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15 years ago, The Bachelor wrote the reality TV script, and little has changed

Alex Michel and Amanda Marsh interview with Chris Harrison (Photo: Craig Sjodin/Getty Images)

Caity PenzeyMoog: The Bachelor turns 15 this week. Alex McLevy and I—along with a glut of other A.V. Clubbers—recap the modern iteration of the show every season around the office’s proverbial watercooler (a LaCroix minifridge). So when we realized that the show has been on for 15 years this week, we wondered how much it has changed over the 21 seasons ABC has crammed into that time. These days, the franchise is a media empire unto itself, with spin-offs galore (The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, Bachelor In Paradise, Bachelor In Paradise: After Paradise, and the new Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After? show on Freeform). And while The Dating Game primed viewers for televised matchmaking, The Bachelor took the premise to new and absurd heights.

Season one of The Bachelor is still available to watch on ABC, so Alex and I watched the first and last episode to review. Glossing over the 2002 fashion, what’s immediately noteworthy is just how much the formula of The Bachelor was established from the get-go. The broad strokes, like the elimination process/rose ceremony and the Malibu mansion setting, haven’t changed a whit over 15 years. And most of the details, too, were put in place in this first season and remain more or less the same, even down to the guitar-strum interludes and host Chris Harrison interjecting before the last rose the needlessly obvious “This is your final rose,” and telling the women who weren’t chosen to “take a moment, say your goodbyes.”


Alex, we’re both fairly new to the Bachelor franchise. Neither of us has been watching for 15 years. What’s your biggest takeaway from viewing these two season-one episodes, and are you as impressed as I am that the creators of the show had the formula down pat from the beginning?

Alex McLevy: First of all, Caity, I have no idea why on Earth you’d want to gloss over the 2002 fashion. What struck me hardest watching this first iteration of the series was how reality TV serves as a reminder of the long tail of fashion eras. It may have been the new millennium, but the outfits still scream late ’90s. The very first Bachelor, Alex, is in weirdly Chandler suits (the ugly and blocky style of suit favored by Chandler on Friends), the women are wearing chokers, and the whole thing would have looked right at home even four or five years earlier.

But yes, if we’re bypassing fashion, it really is startling to see the degree to which producers had already cracked the formula for The Bachelor and its offshoots. So much of the recipe was already set up that it’s much more sensible to look at the things they got wrong or did differently this first time out. First of all, let’s talk time: There are only seven episodes (one per week, plus the “women tell all” installment), and they’re only an hour each! Frankly, I thought it was great. The biggest irritation most of us have with The Bachelor et al. are the endless “coming up” teases, recaps of things that literally happened earlier in the episode, and the stretched-out padding of some of the dates and eliminations. (Pauses on The Bachelor are less “pregnant” than they are “conceived, gave birth, and got knocked up again” in terms of length.) It was refreshing to see them blast through roughly the same amount of content as the contemporary equivalent, without all the weightless filling. Did you find yourself enjoying the breezy length as much as I did?

Caity: Absolutely. I’ve been reviewing The Bachelor this season for the site, and I always end up dwelling on the huge amount of time wasted—both on the show and in my life—because of the sheer amount of superfluous padding edited into each episode. (There’s a market for someone to quickly edit all that shit out and give us a shorter version of each episode.) Season one is a lighter, fleeter version of The Bachelor than the one I know today, and it is better in every way for it.


And because this is the first time all these people have ever done this—they’ve never seen the show, because it’s new—there’s very little of the ultra-scripted stuff that’s become the norm 20 seasons later. The never-ending stream of “Can I grab you?” at the cocktail parties, the “I’m not here to make friends” and their variations, the now-standard steps to love on The Bachelor:

1. “I could see myself falling in love with you.”

2. “I’m falling in love with you.”

3. “I love you.”/“I’m in love with you.”

