Colton Underwood wanted out of The Bachelor. Literally. Last week, after his dramatic break-up with contestant (and until then, frontrunner) Cassie Randolph, Colton gracefully jumped the fence separating him The Bachelor's surveillance state from the real world. Subsumed by the darkness of Algarve, Portugal, the cameras couldn't pin him down for an confessional interview. He, much like Truman walking out of The Truman Show dome, was free.
It's no coincidence that Colton's escape came immediately after his break-up with Cassie. Their conversation had been about their relationship, yes — but it was also inadvertently a critique of the show, and the pressures it puts on contestants to keep up with an accelerated racetrack toward heteronormative bliss.
You got the feeling that Cassie and Colton didn't need to break up; that their split was a direct result of the show's outdated insistence on proposals. Watching that frankly devastating interaction unfold, I realized the obvious: It's time for The Bachelor to make one little change. One little change that would radically change everything, allowing contestants to unstick themselves from the set path; to release the pressure valve; to actually have fun while dating. It's time for The Bachelor to eliminate proposals.
At its core, The Bachelor is about whether two strangers can form a romantic relationship (so, it's about dating!). Obviously, though, the show's many rituals set it apart from the normal dating process. The audience, like anthropologists, watches this strange mating ritual from afar with calculated interest. After enough seasons, we know the beats. There are rose ceremonies, during which the suitor presents the chosen objects of his affection with a thorny, fragrant plant. There are infamous "two-on-ones," dates spiked with a bit of The Hunger Games. There are corny challenges; hometown visits; and three fantasy suite sessions, the only hours of complete privacy (read: sex!) afforded to contestants.
Each of these rituals/steps builds towards The Bachelor's telos: A proposal. Even The Bachelor's language of love is expressed in clear-cut progressions, timed to culminate in an "I love you" during hometowns. A contestant's "I have feelings for you" leads to her "I'm falling for you," and so on. Colton climbs these increasingly narrow steps as a way to whittle down the mass of 30 contestants until just one — the One — remains. Women fall off the staircase left and right.
Going into the "journey," as it's called, the 26-year-old former football player fully intended finish by proposing to a woman with a Neil Lane ring. "I'm so ready and excited not only to meet my fiancée and my wife, but also the mother of my children who I want to spend the rest of my life with," Colton said on Ellen just before filming started.
But what happens when the 23-year-old woman he loves isn't ready, after under two months, to make the same commitment? What happens when she realizes she's looking for a boyfriend, not a husband, not yet?
That's the conundrum Colton and Cassie ran into last week. In an evening of script-breaking moments, Cassie's father, Matt Randoph, was the first person to go rogue. Matt flew in from California to Portugal to intervene in his daughter's Fantasy Suite date. To be clear, this level of parental involvement never happens. Usually, even the most skeptical parents limply assent to a proposal during hometown visits, and let their kids go forth to face their televised fates.
But Matt struggled to accept the terms of the show – and didn't want his kid to, either. After all, when the facts of the show are presented coldly, Cassie and her dad are having perfectly rational responses: Huh, maybe you shouldn't get engaged to someone you know from a few isolated dates chaperoned by a camera crew. After Cassie's dad "deprograms" her from The Bachelor, she's ready to get off the proposal train.
Cassie and Colton's ensuing breakup was conducted nearly entirely in Bachelor-speak. Let's translate a portion. When Cassie says, “I don’t want to see you leaving here not having what you came here for,” she means, “I know you want to get engaged, and I can’t give you that.” Cassie is hung up on the timeline. When she says she can't "get there," she means she can't achieve full certainty that Colton is the One within the allotted two months.
Colton gets what she's saying — and he also doesn’t mind. Immediately, he responds, “But if it’s not with the person that I feel the strongest for, the most potential with, it’s not worth it.” Translation: He doesn’t want anyone else. Then, he takes his commitment a step further. "I'm telling you right now, at the end of this, I want it to be you," he says.
On that porch in Portugal, Colton staged his own mini proposal scene, minus the suit and fanfare. Yet Colton wasn't proposing marriage. He was proposing a continuance – keeping their good thing going.
It's not even the finale, and Colton's season of The Bachelor has fully derailed from the preordained tracks. For one, more women have left of their own accord than any season before. For another, Colton has exited the building. And then there's the problem of the entire finale, should Colton return to filming. Colton already told Cassie she was the One — so where does that leave Tayshia and Hannah G? Audiences will watch tonight and tomorrow's finale burdened by dramatic irony. We know Colton's heart more than those unsuspecting women do. If he proposes to Tayshia or Hannah G, we'll know he's lying.
Watching Cassie and Colton grapple with the restrictions of the show, I was immediately reminded of Peter and Rachel's wrenching, eyelash-losing break-up during Rachel Lindsay's season of The Bachelorette back in 2017. Though Peter loved Rachel, he wasn't ready to get engaged. Instead, he offered a radical proposal, in the world of The Bachelorette: Let's date! Rachel, however, was adamant in her desire to end the show with a ring on her finger. Her season of The Bachelorette was building toward a one-kneed zenith; ending it with just dating would've been anti-climactic. Rachel went with the guy with the ring.
As the Bachelorette, Rachel is entitled to her priorities. But one got the feeling, watching Peter and Rachel in the hotel room, that they didn't break up for personal reasons, but situational ones. If Rachel and Peter had entered the show under the expectations that they'd meet someone (not necessarily meet a spouse), they might've ended up together.
Unlike Rachel, Colton seemed willing to throw out the proposal part entirely. "I wasn't expecting you to know," he told Cassie just before she left. Translation: She didn't need to know yet, because they could just date.
And what a good dating show The Bachelor would be. Odds are, in a group of 30 people, the Bachelor would find at least one person he'd want to keep dating. Without marriage as an end goal, the pressure would immediately plummet for him and the contestants. Instead of a fixation on "getting there" in time (which, as most of us know, is a romantic buzzkill), contestants could focus on finding an actual connection — and maybe having some fun.
Further, this change in priorities would almost certainly impact the cast's composition. The cast might appear less like a Stepford Wives luncheon, comprised of nearly indistinguishable contestants plus a wild card or two (who are only there to create viral moments), and more like a diverse gathering of individuals. As in, not just a group of "the right" choices, but a group of choices.
In actuality, The Bachelor franchise has already proved my point many times. For all its insistence of monogamous harmony, The Bachelor doesn't work well as a "marriage" show at all. Only one couple, Sean Lowe and Catherine Giudici, has ever made it to the altar (in total, there are three known Bachelor couples presently intact). The Bachelorette's track record is significantly better — after 14 seasons, six couples are still together.
By far, the show with the best track record for prosperous couples is the free-flowing, self-aware runt of the Bachelor family, Bachelor in Paradise. In its five seasons, the show has produced seven couples. While some couples get engaged on the show (Tanner Tolbert proposed to Jade Roper on the season 2 finale), the majority just keep dating.
So, to The Bachelor, we offer a different kind of proposal: Just let the kids keep dating. That's what the rest of us are doing, anyway. Millennials are choosing to delay marriage. But when they get married, they stay married — the divorce rate has plummeted. In the end, most of us are Bachelor in Paradise'ing it.
After 17 years and 23 seasons, The Bachelor is broken. Eliminating proposals can fix it – and give the franchise at least another decade's worth of spin-off shows. We'll always want to know what comes next. And with this change, we'll always have more to watch.