how long the wait will be; that’s why automated answering systems often quote an estimated time to talk to a human. Fairness is another bedrock goal, which can sometimes be achieved by sticking to a “first come, first served” model or ensuring that shorter service times are associated with shorter wait times (the raison d’être of supermarket express lanes).

On The Bachelor, “fairness is how much time does each person get with the Bachelor, and will they get any time,” Shortle says, adding, “unfairness creates a lot of stress and anxiety for the people that are waiting.” Yet the way the series is set up, contestants don’t know if or when they’ll get to talk to the lead, or how much time they’ll have before the next contestant cuts in. “It seems they’ve actively avoided those kinds of principles in The Bachelor,” Shortle says.

Granted, social pressure discourages contestants from “borrowing” a Bachelor too soon, and the prospect of becoming a pariah dissuades some from double-dipping. “But that only goes so far with these unwritten rules, because people don’t agree on them or people will abuse them,” Shortle says. Most leads allow the norm-eroding intrusions, though they may file the offenses away for future rose ceremonies. “You allow them to interrupt, and you take note of it, and it’s probably what you’re going to use against them when you send them home,” Lindsay says.

Of course, the producers have every reason to craft the worst waiting experience possible. “They’re trying to maximize entertainment value,” Shortle says, and thus “they’re probably trying to maximize stress among contestants. So you take these queuing principles, and it’s almost like you do the opposite.”

But the producers’ interests aren’t always fully aligned with the lead’s. If the Bachelor or Bachelorette genuinely wants to find love, he or she should be motivated to talk to every contestant and minimize the time-wasting sniping that stems from jockeying for cocktail-party position. “You’re basically making a decision based on the short amount of time that you have,” Shortle says. “And so being able to spend time with everybody would be helpful, so you’re not sending somebody away that would have been your first choice in the end.”

There’s no way to make The Bachelor’s hyper-compressed process perfectly resemble real-life dating, but it wouldn’t be difficult to do better than the anarchic status quo. “From the contestants’ perspective, it’s just a totally unstructured system,” Shortle says. “And so I think the most basic thing is instilling some kind of order in the process.” For example, the Bachelor could “try to initiate some amount of control in terms of who he sees. If he’s trying to choose among 30 people, then he wants to get to all 30. He could turn down people that come twice and try to let people know that he’s going to get to everybody. … I think the key things would be fairness and providing some level of reducing uncertainty.”

How would that work in practice? Take night one, the thorniest challenge from a logistical standpoint. “You have 30 contestants,” Shortle says. “You take the time, you divide it by 30, and you give each person that amount. That would be kind of the obvious solution. It’s fair to everyone. Maybe you randomize the order, and then you get someone there that kind of enforces it and says, ‘OK, your time’s up. You’re next.’”

One obstacle is that it’s easy for the leads to lose track of time during the interminable mixers. “You don’t know what time it is,” Lindsay says. “You don’t know how long the night’s gone.” What’s more, the producers might not want to play the helper elves to the lead’s department-store Santa. But if the producers wouldn’t cooperate on policing the line, maybe the Bachelor could politely and apologetically turn repeat visitors away or watch the clock and keep the procession moving. Admittedly, that would mean monitoring the time, which could be distracting. It would also mean keeping conversations/makeout sessions short, which would take discipline when the chemistry clicks. “It seems like it might be a big ask for that person,” Shortle says. “But if they took a little more control, then some of these issues might be better.”

The journey to find a romantic partner is supposed to be sexier than a trip to the DMV, and contestants taking tickets and staring at the wall until their numbers are called would be bad TV. Plus, trying to turn cocktail parties into orderly affairs could come off as anal-retentive micromanaging, a type A turnoff. Then again, it might also make a Bachelor seem considerate and assertive. “Honestly, it depends if you really like them or not,” Lindsay says. “If you really like them then you find a reason to like what they did, and if you don’t then you use it against them.”

Shortle proposes a possible middle ground between being controlling and laissez-faire: “One idea could be the Bachelor goes into the lounge and says, ‘OK, I’ll see you next, and then you, and then you.’” The Bachelor could even emerge for a few minutes to make small talk, promise that he’s going to get to everyone, and put people at ease. “If there’s an element of service that occurs in the wait, then that improves the experience,” Shortle says, who likens this solution to a restaurant serving drinks or making menus available while would-be diners wait to be seated. (The Bachelor’s producers do ply contestants with wine, but that may be as much about manufacturing drunken drama as it is about easing anxiety.)

It’s easy for spectators (or operations research analysts) to say they would do a better job than the Bachelor. But when you’re the lead, Lindsay says, “You realize that you’re stuck between this place of trying to find love, and then also make a TV show.” For instance, Shortle notes that the uncertainty about when the Bachelor’s latest tête-à-tête is over, and the time it takes for leads and contestants to travel between conversational settings, are sources of slowdown that could be trimmed by bringing contestants in and out of one room where the Bachelor talks to everyone.

