“The Bachelor” Is Jumping The Shark, And Found The Right Guy To Do It With

No one in Bachelor Nation was rooting for Arie Luyendyk Jr. to be the franchise’s next star. But he's actually returning to a Bachelor world shaped by a tectonic shift that he helped set off in 2012.

The legions of fans hooked on ABC’s reality-TV romance factory may band together under the moniker of Bachelor Nation, but The Bachelor is really less like a country and more like a planet. It orbits our own in a lopsided ellipse that keeps it within our view for longer and longer stretches each year, spinning frantically at some unlikely obliquity where the sun only ever crosses the horizon to set, never to rise, and golden hour is forever, and it’s always 11 o’clock somewhere. Engagements are pressure-cooked in a month or three, generations of Instagram stars are born and raised and heartbroken with the turnover of fruit flies in test tubes, and if Chris Harrison doesn’t see the shadow of the last rose on the accent table, the cocktail party lasts six more weeks.

So if the man who’s been announced as the 2018 Bachelor, Arie Luyendyk Jr., seems unfamiliar, it might be because his provenance is so ancient: He was a contestant on Emily Maynard’s season of The Bachelorette, from 2012. That’s arguably not so long ago in our world, but it’s like 18 years in Bachelor time.

The most recent season of The Bachelorette ended on Aug. 7, with Rachel Lindsay screaming news of her engagement from a mountaintop. But before the last echo had finished bouncing off the Rioja peaks, it seemed the camera was already jonesing to ditch the Bachelorette and pan away to the next season of The Bachelor. In the month since, both the franchise and its followers have chattered and speculated and generally invested more fucks than I think any of us is really all right with over who the next Bachelor would be.

At first, official word from the franchise was they were waiting to see if any stars would rise up from the murky beaches of Bachelor in Paradise. Then, as the spinoff headed into its final episodes, professional franchise gadfly and spoiler Reality Steve tweeted that he was “confident” in reporting that the new Bachelor would in fact be Rachel’s runner-up, the supposedly engagement-shy Peter Kraus. This despite The Bachelor’s executive producer Mike Fleiss appearing to subtweet Peter, and an inside source saying that Peter was on production’s shit list. These seemed at the time like mere misdirects to keep Bachelor Nation on their toes — all of it about on par with ABC’s usual pig-in-mud rooting for truffles of “controversy.”

The franchise's new star is returning into a Bachelor world that is the logical conclusion of the early tectonic shift he helped set off.

But then things got weird: On Aug. 31, Good Morning America tweeted and deleted the announcement that Bachelor 2018 would be introduced on air the next day. In the wake of this maybe-gaffe, Fleiss persisted, dribbling out teasers and eliminated contenders and riddles and untruths (philosophically speaking, less lies than pure bullshit). The names of more than half a dozen former contestants were tossed around in both the tweets and the hundreds-deep comment threads they garnered: Ben Higgins (round two), freshly single Nick Viall (round 5), Wells, Eric, Dean, Ben Z. And from this cesspool of spoilers and subtweets and too much attention, Arie — a choice that is downright archaeological — has arisen.

There are two things to look at here: what transpired, and what didn’t. This year’s crop of traditional would-be candidates for Bachelor (Rachel Lindsay's three runners-up) presented a conundrum, and exposed a rift between the show’s well-honed onscreen logic — its supposed commitment to rewarding those who are “here for the right reasons” — and the actual machinery that underlies its production.

What’s interesting is not only that the show attempted to bypass this problem by going historical, but who in particular they dragged up. Arie first appeared at the precise moment in the franchise’s history in which the walls between production, audience, and cast first began to show their fissures; in fact, he was at the center of a controversy that set off a fundamental change in the way the show navigates those boundaries. Now, the franchise's new star is returning into a Bachelor world that is the logical conclusion of the early tectonic shift he helped set off.

It wasn’t always the case that the Bachelor franchise found its next lead inside its own universe. In the early years, the Bachelor (though never the Bachelorette) was sometimes delivered directly from the real world, his eligibility conferred by various markers of status. Early Bachelors included the heir to an all-American automotive fortune, a pro athlete, a naval officer (uniform included, natch), and a pseudo royal. One time, it was just a guy — Season 12’s Matt Grant — who seemed like he must be something special because he had a posh British accent.

Since 2009, however, every Bachelor and Bachelorette has been an internal hire, culled from among the legions of the franchise’s homegrown brokenhearted. The franchise now establishes each lead’s status as marriage material through the only currency that changes hands within Bachelor society itself: love and its loss. The show assures viewers that the pain of on-air heartbreak might mean an opportunity to level up, to earn a hero’s romantic journey by first getting dumped on TV. Being elevated to love object is a salve to the wound the show itself inflicts.

