Yes, The Bachelor Is The Most Important Show On TV, Thank You Very Much

In a groundbreaking television moment at the beginning of the 21st century, fifty women went on TV hoping to catch the eye of an eligible bachelor. Gradually, the number of women was narrowed down until only one was left standing – winning both the ultimate prize (said bachelor’s hand in marriage) and an actual prize (a three-carat diamond engagement ring).
If you think this sounds like The Bachelor, you are both right and wrong.
Mostly, you’re wrong. This was, in fact, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?, a two-hour special that aired in February 2000. The titular multi-millionaire was named Rick Rockwell, and he was shown only in silhouette until the very end, when he emerged to marry his chosen winner Darva Conger on the spot. She’d won his heart over the past ninety minutes or so (we have to factor in the ad breaks!) by competing in beauty pageant events like a Q&A and a swimsuit competition.
If this sounds like both a recipe for disaster and a misogynist mess to you, that's correct — it was both! Conger filed for divorce as soon as she and her actually-not-really-a-multi-millionaire husband returned from their honeymoon. Rockwell, it turned out, had a restraining order against him from an ex-girlfriend. Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire? created such a huge amount of scandal that despite the fact that the ratings were through the roof, the network refused to do it again.
Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire? would be consigned to the great wasteland of abandoned 2000s reality TV if it were not for one thing — it was created by Mike Fleiss, who repackaged the concept with more episodes and a lot more romance, and so created the longest-running and most important reality dating show of the twenty-first century: The Bachelor
The US franchise is now more than twenty years old. The first season of The Bachelor, starring Alex Michel, aired in 2002; and the twenty-eighth season, starring Joey Graziadei, is currently airing. The first season of The Bachelorette, starring Michel’s runner-up Trista Rehn, aired in 2003; and the twenty-first season will air later this year. Rehn is one of the franchise’s biggest success stories – she met her husband Ryan Sutter on the show, and they’re still together, two decades later. 
And this isn’t even getting into all the spinoffs – Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor Pad, and most recently, The Golden Bachelor, culminating in The Golden Wedding, where 72-year-old Bachelor Gerry Turner married his winner, 70-year-old Theresa Nist. On top of that, there are the international franchises. The Bachelor Australia, which has been running since 2013, is the most established one, but countries all around the world have their own versions. 
For a long time, The Bachelor was unique in its ability to sustain itself. Most other reality dating shows that premiered around the same time only lasted a season or two because their formats could not endure. Joe Millionaire, for instance, premiered in 2003 and rated enormously well — but because it relied on a twist (Joe Millionaire not being a millionaire at all), the second season did poorly and it was cancelled shortly afterwards.
TV networks have since become savvier in constructing reality dating shows with legs. Married at First Sight, for instance, first ran on Danish TV in 2013 (it was called Gift ved første blik) and has been popular ever since. Love Island originally aired on British TV in 2005, but was revived in 2015 and shows no signs of stopping. 
Still, no reality dating show can come close to The Bachelor for endurance. Come highs and lows, come scandals and exposés, come ratings peaks and troughs, The Bachelor simply keeps going.
Why is this? Why has this rebrand of a horrifyingly misogynistic, glorified beauty pageant lasted so long, surviving all its competitors? And — on a more personal level — why am I still so fascinated by this show? Why has it captured me so entirely that I’ve written six academic articles about it, half a million words in episode recaps, and now three novels, all set on a lightly fictionalised version of the show?

Of all the reality dating shows out there, The Bachelor most closely reflects our culturally normative expectations about romantic love.

There are so many different ways to answer this question, but after a lot of thought (and I mean a lot of thought; I cannot overstate how much of my life I’ve spent thinking about The Bachelor), this is what I’ve landed on: of all the reality dating shows out there, The Bachelor most closely reflects our culturally normative expectations about romantic love.
Let me explain what I mean, because that’s an extremely boring set of words to describe something very interesting. This is going to take a couple of steps and involve me putting on my PhD bonnet, but bear with me.
In narrative theory, there are two ways we think about time. There’s “clock time”, which is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Then there’s “narrative time”, which is measured in milestones and events: the building blocks of the story. (This is why, as a side note, time felt so weird in Covid lockdowns: we had no events to mark the passage of time. It’s also one of the ways contestants are psychologically manipulated into falling in love on The Bachelor — their time in the mansion is event-less, so even ridiculous events like group dates take on huge meaning.)
Now, let’s think about the romance plot. This is a plot we’re all familiar with, from fairy tales and rom-coms and popular culture in general, and it has specific milestones. The meet-cute is a great example: that’s a milestone event in any good romantic comedy, as well as a question just about every couple gets asked (“How did you meet?”). 
What The Bachelor does, more so than any other reality dating show, is take all these romantic narrative milestones — meeting, dating, kissing, sex (if you’re not in the strangely prudish Australian version), declaring love, committing, maybe even proposing — and suck the clock time out of them. 
In this sense, we can think about The Bachelor as a kind of experiment with time. Can you really fall in love just by hitting all the narrative milestones of the romance plot, even if you’re doing it in about five minutes? 
The answer the franchise almost always gives us is “with the right person, yes”. The Bachelor is an exercise in failed relationships: the lead has to break up with a massive number of people. As they get closer and closer to the end, they pass more milestones with people, making it harder and harder to send them home. 

But what the franchise also does is show people failing. And those failures are probably even more revealing of our cultural expectations around love.

But there’s only one person with whom they hit all the milestones, culminating in a declaration of love, which is maybe also a proposal — reinforcing to us that if you hit the romance milestones with the right person, then the clock time doesn’t matter at all. This reveals our normative cultural expectations. X + Y + Z should equal romance. That’s the recipe, right? The milestones are just that powerful. 
But what the franchise also does is show people failing. And those failures are probably even more revealing of our cultural expectations around love.
There are all kinds of different kinds of ways people can fail. For example, Brad Womack (in the US) and Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins (in Australia) rejected both of their final two, and thus briefly became public enemy #1 in their respective countries. They had all the ingredients for romance, but it somehow did not add up to a romantic happy ending — and people got very angry that the recipe did not work.
Or there are ways that people are positioned by the show as unworthy of love, which can reveal some really ugly cultural norms. Kaitlyn Bristowe (in the US) and Abbie Chatfield (in Australia) are great examples of this: both were positioned as simply too horny, revealing a lot about the ways we think women should behave in a romantic context.
And we’d be here for a long time if we talked about The Bachelor’s troubled history with race and representation: but suffice it to say that for a long time, the show reflected the idea that romantic protagonists were exclusively white and straight, a paradigm it has only recently begun to trouble.
This is why — even when it’s awful, and even when its ratings are awful — The Bachelor matters. It’s certainly why a scholar of romance just can’t quit it: to the extent that I wrote three entire rom-coms set on a show very much like it! The Bachelor reveals to us our cultural norms around romance and love — the good, the bad, and the ugly. 
Dr Jodi McAlister is a romance author and a romance scholar. She's the author of seven novels, including the Marry Me, Juliet trilogy of romantic comedies set on reality TV — Here For The Right Reasons, Can I Steal You For A Second? and Not Here To Make Friends. She's also a Senior Lecturer in Writing, Literature and Culture at Deakin University, where she studies (among other things) romance and reality TV. She's the Vice President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
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