After this mess of a Bachelor season, there are lots of ways to imagine trying to fix the franchise, and there are multiple options for whom to blame for where the franchise is now. The producers who hovered just out of camera shot and coaxed dramatics from the contestants? Absolutely. The season’s leading man, Arie Luyendyk Jr., who seemed like a bland void for most of the season until his final transformation into the creepy boyfriend who dumps you but won’t leave you alone? For sure. The higher-ups at the network who approve casting, who keep the franchise tilted toward white, hetero, throwback visions of romantic love? No question.
But there’s another place to look when we’re thinking about what this franchise has become and how it needs to change in the future: Chris Harrison, omnipresent host of the franchise. After the final two episodes of Arie’s Bachelor season, it is now time for Chris Harrison to retire.
Harrison has become an unavoidable fixture of the franchise, appearing as a guide, interpreter, prompter, questioner, and sympathetic ear since the show began in 2002. His face is the one we see at the beginning of each season, with his crinkle-eyed smile firmly in place above a dark suit and occasionally floral tie. His voice is the sound that greets the audience, usually so that he can narrate a sizzle reel with words like, “most dramatic finale ever,” or “the shocking surprise you won’t want to miss.”
Harrison is also the official tour guide for the Bachelor or Bachelorette each season; he asks them how they’re feeling and he shows up to transition from one activity to another. He is a master of ceremonies. In another genre, he’d be the mentor figure who guides the hero through the series of trials, appearing at the end to offer encouraging words. Famously, Harrison arrives at the crucial moment in each elimination ceremony to point out the most obvious fact in the room (“this is the final rose tonight”). He is ever present. Even when he fades into the background of the series for lengthy stretches, as usually happens during the less exciting mid-season episodes, the impression of his half-amused, half-concerned brow furrow lingers. He is pervasive. He is Chris Harrison, a man whose onscreen personality has long since been scooped out and replaced with corporate-speak and a burning desire for better ratings and social-media engagement. He is a human-shaped instantiation of network notes.
This is precisely the problem. When tasked with the delicate job of guiding the audience’s response to Bachelor Arie brutally dumping his fiancée Becca, Harrison kept cutting in and out of commercial break with barely veiled delight at viewers’ shock. “I can feel the emotion here in the studio audience,” he said, with eerie calm. Sometimes he’d pause, giving producers a moment to cut to angry female faces in the audience, before taking the reins again. “Believe it or not, there is a lot more to this,” he said. It was like watching the world’s most genial-looking torturer unclasping the thumbscrews and then gesturing calmly at a guillotine in the distance: “Believe it or not, there is a lot more to this.” The lowest moment came when Harrison also noted that, “to say this is trending and blowing up social media right now is a gross understatement.” For a brief flash, the cruelty of the breakup disappeared and you could see the naked joy of the network executive preparing to sell ads on those audience-engagement stats.
It got even worse in the “After the Final Rose” live special, where Harrison had to somehow walk the line between softening Arie’s now-toxic image and stoking enthusiasm for Becca’s revenge against Arie in her Bachelorette season. Becca was brought out onstage and sat across from Harrison to answer questions about what had happened and how she was doing. To no one’s astonishment, Becca (who was no doubt contractually obligated to appear there and to allow footage of her breakup to be televised) complied with Harrison’s careful prompting. Yes, she did feel the footage should be aired. Yes, she has a lot of feelings, but she was ready to move on. The carefully coached illusion wobbled a bit as Harrison asked her whether she “wanted” to see Arie again, on live national television. “Do I want to? I don’t know, I …” she stammered. “Are you okay with seeing him?” Harrison adjusted. The subtext: Could you please say that you agree to this? Could you please help get the audience back on our side? Could you make it seem more like you’re a willing participant in what’s about to happen? “Yeah,” Becca said.
It feels unfair to blame Harrison for doing his job, which is to say, it feels unfair to blame the puppet for having a puppet-master. But the host of a franchise like this has an unquestionable impact on the overall tone and impression of the series. Survivor is indelibly marked by Jeff Probst’s personality; Project Runway without Tim Gunn is a completely different series. And this is especially necessary in The Bachelor’s live segments, where Harrison is responsible for at least appearing to have human responses to human pain. In her review of the finale, Willa Paskin writes that Harrison is “an emotional succubus posing as an empath.” “If you ever wanted to hear what the cat who ate the canary would sound like pretending to be a concerned adult man,” Paskin continues, “listen to Harrison this episode.”
And at some point, that filters through to the viewing audience, who can absolutely sense Harrison’s excitement, his obvious efforts to keep the franchise on the right side of public opinion, and his faux-concern for the real feelings involved. His tone, his demeanor, and his transparent pleasure at hyping a calamitous breakup have become the embodied tone of The Bachelor. Outside, it’s all solicitous worry for the people involved. Inside, it’s a complete contempt for the softies who think maybe you shouldn’t, say, cast racist suitors for the first black Bachelorette. If Harrison is a puppet, what I’m arguing is that the strings are now way too visible.
Harrison’s continued presence as the face of The Bachelor is also indicative of one of the deeper issues with the franchise: its deep unwillingness to change, even though culture did not ossify in the year 2002 when The Bachelor first appeared. When Harrison started in his gig as the shepherd for young love at the show’s start, he was 31. He looked and behaved like the Bachelor’s bud, someone who was going to help the Bachelor deal with the high-class problem of being buried in too many available chicks. Now, at 46, Harrison is struggling to transition from host-as-pal to host-as-paterfamilias. He’s got the suit — The Bachelor may be single-handedly propping up the fantasy of romance as something that always requires formal wear — but his attempts at fatherly concern never seem to translate. They come off as what they clearly are: concern for The Bachelor, and not so much for the Bachelor.
It’s time for The Bachelor to get an update, something that will help shift it closer to relevance with what the world looks like now. And yes, simply removing something as surface-level as Chris Harrison and replacing him with another network-protecting host figure does feel like repainting a crumbling wall. But Bachelor is a show obsessed with surfaces. It matters, apparently, that they all wear formal attire all the time. It matters that the driveway is kept slick and the roses are red and the limos that pull up to the mansion are a spotless glossy black. It matters, then, who we see as the face and the voice and the human emotional barometer of the franchise. And it feels like Chris Harrison’s “time in the hot seat,” as he loves to say, should finally be up.