I am a person with a brain and I watch The Bachelor. And not just as a joke.
Sure, a part of me will always be that pajama pants-ed person snacking away on olives and soft cheeses while snarkily jeering and judging. But another part of me may have become genuinely attached to this disturbing production. This past season, I’d find myself brimming with an unreasonable amount of excitement for the new episode each Monday. I wouldn’t make plans when it was on. I’d read up online to learn cast members’ backstories. I’d spend actual time writing about it on my blog. It’s as if hate-watching somehow gradually morphed into real watching, something I suppose I might feel more ashamed by if not for the fact that so many of my friends are in the same rose-festooned boat.
There have been 17 seasons of The Bachelor and one of the things that many of us followers seem to have latched on to—counterintuitively enough—is the show’s unrelenting sameness. Year after year, the format remains remarkably unchanged, as do the date activities and the very sentences uttered by the host (“This is the most shocking rose ceremony in Bachelor history!”), the Bachelor (“I really think my wife could be in this room“) and the contestants (“I’m ready for my fairytale”). There’s a certain comfort to this tidiness, a certain relief knowing you could just superimpose the various seasons on top of one another like a sleek, delicious Bachelor layer-cake of insanity. It reminds me of long-running soaps where the characters stay the same but are played by different actors over the years, like on Santa Barbara with all those Kelly Capwells. It also reminds me of sports, less in the contest way and more in the ritual way. Sometimes sports is about watching a riveting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat game, but often it’s just about turning on the TV and having the familiar, comfortable sounds waft through the air while you putter around the house. That latter thing, that’s what The Bachelor gives me.
And just like with sports, there are simple sensory pleasures. The sight of all those sterile, humanless beachscapes, mountain knolls and grassy fields is soothing to my brain in the nicest way; same goes for the sound of crashing waves, tinkling fountains and slow, nasal voices. The girliest me—the one who thrills at the chance to flip through Lucky or Vogue in doctors’ waiting rooms—loves the chance to check out so many makeup and hair choices in one concentrated spot. Plus there’s the camaraderie. The Bachelor has its own water cooler style community, one comprised of hate-viewers and real viewers, but mostly those somewhere in between, all of whom, like me, cherish the chance to travel to Bachelor-ville for two hours each week and then discuss the trip afterwards. Of course, these conversations are complicated. Even as we give in to the pure joy of dissecting the most recent episode, we’re careful to sprinkle in caveats (It’s the worst; It’s not smart), as if to distinguish the show’s pleasures from those of the more “conversation-worthy” series, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. We can’t help but insist that we’re all in on the joke, even if we’re in with two feet.
The sameness of the Bachelor world begins with the group of lady contestants, which always includes the requisite stock characters. There’s the villain who alienates the other gals because she’s “not here to make friends” and is irate that her fellow contestants even exist (this year’s Tierra), the one who claims to be a Ford model but is really just tall (this year’s Kristy), and the righteous whistleblower who wants to out the villain for “being there for the wrong reasons”—and who gradually unravels on a spool of her own self-righteousness (this year’s Robyn). There’s also the veteran from a previous season’s cast who comes back to try again (this year’s poor Kacie B). And of course, there are always Ashleys, the fun twist being that it’s not always spelled A-s-h-l-e-y (this year’s AshLee F., Ashley H. and Ashley P.).
Date activities inevitably involve helicopters (and the ladies exclaiming “wooo!” as if they have never before seen The Bachelor, or helicopters) and harnesses for climbing, rappelling, bungeeing and wall-scaling. There are horses, obviously, since this is a required ingredient in all fairytales, as well as boats off which contestants can leap—holding hands or not—into tranquil turquoise waters in a very subtle metaphor for JUMPING INTO LOVE. Also, group dates: sporty outdoor team competitions for which the girls don cute-sexy uniforms while frantically competing against one another for time with their potential future husband. Evenings are when the show pulls out its fanciest signature moves, namely candles. The largest collection of candles you have ever seen in your life flickers away to illuminate earth-toned patio furniture, gurgling fountains, platters of lowfat dinners that go untouched (rice pilaf is always involved), goblets of wine (white, rarely red) and, of course, red roses, the show’s primary form of currency.