The turnover from contestant to lead requires a delicate balance between heartbroken and damaged; prepared but unrehearsed. Bachelor-to-be should be rejected as painfully as possible, but issued a wound with a plausibly swift recovery time. And they are best dumped for reasons that are clear and specific, but also totally circumstantial. As a contestant, a future lead often shows signs of a nonfatal flaw — something that could be wiped away easily if only they were given a do-over, and prevents their being chosen without making them seem undesirable.

A particularly good (and very common) one is when a contestant struggles to “open up” quickly enough and their final leap into love is not too little, but only too late, once the lead has already achieved a “stronger connection” with someone else. (This, in fact, was Rachel Lindsay’s own path to Bachelorette.) In another recent example, look at the 20th Bachelor, Ben Higgins, who was handed a storyline in which his (alleged and highly improbable) fear of being “unlovable” stalled his romance with Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe, but didn’t seem to stop him from believing that 28 other women could fall in love with him just a few weeks later.

Or think of Higgins’ predecessor, Season 19 Bachelor Chris Soules: As a Bachelorette contestant, the strike against him was that he was a farmer, immovably rooted on several thousand weed-free, Monsanto-sponsored acres outside a not-quite-ghost-town of a couple hundred people in the middle of Iowa. (For Andi Dorfman, the Georgia-based lawyer he was pursuing, this was understandably a deal-breaker.) When he leveled up to Bachelor, this issue (have farm, will not travel) was reimagined as the locus of Chris’s appeal, and he was given a billing as the “Prince Farming” Bachelor.

In addition to being brokenhearted, bouncing back quickly, and having a fixable problem they’ve learned from, the next lead must appear to enter the spotlight blithely. Because the show insists so fervently on the “right reasons” for joining up in the first place (not really so much a thing, imho), even as he edges into second, third, or fourth place, any good future Bachelor must betray no hint that he might have The Bachelor on the brain.

The last Bachelor, Nick Viall, managed to fit the bill despite being the most internal of internal hires, having gone through not one but two rounds as a Bachelorette contestant (he courted both Andi Dorfman in 2014 and Kaitlyn Bristowe in 2015) before washing up in the shores of Bachelor in Paradise in 2016. Luke Pell — a heartland fave from JoJo Fletcher’s Bachelorette season — was about to fly to LA to embark on his love-bound journey when, based on Nick’s Paradise performance, the franchise swapped him in at the 11th hour.

While Nick’s casting was a deviation in some ways, it was also consistent with franchise logic. After all, Nick had gone through more than his share of humiliating heartbreak on The Bachelorette, making runner-up not once but twice. He fit the golden rule that the next Bachelor should always be the one who fails while looking like a winner.

Had tradition been heeded, the 2018 Bachelor would have been chosen from among the most recent Bachelorette season’s three runners-up: Dean Unglert, Eric Bigger, and Peter Kraus.

Dean was a breakout season star and initially looked like a real contender. And then, in Paradise, he shot his chances by downgrading from a fave to a fuckboy. But even at his peak popularity, the 26-year-old —with a face like a composite drawing of every member of every boy band from the last 20 years — seemed more like a teen idol than a marriage-ready bachelor, which he himself admitted.

On to runner-up Peter, a 31-year-old Wisconsinite “business owner” (he’s a personal trainer). Silver-foxy hot and just mumblingly Midwestern enough for us to imagine that he doesn’t even know it, Peter was beloved by fans, even though (or maybe even because) he refused to cop to the The Bachelorette’s condensed timeline for meeting-cute, falling in love, and proposing.

At first, Peter’s reluctance to get engaged after only eight weeks of non-monogamous dating seemed like the right kind of skepticism — something that signals a contestant is taking the process seriously, and keeping a good grip on his values in the midst of the show’s chaos. In fact, skepticism is a quality successful contestants hang onto just long enough to maintain a sense of proportion, but then must jettison when it comes time to take a final leap of faith. (The quintessential example of this type is J.P. Rosenbaum from Ashley Hebert’s season: They are married with two kids). But the longer Peter lingered in his unwillingness to cop to the way the show’s process works, the more it started to seem like it might have just been a higher-order strategy for screening his bid to be Bachelor. And all the leaks and tweets and retractions around the Bachelor announcement suggest that the part was, at least at one point, in his grasp. He might have bailed out himself, or he might have overplayed his hand in negotiating conditions, or he might have been given the Luke Pell treatment just to spite Reality Steve. We may never know.

If the Bachelor franchise was going to honor the logic that governs its private, internally combusting universe, Eric would have been the next lead.

