One of the Bachelor franchise’s favorite things, after monogamous love and promotional teasers, is declaring that something on one of its shows is “historic.” Some of these moments are more earned than others. But on Thursday night, the usage of the word was not an exaggeration. In the place of a young, conventionally attractive male lead was an old, conventionally attractive male lead: a 72-year-old widower named Gerry Turner. And there to court him was a class of female contestants no younger than 60. Together, they launched the long-awaited Golden Bachelor, a show for boomers looking for another chance at love.
Anyone who has spent even a few hours within the extended Bachelor universe knows that this is a huge deal. Not only because the show has always been slow to reflect the racial and sexual diversity of the real-world dating pool, but also because The Bachelor’s appeal has always been coded into the especially young, hot faces and bodies of its leads and contestants. As an institution, The Bachelor is highly allergic to older women: It has never once had a female contestant over 40 on the show, and women in their 30s are rare exceptions. After 27 seasons, countless spinoffs, and a fan base so large that people call it a “nation,” the casting decisions that Bachelor producers make now double as a stamp of approval for what’s acceptable in the dating world. The dawn of The Golden Bachelor is an acknowledgment from the powers that be that, yes, old people fuck. And not only do they fuck, but they also live full, complicated lives that don’t dissolve the second they lose some ab definition or get a wrinkle.
Going gray is the life raft The Bachelor needs. In recent years, the franchise has slipped into especially frivolous territory, plagued by vetting issues, the departure of its longtime host over racially insensitive comments, and the fact that most of its contestants seem more interested in becoming influencers than finding love. Even those who watch the series for the meta-appeal of how producers shape its narrative can sense that something about the well-oiled machine is on autopilot. When the people you’re watching don’t seem serious, it’s hard to take them, or the stakes of the show, seriously. (I’m looking at you, Peter Weber.) The beauty of The Golden Bachelor is that many of the self-serving interests that have blemished the Bachelor franchise seem to have been solved by a generation of contestants who have 30 years left to live, all the comfortable trappings of a boomer lifestyle, and therefore far less desire to launch a tequila brand.
Let’s take our Golden Bachelor, Gerry, for example. You know how when Timothée Chalamet is cast in a period piece, and people respond by saying he has a face that has “definitely seen an iPhone before”? Gerry has whatever the opposite of that is. This is a man with a retirement tan and a gentle Kermit the Frog voice who probably didn’t even touch a smartphone until the age of 57. His go-to adjectives for describing women on the show are not “amazing” or “smokeshow” but “poised” and “elegant.” And in true Bachelor fashion, his life story sounds like it was cribbed from the beginning of a Disney movie: He was married for 43 years in Hudson, Indiana, with a big family and a happy life. In the spring of 2017, he and his wife, Toni, closed on their dream house with the intention of living out their later years on a lake. But within a month, she was hospitalized with a bacterial infection and passed away days later. Like all Bachelor intros, Gerry’s telling of this tragic story is succinct and easy to follow. It’s not like a producer didn’t help him with it. But the tears in his eyes, the cracking in his voice, the gulp in his throat were quite clearly genuine. And that kind of expression lends him unusual depth for a lead that no amount of media training, or experience looking into a front-facing phone camera, can fake.
The same goes for most of the 22 women vying to be his bride. They have grandchildren and best friends fighting cancer. They’ve been divorced multiple times and widowed. One of them even claims to have dated Prince and inspired the 1979 song “Sexy Dancer.” You don’t get the sense that these women are waiting for a proposal to begin their lives; they’ve already lived many. That’s not to say they’re going into this wildly produced process without expectations, anxiety, or knowledge of how the franchise functions. But, at least on night one, cynicism, gimmicks, and insecure feuds seemed to be at an all-time low. An appearance from Jimmy Kimmel’s Aunt Chippy aside, the closest we get to a villain, or shtick, is a 65-year-old therapist named April who makes a joke about having “fresh” eggs, spanks herself, and clucks like a chicken. Given her line of work, I can only assume this will hurt, not help, her business.
Even as these women represent all the imperfect, unpredictable ways to arrive at a late-in-life love, the show can’t help but smooth their edges with some standard romantic devices. The contestants are not gray, they’re golden. And in case we needed a visual reminder of that, the very first woman out of the limo was a white-haired retiree in a gold lamé dress. The official party line, repeated by host Jesse Palmer, Gerry, and a few contestants, is that they’re seeking a “second chance at love.” Though based on what the women have revealed about their dating history, it’s more like a third or fourth. Throughout the episode, there was an optimistic drumbeat about everyone’s physical capabilities. One contestant cited the fact that Gerry likes to play pickleball as a reason for wanting to meet him. Hearing aids were euphemistically referred to as “ear candy.” Dancing was frequent and joyful, if not always rhythmic. And there were many, many allusions to sex. “Gerry is in great shape,” one particularly charming contestant named Natascha said in an interview. “I’m not gonna need to resuscitate him if we have an intimate moment.”
Though the whole thing is dressed up to be very dignified, some of the premiere’s best moments came from self-aware wisecracks like Natascha’s. These old people don’t take themselves too seriously, and they aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves. One contestant told Gerry that her daughter said to tell him he’s “dope,” delivering the word as if it were her first time ever saying it. He replied that his granddaughter told him he has “rizz.” And together, the two of them giggled, delighted in their out-of-touchness. Toward the end of the night, Gerry admitted to his suitors, with a little bit of exasperation in his voice, that “this is the latest I’ve been up in my whole life.”
It’s this kind of devil-may-care energy (or lack thereof) that has brought me out of Bachelor retirement to watch this show. Maybe it’s because the contestants’ brain chemistry wasn’t forever changed by smartphones. Maybe it’s because the cast had its best years before the American middle class shrank. Whatever the reason, it feels like this season of The Bachelor is built differently. Nobody’s gunning for a Bachelor in Paradise stint, or thousands of TikTok followers, or toothpaste sponsorships. Just early bedtimes, a pickleball partner, and someone who won’t die during sex.