Indeed the conditions on planet Bachelor have remained so consistent over time that, just as we viewers know what to expect, so too do the contestants. As is the case with American Idol, another long-running reality series, many of the women who appear on The Bachelor have grown up watching it. They all know the ropes, which is why it’s particularly fascinating when the ladies react as if every picturesque date, every gesture, every rose has been arranged and presented just for them by their beloved, rather than by a team of well-paid producers and location scouts. But that’s the magic of this show. It’s unabashedly as plastic as can be, yet once the contestants plop down their rolling suitcases and breathe the air and drink the Pinot Grigio for awhile, they’re powerless against their suspicion that the Bachelor universe and its nonsensical contents might be real.
The guy our ladies were clawing each other’s eyes out for this season was Sean Lowe, a truly decent, mild-mannered, muscled up Texan, already familiar to fans of the franchise as the second runner up from the last season of The Bachelorette. Sean’s priorities are his family, God and maintaining lean muscle mass. He speaks slowly and liltingly and sounds eerily like Al Gore, which is just one of the reasons it’s so hard to imagine him actually existing in the world outside the show. In all twenty-something hours of airtime last season, I’m not sure we ever learned what Sean does for a living (my own research tells me it may be furniture restoration and/or “fitness model”). But did it really matter? The show decided that Sean’s smooth, hairless gym body was his most salient personality trait. This meant that each episode began with Sean/Al Gore sharing his feelings in voiceover atop footage of himself in some state of wax doll nakedness: working out, showering, or getting dressed extremely slowly.
If our seventeenth bachelor will be remembered most for his torso, he’ll be remembered second most for his crippling indecisiveness. The warning signs came early on, when Sean took to murmuring “I’m crazy about you” in a seemingly-sincere way to not one, not two, but handfuls of moony-eyed women. By season’s end, when only three women remained, Sean had developed a maddening style of riddle-speak that allowed him to fill up lots of airtime while saying nothing. My relationship is strongest with Catherine. But best with Lindsay. But most promising with AshLee. Lindsay is my best friend and we have a fire-like passion. But with Catherine we have a fiery spark that can’t be denied. Yet AshLee “gets” me better than anyone else. So it wasn’t a surprise when, just one day before the big proposal was to take place, Sean was shedding tears of frustration over the fact that neither the Lord nor his mom was offering any clarity on who he should choose as his wife.
Speaking of the Lord, there’s one—and perhaps only one—other thing that Very Vanilla Sean will be remembered for, and that is his chasteness. The show didn’t need to make a point of Sean being a man of faith because Sean himself made it clear, although any specifics that may have been mentioned to that end never made it to air. But the show also never mentioned that Sean is a “born-again virgin,” presumably because when you remove sex from this series, very few plot possibilities remain. The tabloids broke the story and Sean confirmed that he’s indeed been celibate since college and plans to remain so until after marriage.
It’s unclear whether the show made an effort to select contestants who were actually like-minded or if the ladies were just following Sean’s lead, but there was definitely a faith-centered flavor to the whole enterprise. Cast members took every opportunity to mention how much they valued family, God and “praying on” any and all decisions at hand. Many of the women brought along their Bibles. And it’s no coincidence that the gals who fared best were those who struck the delicate balance of looking bewitching and acting flirtatious while simultaneously making sure Sean knew in no uncertain terms that they were “traditional” in matters of sex and romance. Early in the season, Selma, a particularly glamorous and cleavaged Iraqi beauty, delighted Sean to no end when she refused to kiss him on account of her family’s religious values; instead, the two spent their date on a chaise lounge, nuzzling each others’ necks and having eyes-intercourse. Weeks later, when it was time for the Fantasy Suite dates—the point at seasons’ end at which the Bachelor gets to invite each of the final three wife-options to spend the night for a last-minute test run—two of the candidates demurred, insisting they’d accept only if Sean promised they could just talk the whole time.
