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Chris Harrison Isn’t Irreplaceable

The longtime host of ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ is taking time away after defending a contestant’s racism. But the inessential nature of his role on the show means that bringing him back would send yet another message that the franchise doesn’t truly care about progress.

ABC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Chris Harrison has hosted all 25 seasons of The Bachelor, as well as all 16 seasons of The Bachelorette. He’s hosted all six seasons of the summer spinoff Bachelor in Paradise, all three seasons of the now-canceled game show Bachelor Pad, the inaugural season of romance-music crossover competition The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart, and the Olympic counterprogramming effort Bachelor Winter Games. That’s 52 seasons and 557 episodes of television. Next to the roses, he’s the only constant of one of television’s most popular franchises.

Up to this point, that is. The essential nature of Harrison’s duties on The Bachelor are being put to the test after Harrison passionately tried to justify the racist past of contestant Rachael Kirkconnell in an interview with Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette. (Full disclosure: Lindsay cohosts a podcast on the Ringer Podcast Network.) While Kirkconnell has since acknowledged that her actions were indefensible, Harrison defended them before that, and called those criticizing Kirkconnell the “woke police.” He argued that criticism of Kirkconnell attending an antebellum-themed plantation party was 20-20 hindsight, saying that while such a thing is unacceptable in 2021, it wasn’t perceived the same way in 2018—the implication somehow being that the world only started regarding slavery as bad around 2019.

The backlash to Harrison’s interview was swift. But if you’ve followed the franchise at all, it isn’t hard to see why. This isn’t just about the one incident. Harrison’s statements come at a moment when the show is trying to rid itself of its deserved reputation of dismal representation and racial insensitivity. Most of the 52 seasons Harrison has hosted have been overwhelmingly white, with the few nonwhite cast members rarely making it far on the show. For Lindsay’s history-making season, producers cast a man whose public Twitter account referred to Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization” and called the NAACP “racist,” then spent several episodes capitalizing on the drama when that contestant inevitably feuded with Black contestants. To Black people, racism is an existential threat; to The Bachelor, it’s been a kooky plot point. In 2017, The Bachelor itself had a plantation-themed date.

Casting Matt James as the first Black Bachelor was meant to be progress—instead, James’s season has been overshadowed by Kirkconnell’s past, and Harrison’s eager defense of it. When the face of the franchise rushes to defend racist actions, it makes it seem like the show’s past missteps weren’t accidents. It makes it seem like the show spent two decades exclusively casting white people because its all-white leadership didn’t really see a problem with ignoring everybody who didn’t look like them. It makes it seem like the show’s repeated inability to filter out contestants with racist pasts is the result of a brain trust who never thought it necessary to ensure that the show’s few Black contestants are surrounded by people who respect their humanity. Harrison’s defense seemed to confirm that The Bachelor’s mistakes weren’t mistakes at all, instead a reinforcement of the way things are supposed to be.

Harrison is currently taking a step back from the show. This season’s “After the Final Rose” reunion special will be hosted by Fox Sports analyst Emmanuel Acho—just about the first Bachelor product hosted by someone other than Harrison. But it’s clear that Harrison intends for his absence to only be temporary. On Thursday, he told ABC’s Good Morning America that he wants to return to the show, and that he’s committed to avoiding future missteps on the issue of race. But it’s hard to imagine that Harrison is a totally different person than the one who argued with Lindsay—that he’s only now “speaking from his heart,” as he says, as opposed to when he heartily defended Kirkconnell just three weeks ago. GMA anchor Michael Strahan called Harrison’s apology “a surface response,” noting that his primary motivation seems to be that he “clearly wants to stay on the show.”

The network and the show have a choice to make. They can decide whether to prioritize their newly discovered ideals, or they can simply continue making a popular and profitable television show with the guy who always has been there.

Can the show go on without Chris? Honestly? Yes, and easily. While he may be the face of the franchise, Chris Harrison doesn’t really do much of anything on the show, something we’ve been pointing out for years. It’s not that he’s bad at his job—the same faux-sincerity that made his interview with Strahan so strained is perfect for a show built on faux-sincerity. It’s just that the role of Bachelor host is limited. So limited, in fact, that it could be eliminated entirely.

