The Bachelor has been on air for 16 years and 22 seasons. After years of the same derivative formula, this year it finally changed—and in doing so, it may have changed the rest of reality TV along with it.
I started watching The Bachelor the year my son was born. In need of something to binge during early morning feedings, I queued up Emily Maynard’s season of The Bachelorette, and then a few months later I was all in on Sean Lowe’s season of The Bachelor. Maybe because I was new to the franchise or maybe because I generally didn’t watch much reality TV, it was easy to suspend my disbelief in the whole process. While I didn’t necessarily buy into the longevity of most of the franchise’s supposed engagements, I was content to take the show at face value. So was most of the fan base at that time.
But something has shifted since 2012 when I started tuning in: fans have become increasingly more aware of the show’s unbelievability. Viewership has centered less and less on an earnest buy-in to the love stories each season churns out and more and more on the behind-the-scenes tactics that go into producing such stories.
The Bachelor did what the WWE did years ago—they stopped insisting on the totality of their own illusion.
It took me two seasons to get bored and start reading spoiler blogs like Reality Steve, who has not only successfully spoiled nearly every season since 2009 but has also offered more-invested fans a look behind the curtain of the show’s production. I began to understand the manipulative tactics the producers frequently utilized to ensure a dramatic showing. They’d do things like cut phrases together to make it sound like a contestant said something they didn’t, or urge often intoxicated men and women to confess feelings, pick fights, and confide dramatic life experiences to the lead. One report even claims that producers tracked female contestants’ menstrual cycles to capitalize on potential hormone induced emotions.
Knowing these things made the show a bit hard to watch. I began to wonder how my voyeurism might be negatively impacting the lives of other human beings. But I was still in the minority—most fans still tuned in casually, content to suspend their disbelief. And then the show Unreal premiered, and it thrust the narrative of manipulative producers into mainstream awareness. Though surely not everything featured on Unreal is reflective of reality (it is a fictional drama, after all), it added to the growing number of media voices undermining the believability of the network rating powerhouse.
And maybe that’s why The Bachelor blew itself up Monday night.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show’s formula, it usually happens like this: The leading man or woman sorts through two-dozen or so potentials throughout the season and brings two final men or women to the pre-taped season finale. They present their chosen match with a final rose. A proposal then ensues, and while the proposals rarely stick, usually couples last long enough to put on a giddy display for the live airing of After the Final Rose.
For at least a few years now, fans have been aware of this part of the illusion. They know of the timing gap between filming the season finale in November and the live airing of After the Final Rose. They know the couples are put up in private houses for a few days at a time on the show’s dime until the finale airs. Never before, though, have we gotten footage of that time. If we know the details of when and where these weekends happen, it’s because someone has spotted a contestant in an airport and spoiled it on social media. So this season, when a camera crew stood in-wait at one of the private houses for Becca K., this season’s winner of bachelor Arie’s affections, she was surely taken off guard. It had been nearly two months since filming had wrapped. Becca had already spent several weekends at these private houses with Arie, and to her, this was just another discreet weekend with her fiancé. She chatted happily with producers while she waited for her Arie to show up, flashing her Neil Lane engagement ring at the camera while gushing about her new relationship.
And then Arie showed up and dumped her on national television, and everyone knew it was going to happen… except Becca.
In fact, not only did Arie break up with her, but he broke up with her to pursue the woman he rejected just eight weeks before in favor of Becca on the season finale. And, to recap, every camera person, sound engineer, make-up artist, and coffee runner knew what would happen: the producers, who prodded her with questions about her relationship, understood that her fiancé was about to announce he’d be leaving her for another woman.
This was not technically unprecedented. Season 13’s bachelor, Jason Mesnick, also famously changed his mind after filming wrapped, leaving his fiancé to pursue a relationship with his runner-up (and now wife). But this happened in an era before social media made contestants so readily accessible—an era before fans were pushing forcefully against the show’s fourth wall. The fallout happened on a pre-taped version of After the Final Rose and the threesome rode off more or less quietly into the sunset afterward.
The most jarring aspect of this season’s finale was not that Arie changed his mind, or even the emotionally obtuse, egocentric manner in which he went about it, but rather the format in which The Bachelor producers delivered it—as entirely unedited footage, shot from two different angles and shown via a split screen, and aired in real time. America watched Becca K.’s heart break with no backing music. There was no attempt made to hide the relics of a television show strewn throughout the house: busy crew members running about, a hastily taped sign on a bedroom door, a camerawoman reflected in a mirror. The total lack of production was almost eerie. I’d never felt more a voyeur than I did in that hour of television. I’d never been more convinced I was glimpsing something I wasn’t meant to see.
In a time in which The Bachelor franchise has never been more exposed, producers did something entirely unprecedented—they leaned into their own unbelievability. They joined fans in their growing push against the fourth wall, and that might be the most manipulative production tactic employed yet—choosing not to produce at all.
I have to believe that this will go down in reality TV history as a revolutionary moment. Gone are the days when we can believe in the organic unfolding of a story on reality television, and a shockingly self-aware move, The Bachelor did what the WWE did years ago—they stopped insisting on the totality of their own illusion. Show creators have been aware of the undermining effect of spoiler blogs and social media users, and on Monday night they took control back by inviting viewers for a backstage tour.
The problem, of course, is that The Bachelor callously leveraged one of Becca’s most vulnerable moments to demand resumed control of their narrative. They exploited her terribly, and we watched. They exploited her terribly, and she let them—she even signed on to be this year’s bachelorette.
To some extent I understand why Becca would agree to further participation in this franchise. Of course, being the bachelorette is appealing in and of itself—she’s offered a level of agency and control she was not privy to as a contestant on The Bachelor. She’s styled by professionals, has her pick of twenty-some-odd men, and she gets paid for her time. But I think the appeal is deeper than that—I don’t believe this show is all bad. In fact, the persistent bright spot that perhaps redeemed this dumpster fire of a season finale were the women who relentlessly supported Becca throughout the nationally aired break up. Though they met one another by essentially dating the same man for several weeks, if there is a worthwhile love story to come from Arie’s season of The Bachelor, it is the love between Becca and the lifelong friends she bonded with during the show’s filming. They called Arie out for his mistreatment of both Becca and the woman he left her for—they squeezed onto a tiny network couch and cheered her on when Becca was announced the newest bachelorette. There is certainly something redemptive and good, here—I’m just not sure if it’s good enough to mitigate the otherwise exploitative process that propels reality television.
For years I thought I might feel less culpable of my participation in an unhealthy process if we could just openly acknowledge the show for what it is—contrived at best. On Monday night, though, I listened to someone’s heart break with no backing music. Stripping away the lights and soft filters left me alone with a total and complete knowledge of my voyeurism. I gobbled up Becca K.’s unoffered vulnerability—I even went in for seconds on Tuesday—and there was no formulaic production to help me pretend that’s not what was happening. And I don’t feel good about it.
So what are fans of the show supposed to do? Avert our eyes? Are we culpable for viewing something readily aired on television, moments willingly offered up by contractually obligated contestants? What happened to Becca was unprecedented, and for that reason, she was surely not expecting it, but she did technically consent, a fact she readily made clear on After the Final Rose. I’m not sure. I am keenly aware of the fact that someone willingly exploited is still exploited, and I cannot pretend that my consumption plays no role in its continuation. It’s hard to stick to the moral conviction to cease my viewership, though, when I just watched perhaps the most jilted contestant on the franchise’s history sign on for two more months as the leading woman of The Bachelorette. Producers have revitalized the proverbial machine. The wheel keeps on turning, and while I sort through my moral obligation, I might keep turning with it.