After reports that a sexual assault may have taken place while filming this season of Bachelor in Paradise, and the news that production shut down to deal with the fallout, the start of the summer was filled with unending speculation about the series. What happened? Would this season of Bachelor in Paradise even air? Would the series be cancelled? Did producers stand by and watch a crime without intervening? Would there be a lawsuit? How would this blow back on the rest of the franchise?
Watching the first episode of the season, one thing was immediately clear: It doesn’t actually matter what happened between Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson in the pool. It matters for them, of course, and it matters because we all need to be having serious conversations about alcohol, sex, and consent. It matters because we should all think honestly about the ethics of reality-TV series that foreground drunken hookups as hilarious melodrama, and about what any personality-based reality-TV premise teaches us to value in humanity.
But for the purposes of Bachelor in Paradise, the event itself is now beside the point. Warner Bros. declared that there was no wrongdoing, and as soon as the show had some cover to distance itself from being complicit in a crime, whatever happened in the pool and the subsequent shutdown became a dramatic story to edit. It turned the idea of nonfictional, televised sexual misconduct into prime-time entertainment.
It is the grossest kind of simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating. The existence of this season and this episode airing on television is an assurance that nothing criminal took place. If it had, surely this footage would not be on ABC in prime time, appearing in the same hour as beefcake Robby musing about swim-trunk styles. But precisely because Warner Bros. and the producers have sworn up and down that nothing bad happened, they can also now treat the idea of assault as an exciting, dramatic, unusual, and promo-worthy controversy.
From the moment Chris Harrison walked out onto an empty beach at the beginning of Monday’s episode, using a serious voice to look seriously into the camera and say serious things to the audience, the show began capitalizing on a winking, self-aware subtext about why viewers were watching. Harrison’s words were about the interrupted production and a promise for transparency about everything that happened during filming. But while the surface message was that the controversy would be addressed, the implicit message was, “you’ve tuned in to watch some extra-special drama, and we promise you we’ll deliver the goods.” And just in case it wasn’t absolutely unambiguous, let me be clear once again: The extra-special drama here is the allegation of sexual misconduct lingering in the air.
It doesn’t help that Bachelor in Paradise devoted the significant majority of Monday night’s episode to typical questionable Paradise goofiness, including a blushing guy doing drag and a tearful farewell to Jorge the Bartender. The episode is edited as if there is no cognitive dissonance between “ha-ha, this guy talks about his dog a lot” and “are those two people about to have a nonconsensual sexual encounter?” And when the episode included footage of one of the contestants laughingly narrating from the sidelines while DeMario and Corinne appeared to kiss in the background, it certainly did not create the impression that the season will treat the controversy with sensitivity.
But to really appreciate how tone-deaf and repellent the editing was in this season premiere, all you needed to watch were the last two minutes and the promo for Tuesday night’s episode. Far from a sensitive, thoughtful discussion about the events that took place and a promise to do better in the future, Bachelor in Paradise turned Corinne and DeMario’s exit into a cliffhanger for the next episode. Once again, the message was unspoken and yet painfully unmistakable: “The exciting part of this story is when we stop everything because a crime may have taken place, so that’s the part we’re going to withhold to get you to tune in next time.” In case you feel yucky about it, though, the promo was there to erase that sense that only bad things come out of Paradise. Because soon things will be back to their usual fun-loving silliness, and, also, Evan and Carly are getting married!
From the outside, it’s impossible to know what took place between Corinne and DeMario. And instead of taking that uncertainty and using it to talk about the importance of communication, clarity, and respect in sexual relationships, Bachelor in Paradise turned the perceived ambiguity of that encounter into salaciousness. Will there be tears? How much will they show? How much time will they spend talking about it? Do the contestants gasp when Chris Harrison tells them what’s going on? Are there shots of suitcases being rolled away? The only way to find out is to tune in next time, for the dramatic continuation of Bachelor in Paradise.