In that order. Everything is more casual, and with no script to follow, the contestants and the Bachelor can be much more natural. I was struck—by their very 2002 fashion, yes—but also by how normal the women looked 15 years ago: like they were going on a blind date, not auditioning for their future career in TV. It’s unsettling the degree to which the women in 2017’s iteration look so camera-ready. They either have their makeup professionally done or can do a passable professional version themselves; their hair is perfect, and their dresses harken to more of a prom-dance look than a date. But back in 2002, when the show was brand new, they looked like a group of (yes, conventionally attractive) women at a somewhat fancy party. They clearly did their own hair and makeup and wore clothing they already owned.


And, like the overall production and structure of the show, it very much feels like what Bachelor Alex and the contestants did and said laid the foundation for the rest of the seasons that followed. With an example in place, future Bachelors and contestants knew what to say and do. But what surprised me about the season finale was that the Bachelor actually did understand how ridiculous the premise of the show is—that he’d get engaged after knowing someone for six weeks, and in a highly unrealistic setting while “dating” multiple women—and so he didn’t do it. He even has the sparkly engagement ring but says he’s saving it so he and winner Amanda can get to know each other better out in the real world.

It’s a totally commonsense thing to do—especially since Alex and Amanda broke up after a few months—and the realistic talk is so out of place in The Bachelor franchise today, where the fairy tale premise is so baked in. Having watched just the last three seasons of The Bachelor, I assumed the show always ended in a proposal, but I was wrong. More than a third of the seasons do not end with the couple getting engaged.


I found it very refreshing but also antithetical to the whole point of the show. Bachelor Alex basically got an extravagant speed-dating session, and the runner-up, Trista, didn’t seem all that upset that she wasn’t chosen. Everyone was just much more chill in 2002. After 15 years, the production seems way more highly produced and edited, with producers manufacturing drama and endlessly hyping any little bit of conflict they can wring out of the contestants.

But (ignoring the extra padding and hype of the modern Bachelor) I enjoyed watching Nick cry a lot and the life-and-death stakes of season 21 of The Bachelor more than the convivial, chiller season one. As much as I appreciate 2002’s less dramatic take on the premise, it’s not as fun when the contestants don’t take it so seriously. There’s more to talk about with the modern version. What do you think, Alex?


Alex: Because of the highly regimented nature of the modern version, and the fact it’s been on the air so damn long, there’s a lot more to discuss in terms of the expectations we have, and the degree to which contestants do or don’t fulfill them. The show’s publicists long ago figured out the collective entertainment value of rooting for various people, the watching parties that contribute to the social media-enhanced nature of the series, and how completely it’s been manufactured for maximum watercooler talking points. It’s more fun, simply by virtue of everyone knowing the rules, the structure, and being able to jump right into the conversation.

Time and again, what was fascinating about the first season is how the show had to work overtime to introduce every concept and aspect of the process. The lengthy introduction to Bachelor Alex via photo montage? We would never need to meet the Bachelor or Bachelorette for the first time nowadays. We are introduced to an Italian villa-style residence that Alex will live in before we ever see the mansion where the women will live, which is just unnecessary, as the producers must have quickly realized. Each group date and rose ceremony is treated like some bizarre new routine that people would be absolutely baffled by if the very young-looking Chris Harrison didn’t bend over backwards explaining.


But like you, I was struck by the all-too-normal way in which most of the people involved dealt with the situation. Alex repeatedly mentions how he worries they’ll all pass on him, as opposed to the other way around. Really, there used to be much more of a focus on the women’s autonomy: Rose ceremonies are also described as an opportunity for the women to walk away if they’re not really feeling the vibe between Alex and themselves. That would never be emphasized now that the fairy tale nature of the series has taken center stage. In the final episode, Trista and Alex are having sensible conversations about the silliness of the concept of getting engaged at the end of the show. If similar conversations still happen today, editors keep them the hell away from the audience.