The off-the-charts prudishness of this season added an interesting twist to the standard Bachelor formula. Personally, I adored all the awkward, highly entertaining moments it provided. But if you’re a viewer who’s actually hoping that Sean will pick the “right” woman, and you’re rooting for the coupling to stick (not that it ever has in 16 seasons, although two marriages born on The Bachelorette are still intact), then Sean’s no-sex rule was disconcerting. If you’re going to marry a complete stranger, shouldn’t you at least make sure the sex is good? Not that fans of the show seemed to mind, if ratings were any indication. Viewership was up from previous years for most of the season, and ratings for the finale crushed last year’s by 14 percent.
Since sex was off the table, the contestants’ devotion to Sean was instead tested via challenging date activities that sometimes seemed more in the spirit of Fear Factor dares than jaunty Bachelor outings. There were standard gross-out challenges, like chugging warm goat’s milk fresh from the teat as part of an obstacle course, and snacking on crunchy bugs with and without dipping sauce at a Thailand market. There were also truly dangerous physical challenges like the Polar Bear Plunge at Lake Louise, where the ladies were tasked with submerging their bikini-ed bodies into icy waters while EMTs stood at the ready on shore (and not just for show as it turned out; the medical personnel were forced to spring into action to tend to a shivering Tierra, who may or may not have been faking hypothermia). But even this paled in comparison to the emotional challenges. The one that made me the most uncomfortable was when AshLee, known for her deep-seated abandonment and control issues, almost passed out from anxiety after being coaxed to swim with Sean into a pitch black, grotto-like cave in the ocean. Taken with everything else, the moment felt exploitative and out of character for the show. Sure, these women surrender much of their agency when they decide to appear on The Bachelor, but it’s stressful to see their lack of control dramatized so explicitly. Here’s hoping that next season, with sex back in play, we can return to more benign dating activities. What I do not need from this show is second-hand adrenaline surges and feelings of panic; just let me eat salty snacks and be swathed in warm sunshine and lip-gloss, please.
Some changes were also afoot in casting for season 17. The contestant pool was more racially diverse this season than it has been in the past, with five women of color (including winner Catherine Guidici, an Asian-American) in the 26-person contestant pool. This is particularly noteworthy because ABC and the producers of The Bachelor have been widely criticized—and sued by two black men last year—for never having featured a person of color in the role of Bachelor or Bachelorette over the two series’ combined 25 seasons. While the show still has yet to cast a person of color in the title roles, time will tell whether or not this season’s more inclusive casting was a small step toward the larger leap of putting a minority in a central role.
In other casting progress, this was the first time the show included someone with a significant physical disability. A big fuss was made over Sarah Herron, a pretty yet deeply boring blond with one arm. The show seemed conflicted about how to deal with her: at first there was the insistence that her inclusion was no big deal. We always cast people with one arm! Wait, does Sarah have one arm?! Sean, to his credit, promised he wouldn’t coddle Sarah, and mostly he didn’t. He brought her on the group roller derby outing. He sent her home when he realized she wasn’t a wife-match for him. But, in the end, Team Bachelor couldn’t resist the chance to make a big, self-congratulatory to-do of The Sarah Story, pushing a narrative about Sarah as “fan-favorite” (no) who was dealt a “shocking elimination” (no). The truth was that Sarah and Sean didn’t particularly click, which probably had nothing to do with her having one arm and everything to do with her having the slowest, most grating voice imaginable.
