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‘The Golden Bachelor’ Was What ‘The Bachelor’ Always Wanted to Be

In its engrossing first season, ‘The Golden Bachelor’ bolstered the beleaguered ‘Bachelor’ brand by bringing mortality—and the appearance of authenticity—to ABC’s reality TV institution

ABC/Ringer illustration

Golden Bachelor host Jesse Palmer wasn’t way off, for once, when, with typical Bachelor bombast, he proclaimed that the dating show’s climax would “change all of Bachelor Nation forever.” Whoever’s hosting a Bachelor finale has to make such statements, but rarely is a “stunning,” “shocking,” or “most dramatic” conclusion truly transformative for viewers who go way back with Bach. This time, it was true.

Here’s how I know: In the back half of Thursday’s tear-filled finale—which ended not just with an engagement, but also with a wedding date—ABC aired a hype package for Bachelorette Season 20 runner-up Joey Graziadei’s upcoming debut as the Bachelor. The traditional teaser contained all the requisite intrigue: frolicking, smooching, and inevitably, a sudden turn toward discord and dissolution. Joey may make a fine Bachelor, but as the drama ramped up, I found myself wondering: So what if it doesn’t work out? Joey is 28 years old. The dude has several decades to look for love. And if he fails to find it for the next 45 years, he might have a happy ending: He could be the Golden Bachelor.

With that, I realized that the latest Bachelor spinoff had unseated the supposed flagship shows in my affections, just as Theresa Nist toppled Leslie Fhima in the televised pursuit of Gerry Turner’s heart. I can’t speak for Bachelor Nation (though Bachelor Nation has spoken for itself through resurgent TV ratings). But in my household, the hierarchy of power in the Bachelor universe has changed. All other Bachelor shows will merely mark the time until the franchise gets Golden again.

Granted, I was growing apart from the franchise before The Golden Bachelor began. For years, my wife and I were Bachelor and Bachelorette regulars who treated each two-hour Bachelor block as appointment TV and dabbled in international spinoffs when we ran out of domestic supply. But in 2022, we quit cold turkey and never regretted reclaiming our Monday evenings. The proximate cause of our Bachelor breakup was a brutal back-to-back Bachelor combo of Matt James and Clayton Echard, followed by a bifurcated Bachelorette Season 19. But maybe, in our mid-30s with a kid to care for, we were just aging out of Bachelor Nation. Maybe it just seemed as if we’d seen it all.

It’s funny how fast you can go from being on a one-way first-name basis with legions of good-looking TV contestants to not knowing one aspiring influencer from another. Check out of the franchise for a season or two, and almost everyone’s a stranger, which makes it even harder to continue to care. Just as I renounced my Bachelor Nation citizenship, though, The Golden Bachelor arrived to restore my attachment. It wasn’t just a new and different Bachelor; it was a better Bachelor. Picture the Distracted Boyfriend or the guy from the “friendship ended with Mudasir” meme. That’s me moving on from my former Bachelor relationship and forming a Golden Bachelor bond.

I was one of millions of viewers who flocked back to the Bachelor banner (or tuned in for the first time) to watch the 72-year-old Gerry become the first over-40 lead in the franchise’s history. (The series debuted in 2002, back when Gerry was just 51—or more than a decade older than any other active Bachelor has been.) As of November 22, The Golden Bachelor’s premiere had drawn almost 12 million spectators across all platforms, making it the most viewed installment of any Bachelor show since the “After the Final Rose” episode of Peter Weber’s Bachelor Season 24 in March 2020 (and the most watched episode of any ABC unscripted series ever on Hulu). Later episodes of Gerry’s season appear poised to top the premiere’s 35-day viewing totals. After years of declining ratings and resultant fretting about the franchise’s future, The Golden Bachelor has single-handedly brought back The Bachelor’s luster. Bach was broken, but now it’s Golden.

With apologies to ostensible star Gerry (whose name is almost as hard to remember as another Indianan’s, the mayor of Pawnee), the real lead of The Golden Bachelor’s long-awaited inaugural season was mortality. “At this age we don’t know how long we have,” eventual winner Theresa told her future fiancé’s family in the pretaped portion of the finale. “We want to make the most of every moment.” Later, eventual also-ran Leslie, her hopes of a proposal sunk, sobbed, “Time is running out … time is running out.”

Leslie wasn’t lamenting the approaching end of her screen time. She was calculating the mileage left in her lifetime. How could I not feel for someone who can credibly believe that a breakup closes the door on finding a partner to spend their dwindling days with? How can I go back to watching pretty young things act like their lives are over if they don’t secure a rose when, through a Golden Bachelor lens, their journeys have barely begun? How can I stomach their confessional conversations on one-on-one dates when few of them have loved and lost like The Golden Bachelor’s septuagenarian widower and 60- or 70-something widows and divorcées? How can a regular reality show, its artificial stakes manufactured by a broadcast schedule, compete with that loudest of ticking clocks?

Like Gerry and Theresa, The Golden Bachelor tried to make the most of every moment. The series mercifully cut back on Bachelor bloat by trimming its pre-finale episodes to one hour instead of two or three. That tighter running time required difficult cuts: As Walt Disney Television executive Rob Mills told my colleague Juliet Litman on Bachelor Party, ABC resorted to airing fewer casting calls to save precious seconds. According to Mills, other series under the Bachelor umbrella may borrow aspects of this season’s successful format, whether it be briefer episodes, simpler dates, cold opens, or an emphasis on what Mills called the “three H’s”—humor, heart, and hope.

