close reads

Love Is Officially Dead on The Bachelor

Rachel Lindsay and Nick Viall on The Bachelor. Photo: Mark Coffey/ABC

With the announcement that Rachel Lindsay will become the next Bachelorette before she’s even been eliminated from the ongoing season — becoming the first black lead of the franchise’s long and notoriously colorless tenure — we can all accept the inevitable: The least interesting part of The Bachelor is whatever is actually supposed to be happening on The Bachelor.

The idea that love on The Bachelor was in any way authentic has long fallen somewhere between “dubious” and “highly, highly suspect.” You can point to any number of ways to prove that. The most obvious is the stunningly low success rate for couples who graduate from the franchise, but really, every single thing about the show calls that fundamental premise into question. What less likely setting for romance and intimacy can you imagine than a chaotic reality-television set where your every move is coached by a producer and you can’t even text the person you like?

But for quite a while now, the most fascinating, compelling moments of the show have had nothing at all to do with love, and everything to do with the creation of the show itself. Oh, sure, love is still the pretense. But far and away the most appealing, dramatic scenes are those where the usual surface layer of rose petals and bronzer gets split open and we glimpse the machinations underneath. Any scene with a visible producer is an instant classic. Visible producer, plus an audible producer question prompt? Gold. The most memorable characters on the show are those who crack the invisible glass box that supposedly separates the participants from their handlers. Last season, Chad was effective because every move he made brought the show’s “reality” into question. Infamous Bachelor villain characters like Courtney Robertson succeed in part because of their refusal to play “the game.”

The fascination with Lifetime’s UnREAL, the series that took us behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality-TV show, is all the evidence you need for this reading of the franchise — we all know it’s fake, but we don’t know how much, or how exactly it all gets done. We want to see behind the scenes! We want the real story. Last night’s news that Rachel Lindsay will become the first black Bachelorette puts the final nail in the coffin of any pretense that we watch The Bachelor to see two people fall in love. Because surprisingly, Rachel is still on the current season of The Bachelor. Not only that, she’s still a relatively strong contender, especially given that at least one of the other women remaining is wholly implausible as a final-rose winner. (I’m looking at you, Corinne, with your “vagine of platinum” and your nanny and your fear of automatic doors). Announcing Rachel as the next Bachelorette right now is a huge spoiler for the ending of this season, something the franchise apparently decided to do in order to get a jump on the glut of spoiler blogs.

It’s the show throwing its hands in the air and saying, “We know Nick is an insanely boring Bachelor whose best stab at drama is pretending he’s scared of the whole thing even though he’s been on this show a billion times already. We know you don’t care about any of the things actually happening on your screen right now. Let us draw your attention to the black woman waiting behind the curtain!” The main narrative of the season becomes less about the season itself, and more about the ascendancy of Rachel. It’s also about ABC attempting to garner plaudits for something that is laughably, shockingly overdue: casting a person of color in the lead role (no, I did not forget you Juan Pablo, but c’mon, we all know that was a punt).

In a way, it’s an opportunity for the franchise’s massive ecosystem to have its Bachelor cake and eat it, too. By dramatically elevating a behind-the-scenes story, the show is creating a mirror UnREAL narrative to its main story, and the audience gets to follow both the show and what’s essentially an authorized version of a Bachelor spoiler blog at the same time. The backstage becomes its own illuminated soundstage, as important and fascinating a narrative setting as any Bachelor mansion or carefully laid-out picnic blanket on a desert island. And now, we’ll get to watch next week’s episode of The Bachelor like magicians who already know how the trick works, keeping a sharp eye for all the signs we already know we should be looking for. Is Nick’s connection with Rachel starting to fade a little? Does her hometown date go that badly? Is Corinne’s vagine really so platinum that he can’t even see the other women?

It’s an important moment for the franchise. At long last — way, way, way longer than it should ever have taken — a black person will be the lead in the series. This in itself is already an elevation of the show’s backstory, as it feels like a response to both UnREAL (which already casted a black lead on its Everlasting series in season two) and to the years of critical calls for a more diverse cast. But more than that, last night’s move spells the death of any remnant charade that the most appealing thing about The Bachelor is anything that happens on the show itself. At best, it’s just the frame we use to watch the much better drama, where producers nudge people into untenably vulnerable positions, where feuds and romances happen that we only barely glimpse, and where the real story is always the one we’re trying to dig for underneath the “official” story that floats on the surface.

Congrats to Rachel, next season’s Bachelorette! RIP The Bachelor as text. Long live our new favorite show, Bachelor subtext.

Love Is Officially Dead on The Bachelor