The things I enjoyed most returning to the pilot were the little deviations from the modern formula. The limousine introductions are vanishingly brief, often little more than a quick handshake, before the woman is ushered inside. There are goofy slow-motion sequences that strive for weightiness but just look hilarious, like someone sat on the half-speed button on the remote. There’s a “Deliberation Room” Alex goes to before the rose ceremonies, in which he stands and stares at pictures of all the women, and Harrison closes the door to give him a little alone time—just a man needing some quiet time with a bunch of pictures of women, perfectly normal. Also, religion gets explicitly called out (“Are you a Catholic?”), which the show has wisely fixed in the modern era by making people refer to their “values” instead. Perhaps most shockingly, people actually eat! On camera! During dates! It’s enough to make you wonder if they even bothered to make any of it fraudulent.


It was fascinating to note these elements that producers have tweaked and improved over the years, but it does lose some of the fascination of the “we’re figuring this out as we go along” element of season one, much like the difference between the first season and the 12th season of The Real World. What stood out for you in these first episodes? Were the little things as fascinating to you as they were to me?

Caity: Like you, I glommed onto the “Deliberation Room” scene, especially the silly visual cue of all the contestants’ photographs staged on a complexly constructed dresser thing. Would the Bachelor forget what these women looked like otherwise? Probably. I also enjoyed the rawer nature to the discussion of the relationships, especially when one of the Bachelor’s family members rolls her eyes at Trista alluding to shitty past relationships. “‘I’ve been hurt a lot,’ give me a break,” she says after Trista leaves, and it points out something that’s really ridiculous about the modern iteration of the show but something I had never really considered before, which is that every past relationship and hurt is taken very, very seriously. Obviously everyone has had bad breakups (are any breakups really “good”?), and using that as a tool to explain your psyche on The Bachelor is so commonplace I hadn’t stopped to think how stupid that is.

There are also some telling details that the show has smoothed out by now, like the Bachelor’s initial emphasis on how the woman he’ll end up marrying has to be beautiful… and intelligent. These days, even if the Bachelor thinks that, he knows by now to phrase it differently. There’s also a revealing bit in the very long introduction where Chris Harrison says it’s “thanks to contact lenses” that the Bachelor can be a viable hottie (I’m paraphrasing). Alex, how is it you and I have loving partners when we insist on wearing glasses all the time? It’s a real mystery.


And in addition to showing people eating, I was also surprised that we see them drinking beer. I’d have to go back and look at the past few seasons (which I’m not willing to do), but I’m pretty sure the female contestants only ever drink wine, mostly white. It stood out to me that Raven in season 21 drank red wine, so prevalent is white. I think this has to do with red wine staining your lips or something—it seems to be pretty common on other reality shows, too—so it was nice to see people just drinking beer here. Again, it feels very normal compared to the highly constructed and scripted product we’re used to now.

There’s just a lot less gimmick in the first season. No one pulls a stunt when they get out of the limousine, and there’s very little “tune in after the commercial break” hyperbole besides the tame “Who will he choose?” as opposed to today’s endless and repeated “most shocking event ever” hype. We’ll never be able to reproduce the newness of the series, but The Bachelor could easily go back to the relatively streamlined editing and storytelling. So I’ll end our discussion with a question about the future: Let’s assume The Bachelor is on for another 15 years. What would you like to see the show become?


Alex: Hold on, let me adjust my disgusting glasses while people nearby point and shriek in fear. What we’ve lost in rawness and idiosyncrasy, we’ve had made up in entertainment value. I’d like to think The Bachelor will continue to tinker with its formula, in hopes of making the whole thing even more absurdist and entertaining. Bachelor In Paradise’s irritating self-awareness of how goofy it is shows the danger of a reality spectacle trying to be in on the joke. What makes Bachelor so addictive is how seriously committed the show is to pretending every single moment is the Most. Important. Thing. Ever. That idiotic self-seriousness is the lodestone holding up its house of cards. Going forward, I hope producers don’t just rest on their laurels and instead find ever newer ways to create drama, as long as it’s not at the expense of the camaraderie of the contestants. Fewer catfights and encouraging the women (or men, on Bachelorette) to be enemies, more group ridiculousness and sudsy emotional outbursts from the individuals chosen. Also, for the love of god, stop kowtowing to convention and just make Emily and Haley, the twins from last year, co-Bachelorettes next season, damn it.

Caity: Hear, hear!


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