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Did ‘The Bachelor’ Franchise Break Itself?

As the show’s leads have wrest more autonomy over the last few years, its core premise has been dismantled

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Spoiler warning

As long as Chris Harrison has been the host of The Bachelor, he’s teased every upcoming season as “historic.” For the majority of the franchise’s 18-year run, this has been a lie. By virtue of the show’s sheer longevity, die-hard viewers know all too well how the story goes from season to season: The lead is tortured over having to choose between a group of “amazing” men or women; villains emerge and have a final showdown on a so-called “two on one”; the show travels to at least two (2) mildly interesting Midwestern states and one (1) foreign continent; occasionally there’s a minor medical event that requires an elaborate entrance by a suspiciously camera-ready team of emergency medics; and in the season finale, viewers are rewarded with a glorious mystery proposal. There is never a shortage of sequins or tears.

Fixtures like these exist both to keep ratings high no matter the personality of a season’s lead, but also because the Bachelor franchise has become a lucrative, self-perpetuating island of content. Not only must producers deliver at least nine episodes’ worth of footage per season, but those episodes often contain cross-promotional dates sponsored by clothing brands and tourist attractions. And on top of all that, the air time that each new batch of suitors gets is crucial to developing fan favorites who can then be cast in future seasons of the franchise.

But in recent seasons, an interesting thing started happening: Harrison has kept his promises of “historic” drama. The latest string of Bachelor(ette)s have recognized their celebrity power, leveraging it against the show’s air-tight production schedule and (reportedly comprehensive) season contracts to transform its structure. As a result, the franchise’s meticulous storytelling and sponcon opportunities have been upended by the whims of each season’s protagonist. And while there’s no denying that this shift has resulted in captivating television, it may also be what threatens the show’s very existence.

Thursday night’s episode of The Bachelorette is the latest example of the show’s dissolving narrative structure. In the fourth episode of season, Clare torched the show’s nine-week selection process for a preemptive fantasy suite date with 32-year-old South Dakotan Dale Moss. After deciding he’s her “match,” the Bachelor machine went into self-preservation mode with startling efficiency. Neil Lane FedEx-ed a ring to La Quinta, Clare and Dale got engaged, and Tayshia Adams emerged, fully sequined, from a limo to take her place. It was as disorienting as it was captivating.

The groundwork for an event like that has been laid for some time now. The me-centric era of the show began in 2019 with Colton Underwood, a former NFL (practice squad) tight end and virgin out of Denver, Colorado. In an interview with This American Life, Underwood revealed that after producers withheld access to the contestants he liked the most, he began to lie about who was at the top of his list. Then, when his true favorite contestant, Cassie Randolph, said she planned to leave because she wouldn’t be ready for marriage by the end of the series, he lost it. “Fuck all of this. I’m done. I’m done with this,” he said before scaling a 7-foot fence and disappearing into the Portuguese wilderness. Harrison and the rest of the production team swept the backroads for Colton until they finally spotted him on the side of the road and, with the calm expertise of crisis negotiators, convinced him to get inside their production van. No matter how gentle the crew was with Colton, he looked like a hostage. Contrary to Harrison’s repeated assertions that the show was there to help the man “find love,” it seemed the rules in place to protect the show—namely, the Bachelor’s inability to shorten the process on his own terms—were keeping him from doing just that. His tantrum forced the hand of the production staff. In a “historic” move, Colton sent home the two other finalists before they had a chance to have their fantasy suite dates. (Which would have been indisputably excellent TV considering Colton was the show’s first virgin lead.) The rest of the series followed him as he chased Cassie, a “journey” that did not end in the usual Lane-sponsored engagement.

Whether producers were encouraged by the ratings generated by Colton’s legendary fence jump, or future contestants learned that they could, indeed, break some unspoken rules, we do not know. But subsequent seasons became far more lead-driven. In her 2019 run as Bachelorette, Hannah Brown made exception after exception to keep Luke Parker, a conservative Christian misogynist, on the show. Based on an interview Harrison later did with Glamour, it seemed as though producers had hoped she would dump him earlier in the season. Instead, she insisted on yet another historic allowance: bringing not three, but four men on individual fantasy suite dates. Hannah didn’t choose him in the end, but the season was still marred by a later revelation that the season winner, Jed, was hiding a secret girlfriend and aspirations to promote his musical career.

The following season featured Peter Weber, one of Hannah’s rejected suitors, as the Bachelor, and it was even more chaotic. As the 28-year-old struggled to trust his own gut and control his lingering eye, his “journey for love” became a fuckboi fever dream. First, he was distracted by lingering feelings for Brown. Then, the revelation that he’d serendipitously encountered contestant Kelley Flanagan in a hotel lobby before the show began spurred questions about their prior involvement. (It’s no surprise that, because of this, she was given an edit that downplayed her natural chemistry with Peter.) Ultimately, watching him choose a “winner” was like watching someone furiously fill out random circles on a multiple-choice test because time was running out. His final romantic outcome followed a similar logic: He proposed to one contestant, broke up with her in post-production, then attempted to rekindle a romance with the runner-up. Now he’s currently dating Kelley. The entire saga, while surely unprecedented, was joyless to watch. And even if his indecision produced some dramatic moments, it undercut the show’s rosy assertion that Bachelor-franchise relationships were somehow more meaningful and long-lasting than Tinder matches.

All of that brings us back to Clare’s season. After the first attempt at filming was interrupted by the global pandemic, producers devised an alternate, COVID-safe set deep in the Southern California desert. But in that time, Clare had already stalked her future contestants online and made up her mind. “I would look at all the guys’ social media pages just to see what kind of guys were coming on, which kind of guys I’m gonna meet, and I was excited for it,” she told Harrison during a tense conversation Thursday night. She swore that she and contestant Dale Moss had no contact. “But when I would see Dale’s, it just was like—he’s somebody I could see hanging out with.” All she needed to do was meet him to know he was the one. Clare’s exit interview was a revelatory on-screen admission that life exists outside the gaze of the Bachelor and, for the influencers-in-training who use the franchise as a career launchpad, social media may be a far more efficient way to both further their celebrity and kindle romance. Clare’s unwillingness to participate in the show and, as Harrison put it “blow up The Bachelorette,” was in some way an admission of how dated the system feels. Why spend nine weeks in the desert watching strip dodgeball games when she could get all the information she needed on Instagram?

Was Clare’s one-woman protest against the Bachelorette production schedule entertaining? Sure! Will the Clare-to-Tayshia switch go down as Bachelor Nation lore? No doubt. But all of it was likely an expensive, time-consuming logistical nightmare, one that chips away at the show’s claim that going on reality TV really helps people find true love. It might be more appropriate to call Thursday’s fiasco an allegory: If some semblance of order isn’t restored to the series, the show itself will soon be history.