America’s mixed feelings about The Bachelor franchise make for a relatively low-key crisis of conscience among the many we’re currently maintaining on high simmer. Still, the ABC shows’ strange fascination is starting to look less like a blip in TV history and more like a genuine cultural phenomenon.
16 years after the first Bachelor met his suitors, the show is still going strong alongside spinoffs The Bachelorette, Bachelor in Paradise, and even The Bachelor Winter Games. The show isn’t just a ratings success: contestants all attain modest but real celebrity; hot takes and recaps fill the internet; and the franchise is expanding into consumer products including, of course, wine.
Amy Kaufman’s fascinating new book Bachelor Nation explores the shows and their impact. She narrates the audiobook herself, and it begins with an extended examination of the author’s own relationship with the show. Despite the fact that she’s an entertainment journalist who was blacklisted from ABC’s approved press list for what the network regarded as unfavorable coverage, her story in broad strokes isn’t too different from those of many other Bachelor viewers. She views the show with a critical eye — that’s her job, after all — but still views it, willingly and weekly, with a group of like-minded friends.
Much of what Bachelor Nation considers is how the seemingly retrograde show has remained so weirdly relevant. The show is surviving the Me Too era, despite weathering a prominent sexual assault scandal and despite having been sued for racial discrimination. Even when producers’ baldly manipulative tactics were exposed in the fictionalized behind-the-scenes show Unreal, fans were unfazed. In some ways, fans like Kaufman are becoming increasingly vocal about the fact that they love the show and want it to do better. What does that even mean, though?
Kaufman’s interested but independent stance — she even received what amounted to a cease-and-desist letter from ABC — is the right one to take. While she doesn’t have the access for truly scandalous revelations, that’s not what this book is about. Several former contestants and a few producers spoke to her on the record, and so many others have openly published accounts as books and blog posts that she has plenty to work with.
Her behind-the-scenes material, which has attracted the most interest, is compelling but not particularly surprising. Unreal, we learn, more or less gets it right: producers competing to get their designated contestants to do the most outrageous things, with second-order drama involving creator Mike Fleiss and a stressed staff.
The Bachelor doesn’t pay to rent filming locations? Of course it doesn’t. “Fantasy suites” have less to do with tender eroticism than with frustrated horniness and sheer exhaustion? Of course they do.
Kaufman’s chapter on the private encounters the show makes so much of ends up, actually, supporting the show’s assertion that fantasy suites really are in large part about just spending time together off-camera. The key anecdote is one that had already been told in other contexts: Sharleen Joynt walked into the fantasy suite bathroom to find her season’s Bachelor, Juan Pablo Galavis, preening and dancing in front of the mirror, his blithe self-obsession on full display.
The book’s most poignant section addresses the complicated nature of post-Bachelor life. Contestants rarely come away from the show having achieved a lifelong romantic relationship, but always having achieved a particularly problematic brand of fame. They’re too well-known to carry on normally in their previous careers, but if they leave those jobs to become full-time famous people, they’re increasingly tempted to subject themselves to further Bachelor excursions or other reality-TV stints, which keep the ride going but further compromise their ability to ever achieve a happy, stable life.
Ironically, one of Kaufman’s most critical sources is one of the franchise’s marquee success stories: Catherine Lowe, who’s still married to the Bachelor she became betrothed to on national TV in 2013. She and her husband Sean have achieved real love, it seems, but whether that’s thanks to or despite of the show remains ambiguous. She recounts the couple’s repeated forays back into reality TV, all of which have exacted a humiliating toll but have rewarded Catherine with the ability to pay a mortgage by posting paid product placements on Instagram. Not the worst work, if your marriage can survive it. Fingers crossed.
The secret to the show’s success, it turns out, is really no secret: it’s wickedly well-produced TV that speaks to genuine human emotions and experiences, even if the particular situations you see on your screen are extravagantly contrived.
Kaufman’s audiobook helps to set the tone for her material. She imitates the contestants’ voices and generally conveys the sense of exasperated fun that so many millions have come to associate with the show. The dishy listen is almost as addictive as a season of Bachelor in Paradise, which is high praise.