Other than these small changes, though, conditions on Planet Bachelor remained blissfully unchanged, which is exactly how I like this spectacle served up. I wouldn’t want the show to evolve too much. The thing is, I appreciate that The Bachelor was created in a test tube and is produced within an inch of its life. I appreciate that I can count on it to be surprise-free in every way, even when it comes to its “big surprises” (Kacie’s baaaack! Sean is walking away from the rose ceremony to gather his thoughts! Chris Harrison is knocking on the door!). I appreciate, too, that this show is edited with a hand so heavy it’s basically scripted. I don’t care. Because only once every so often does something come along that just flat out is what it is. The Bachelor world is completely and utterly straightforward. Its social universe—within which there is nothing to misread or misinterpret, no grey matter, no nuance or subtext or ambiguity or big questions (other than, of course, the Big Question that our Bachelor poses on bended knee at season’s end)—offers me an oasis of order and satisfied expectations. The absoluteness of it is energizing; it thrills my love of structure and gives me a feeling—of mastery, maybe, or command—that I don’t find so often while navigating the terrain of my own much murkier social world.
This little gift is what I get in return for carving out two hours (less, thanks to the DVR) every Monday for the length of the season, and I think it’s a pretty good deal. Here’s a production where no one gets hurt; cast members get some airtime on national TV, a springboard to the next project, some self-knowledge and possibly a spouse. Would I let my daughter watch The Bachelor? Of course not. But me, I’m a grown woman with a fully-formed brain and, as far as I’m concerned, this show is the perfect accompaniment for my cheese.
Today, a month-plus after the end of the The Bachelor‘s season, our shirtless wonder is still a part of my life, having shoulder-shimmied over to another ABC property, Dancing With the Stars, which is a really, really good reality competition show. It’s odd to see Sean on the loose in the real world interacting with human beings. His over-the-top earnestness, which seems out of place on planet earth to begin with, seems particularly out of place in Hollywood and especially so on DWTS whose live, off-the-cuff production style is a complete free-for-all compared with the hermetically sealed world of The Bachelor. It turns out that for all his muscles, Sean’s a terrible dancer whose movement can best be compared to that of a friendly robot or scarecrow, but Catherine is in the audience every single week, beaming. Sometimes Sean’s sweet mom and pastor dad are there, too, and it’s like seeing old friends.
As for Sean and Catherine’s road to the alter: word on the streets is they still haven’t slept together (not married!) and are actually living in separate apartments in L.A. (not married!) while they figure out next steps and get to know one another. Interviews have them swooning over how fun it is to finally be in public together and discussing how many kids they’ll have (at least three). The couple’s wedding is planned for this summer and will be aired (and planned by and paid for) by ABC, just like their courtship was. It’s all so exciting!
Some press accounts are already reporting trouble in paradise, though. The couple allegedly fought in a restaurant. Catherine allegedly cried in a club and turned her face away from her betrothed. Sean allegedly acts a diva on the DWTS set.
Who knows? If the formula sticks and things shake out as they have in previous seasons, Sean and Catherine will break up within the year. She’ll have to return the ring to Neil Lane Jewelers, and it will be a total travesty for her to move back to Seattle and those told-you-so sisters of hers. She may well have the chance to appear on other shows, but will forever more be chyron-ed as “Catherine Guidici, Sean’s season”—a reminder of the prince who didn’t quite pan out when it came to the final chapter of the fairytale. For his part, Sean will be just fine. He’ll have the opportunity to advise future Bachelors and/or appear on other reality shows and/or model for Men’s Health Magazine. I can’t say I have any real predictions about Sean and Catherine, but I do hope they’ll find what they want in each other. They seem like nice people, and I’d love to watch their TV wedding.
Whatever happens, though, we viewers will bounce back. Even if things with Sean and Catherine disintegrate like the dried out petals of a red rose that’s been soaked in white wine and then left to languish on the side of a roiling Jacuzzi, we, Bachelor Nation, will not crumble. The Bachelor carousel keeps moving, after all, and there’s barely a moment to dwell on the past. In just a matter of weeks, The Bachelorette (starring Desiree—who grew up in a tent!) will be along to cleanse our palette and wash Sean’s season out to the sparkling sea. New players will step in to our Monday night snacking/sporting slot, and the cycle will begin once again. In fact, they’re probably gassing up the helicopters right now—for what I am fully anticipating will be the most exciting season ever.