“Congested systems are very sensitive to the length of the service time,” Shortle says. “So anything that you can shave off of that can vastly improve things.” However, he concedes that while a more streamlined method “would give more time for everybody,” it would also sap some of “the opportunity for the contestants to plan a personalized activity” (and could become monotonous for fans).

That said, disrupting the traditional cocktail party and making entertaining TV aren’t mutually exclusive. When you’ve seen one argument about someone stealing or not getting time, you’ve essentially seen them all. And after a combined 40-plus seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, novelty has a high value. Some of the most memorable moments in franchise history—Kaitlyn Bristowe having sex before fantasy suites, Colton Underwood jumping the fence—have come from leads scrapping the script. And whether it’s Courtney Robertson not-so-spontaneously skinny-dipping or, in Rachel’s case, a contestant or lead breaking with tradition by bringing her dog on dates or attending church, producers are pretty willing to accommodate the lead’s demands.

“When I brought it up, they were like, ‘That’s amazing. That’s never been done before. Let’s do it,’” Rachel says about her request to bring Nick Viall to church on her hometown date. The producers were similarly supportive of her desire to be accompanied by Copper, who helped her choose a fiancé.

At times, though, the producers can be impediments. At one cocktail party, Lindsay says, the producers told her that she couldn’t talk to a contestant because of time constraints. And when she was on Nick’s season, she saw other women talk-blocked by producers. “There’s manipulation within there,” Lindsay says. “At least in my experience, I never saw someone not try to talk to the lead. If they didn’t get to talk to the lead it’s because they were pushed back by a producer, maybe for some drama, for some conflict, maybe because the lead wanted more time with a specific person.”

Lindsay went out of her way to prevent that from happening on her season. On night one, she says, “I was very emphatic about the fact that I wanted to talk to every single person. I was not sending somebody home, or keeping someone, when I hadn’t had a conversation with them, even if it was for a minute.” She told the contestants at the outset of the party that she planned to talk to all of them, and she repeated her preference to the producers throughout the night. “They were rushing people toward the end. I was getting two to three minutes with each person, but I got to talk to everyone, and it was one of the longest first nights ever, they said, because of me.”

It’s time for someone to take the quest for cocktail efficiency one step further. Some of the most indelible Bachelors are the ones who did things differently, like Jake Pavelka, Brad Womack, and Jesse Palmer (who had a spy in the house). Maybe a quant could achieve Bachelor immortality by “breaking” the Bachelor the way Jeopardy James broke the trivia institution.

Holzhauer found a wife before he found fame, and on Jeopardy!, he wasn’t trying to woo anyone; he just had to hunt Daily Doubles and answer trivia questions correctly. But his chutzpah and skill still made him a fan favorite and a geek icon. ABC built its reality juggernaut on the strapping, shapely backs of generic hunks and hotties, but The Bachelor could benefit from mixing in nerds other than Venmo John, who’s off the market. (And not just self-professed nerds like Becca Kufrin and “closet nerd” Wills Reid, who never really revealed what they were nerdy about.) To survive the casting gauntlet, they would have to be somewhat suave and sensitive nerds, naturally—so, not Nathan Fielder in The Hunk—but their tactics and passion could shake up the franchise in a welcome way.

Maybe a lead could conduct the cocktail party blindfolded, à la Love Is Blind, or eliminate long shots and focus on front-runners, or ask the contestants to rate one another and go with the wisdom of crowds. On the superb seventh season of The Bachelor Australia, astrophysicist Matt Agnew resolved a she-said, she-said standoff at a cocktail party by surveying the other contestants about an alleged incident, which allowed him to deduce that one woman was lying and astutely send her home. Maybe Aussie Matt exhibited some “PE teacher energy” by grilling the women about what went down. But his strategy seems smarter than the latest American Matt’s decision to send the seemingly innocent Marylynn home because Victoria claimed without evidence that she was “straight-up toxic.”

In other words, be bold. Break with cocktail convention. And tell contestants, producers, and fans to “trust the process.” Maybe you’ll find love and be a Bachelor legend.

“I think leads are so scared,” Lindsay says. “As outspoken and independent as I am, I was still scared to do that, because you don’t know what you can and can’t do. … It’s a psychological experiment. You really do change in that world, because you’ve never been in it before and you don’t know who to trust and what to trust, and what you have power over and what you don’t. When you probably have a lot more than you think, because at the end of the day they never want their lead to look bad. They will always protect the lead.”

Talking to every contestant early on—and then concentrating on the true contenders—paid off for Rachel, who has been married to Bachelorette beau Bryan Abasolo since August 2019. Given the lackluster collective success rate of the series’ stars, future leads should consider consulting Shortle, who could be to Bachelor strategy what Neil Lane is to Bachelor bling. But The Bachelor’s producers probably won’t be retaining his services, unless it’s to learn how waiting could cause even more conflict. “I think their optimal strategy would be to ask me what I think would be the best thing to do, and then they would do the opposite,” Shortle says. “Maybe in that sense I would be a good consultant.”