Replicating the “hope” part of the package won’t be as simple as porting the spinoff’s structure to a preexisting series. That hope is inherent in the premise of rekindling confidence and desire in a group of grief-stricken singles who’ve all but resigned themselves to surrendering sex and/or romance, in contrast to the expectant 20- and 30-somethings who typically populate Bachelor casts. As someone who watches reality TV selectively, I’ve gravitated toward The Bachelor because, more than most such series, it promises substance: true, lasting love. Like most aspects of reality TV, this is largely fiction: only sporadically does the franchise deliver engagements that don’t disintegrate soon after the new couple returns to real life. But the franchise sells itself through the spectacle of whirlwind romance and the potential for enduring relationships. On The Golden Bachelor, that’s an easier sell.

On most seasons of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise, some contestants (often egged on by producers) insist on being messy bitches who live for drama. The Golden Bachelor proved that the more reliable route to a “most dramatic” finish is a focus on the simple stakes of people’s lives. By Bachelor standards, there was scant infighting at the mansion. The squabbling was largely limited to Theresa and Kathy’s bickering about Theresa’s alleged oversharing about her connection to Gerry, highlighted by the acerbic Kathy’s instruction to “zip it.” Neither woman’s stance was entirely unreasonable, and the dispute didn’t spiral or last very long. On The Golden Bachelor, neither the contestants nor ABC had time to waste.

Refreshingly, there was next to no hand-wringing about being “ready for marriage”—why would there be, when everyone involved was familiar with making that commitment and (relative to most younger groups of contestants) emotionally mature? And with a less extremely online, Instagram-oriented cast than the franchise usually features, no one questioned whether other contestants were there for “the right reasons.” All of the energy was devoted to working through feelings for Gerry or forming friendships in the house, and not once did I wish there were a “villain” who derailed either effort. As it turns out, The Bachelor is better when viewers are sorry to see contestants sent home, not relieved to be rid of them.

That’s not to say that The Golden Bachelor always felt fully authentic. Gerry’s super-expressive, preacherly vibe and guidance counselor cadence sometimes seemed more calculated than his Hollywood glow-up, especially after The Hollywood Reporter’s recent exposé about his pre–Golden Bachelor life. The report revealed that he’d continued to work part-time after retiring (though what could be more on brand for a Bachelor than hot tub installation?); that he’d started seriously dating not long after his wife’s death, despite claiming not to have dated at all; and that he hadn’t always been as considerate and sensitive a partner as he’d portrayed himself to be on the show. That’s pretty tame stuff, by reality TV standards—especially if, as some post-exposé spin suggested, he had acknowledged the dating before—but it struck a phony note toward the end of what had seemed to be an unusually sincere season.

(Of course, this is a show where viewers and participants alike have little idea what anyone’s lives are like outside the Bachelor bubble. Gerry didn’t seem to be sold on Theresa until their fantasy suites date, when, seemingly for the first time—and at Theresa’s urging—he learned that she has a career. I wasn’t taken aback by The Hollywood Reporter’s disclosures about Gerry’s postretirement employment because I’d completely forgotten what his preretirement occupation was. And was everyone else aware that Gerry’s dad is still alive?)

In Thursday’s pretaped footage, a jilted, devastated Leslie accused Gerry of lying about his feelings for her. But her hurt was as real and raw as Theresa’s joy, and by episode’s end, the announcement that the “newest, oldest couple” will wed on January 4—and that Bachelor Nation is invited via the franchise’s first full wedding special since 2014—brought back the sense that this season had transcended the trappings of reality TV to become more of a shoot than a work. It seemed, at times, almost too real: “Had I known this is how much pain I would cause someone, I would have never taken the first step on this journey,” Gerry claimed. The next step comes soon: He and Theresa may not stay together till death does them part, but they’re going to get hitched. That alone sets this season apart from most Bachelor runs, on which even the lovebirds who agree to get engaged seem a long way away from walking down the aisle. This was my face for much of the finale:


One of the episode’s legitimately stunning developments—or in this case, nondevelopments—was that ABC didn’t capitalize on the Golden Bachelor buzz by confirming plans for The Golden Bachelorette. Leslie’s heartbroken but defiant reaction to getting dumped on the eve of a possible proposal positioned her as the sympathetic favorite: Her worst fears were confirmed when the man of her dreams didn’t choose her, but maybe a broadcast network will. (It might be better that way: I thought Leslie would’ve been bored by Gerry long term.) But the bench was so deep in the mansion this season that any number of women would make excellent selections, including two other late cuts, Faith and incomparable “pickleball cocaptain” Ellen. Perhaps ABC will save the news for the wedding special, as a figurative tossing of the bridal bouquet.

In the finale, Theresa described the competition she “won” thusly: “It was like a cultural moment; it wasn’t just a show.” The Bachelor has been a cultural phenomenon before, but never in quite this way. Golden Bach was embraced as a bastion of 60-plus representation, celebrated by the AARP and by think pieces in prominent papers and magazines. Its conception reflected how (and how long) we live: An aging population wants to see itself on-screen. But it’s true that despite the demographics, mainstream TV rarely highlights so many hearing aids, grieving senior citizens, and surviving spouses pining for departed partners—with heart and, yes, with humor. I’ve never laughed harder at a line in The Bachelor than I did at Palmer’s commentary during the pickleball group date: “I want to point out that Sandra is playing with two artificial knees, and she’s also missing her daughter’s wedding.”

Throughout the season, Gerry repeatedly recycled a line that wasn’t quite as clever as he seemed to find it—and which, tweaked and repeated mid-proposal with a pregnant pause, seemed kind of cruel: I’m not looking for a woman I can live with. I’m looking for a woman I can’t live without. After many letdowns, I was no longer looking for a Bachelor show I could live with watching. But I’ve found the brand of Bachelor I can’t watch without.