On many competition shows, the job of the host is obvious. On Jeopardy!, the late, great Alex Trebek read the clues and told contestants whether they were right or wrong. On Survivor, Jeff Probst explains the rules of challenges, does play-by-play for physical competitions—he’s honestly better at this than most sports announcers—and talks contestants through who they’re voting off the show. On American Idol, Ryan Seacrest introduces performers and tells viewers how to vote on the show’s winner. On Chopped, Ted Allen reveals which items cooks must use, comments on their cooking processes, and then prompts the judges to explain their thought process. On The Bachelor … I’ve never been able to put my finger on what Chris Harrison is there for. In our 2017 calculation, we found that Harrison is on screen for roughly 5 percent of a season of The Bachelor. The @BachelorData Instagram account found that Harrison has gotten the ninth-most screen time this season, behind Matt James and seven contestants. He might show up in a two-hour episode for less than three minutes. Some episodes, he doesn’t show up at all.

Chris Harrison doesn’t accompany the Bachelor on most interactions with contestants, because that’d be awkward. Chris Harrison doesn’t announce which contestants are moving on and which are going home—the Bachelor does this himself in the rose ceremony, while Harrison stands off to the side. (Harrison does announce when there is one rose left, helping anybody who has trouble counting to one.) Most accurately, he serves as an intermediary between the Bachelor and contestants for announcements about the format of the show—like whether a cocktail party has been canceled. Sometimes he pretends to be a sports broadcaster.

The inessential nature of Harrison’s role is reflected in how easily he can be replaced, even in the regular run of the show. Harrison almost never “hosts” dates—this job generally falls on celebrities, former contestants, or random experts. Harrison sometimes has a sitdown heart-to-heart with the Bachelor, but more often than not, the show will bring in former contestants or family members to talk things through. Harrison took an episode off on the last season of The Bachelorette to drop his son off at college and former contestant JoJo Fletcher stepped in—and the show was just as entertaining as it’s ever been.

Harrison’s biggest job is hosting the franchise’s reunion episodes, like the “Women Tell All” and “After the Final Rose,” in which he serves as a moderator. He grills a given season’s most problematic contestants; he asks the final couple when they plan on getting married and having kids; he says “ladies, ladies!” when contestants start talking over each other. You can tell he relishes the role, the way it carries more responsibility and affords him a position as the ultimate arbiter of Bachelor morality. And that’s exactly why allowing him to return to the show would feel so off-putting. Besides, the job doesn’t really need to be done by someone who spent all season with the cast—Andy Cohen does a fine job of hosting the reunion special for The Real Housewives of X City without living in X City. Acho—who has proved to be an incisive yet compassionate interviewer on much more complicated subjects than the drama in the Bachelor mansion—will do just fine in a couple of weeks.

The Bachelor would look pretty similar without Chris Harrison, or without a host altogether. Rose ceremonies would look pretty much the same. Dates would look pretty much the same. If anything, removing the role from the proceedings would force the Bachelor to speak to the contestants more, which would add to the drama of the show. (It would’ve been amazing if Matt was the person who had to greet an intruding contestant at the gates of the Nemacolin resort instead of Chris Harrison, right?) Without a host, The Bachelor would have a little bit more time to focus on the lighthearted and fun things that make the show enjoyable—the blossoming relationships, the kooky dates, the random screaming about insignificant insults.

Chris Harrison’s defense of racism wouldn’t be excused if he did have a bigger role on the show—but the fact that he doesn’t makes the path forward clearer. Much in the same way Harrison didn’t have to defend Kirkconnell just because she goes a long way on this season, the show doesn’t have to defend Harrison just because he’s done an inessential job for a long time. The producers can move forward without him pretty easily—which also means we’ll know exactly where their priorities stand if they choose to let him return. It will make it clear that preserving the position of a man who gets three minutes of airtime per episode is more important than the ideals the show now claims to stand for.