But there was still one good choice left from among the franchise’s fresh stock. If the Bachelor should be the one who fails like a champ, then the role ought to have gone to Eric Bigger, Rachel’s second runner-up. The 29-year-old from Baltimore was telegraphed to become an early casualty: Made to seem immature and unprepared, he stumbled into the common pitfall of getting “caught up in the drama in the house” rather than “focusing on Rachel.” (In fact, Eric — one of a larger-than-usual number of black contestants this season — was goaded into a nonsensical and frustrating conflict by a literal racist troll, who never should have been cast in the first place.) Eric freely admitted that before coming on the show, he had never been in love. This almost certainly made him wrong for Rachel, but it also makes him perfect for Bachelor: His biggest weakness is one that the very fact of appearing on the show — and falling in love with the Bachelorette — has solved. He’s proof positive that the process can work.

Eric was the ultimate graceful loser. “Thank you for allowing me to get what I need,” he told Rachel as she was dumping him. Months later, when he joined Rachel on the confrontation couch during the finale, he issued nothing but benedictions of goodwill and gratitude for an experience that matured him. Smiling and sporting a grown-ass beard he wears very, very well, Eric told Rachel that thanks to her love, “I was a boy before, and I became a man.”

If the Bachelor franchise was going to honor the logic that governs its private, internally combusting universe, Eric would have been the next lead. But that didn’t happen — in fact, he says he was never even approached. Had the part gone to Peter instead, the sheer weight of popularity might have provided a fair-enough cover for choosing a white guy to whom the rules of the Bachelor universe just won’t stick. But the ancient-historical casting of Arie, whom no corner of Bachelor Nation was clamoring for, suggests that Eric was passed over not because he got beat at the popularity polls, but because he’s too “historic” (that’s Bachelor-speak for black). Rachel’s season didn’t go so hot, ratings-wise, a fact which in all likelihood had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with the show having waited so long to reach what should have been a low-key milestone of racial equality in the first place.

Arie Luyendyk Jr. will turn 36 during filming for his season of The Bachelor. Though he has the same haircut as he did five years ago — a tousled, noncommittal ski jump that looks like it comes from standing ass-backwards in a strong wind — it’s now most of the way gray. That he’s the first silver Bachelor is definitely the best, most exciting thing about his casting.

During his original appearance on Emily Maynard’s season, Arie was a front-runner who wound up at the center of a controversy that nearly ground the season to a halt. During the season’s airing, it came out in the media that he had dated one of the show’s producers, years prior to filming. From the way it’s portrayed onscreen, it appears this was not intended for inclusion in the arc of the show, but gossip circulating during the real-time of the show’s airing forced a late-stage edit. This was the first time that the tabloid culture that had sprung up around The Bachelor earned its way into the show’s actual plot.

And so in Episode 7, in the middle of a one-on-one date between Emily and Arie in Prague, the narrative jolts. We swing back to California, where, from the steps of the Bachelor mansion, Chris Harrison addresses “something you may have heard — or even read about.” He names producer Cassie Lambert, admits to her many-years-old history with Arie, and, “in the interest of full disclosure,” segues into an unorthodox one-on-one interview between Cassie and Emily that was, at the time, unprecedented.

What follows is two minutes of scored footage that looks (or is made to look) like scraps freshly salvaged off the cutting room floor. There are shuffled mic sounds; we catch a glimpse of Lambert’s unsmiling face, sans stage makeup. Emily Maynard is the most animated she appears all season, speaking from a perspective the show has never before let us in on: what it feels like to be making The Bachelorette rather than being the Bachelorette. She makes the kinds of casual, insider-baseball references that would normally never make it to air, glancing around as she refers to “everyone” making the show, calling Cassie “my producer,” speaking to offscreen relationships like Cassie’s engagement to fellow producer “Pete.” With all of this left in as-is, Emily’s articulation of her surroundings reveal that the production normally left out of view is not a machine, but a series of relationships — a community.

What’s revealed in this dressed-down footage is that Emily is (rightfully) pissed to have been left out of the loop, not because she’s threatened by Arie and Cassie’s ancient history, but because it exposes Arie’s collusion with the show’s incomplete truths. Emily asks Cassie, “If he’s okay with hiding that he even knows you, much less dated you, and we’ve been hanging out for so long, like, what the fuck else is he hidin’, you know? He’s a good actor.” As Cassie explains her own rationale in delaying the disclosure and tries to account for Arie’s silence, Emily pushes back, describing ways Arie might have behaved more like a person than an ascending reality TV star.

The show has learned to expose its own seams strategically, as a way of establishing authenticity in a new, newly-mediated world.

And then Emily Maynard says something completely amazing that quietly and permanently revolutionized The Bachelor franchise: “This isn’t like a production thing — it’s like a real-life thing. You know? This isn’t, like, for the show.” And just in case we missed it, she says it again a moment later with slightly different emphasis: “It’s not a production thing — it’s like a real-life thing.”

By “it” Emily means the situation, or her frustration, or her hurt feelings. But by airing this moment with a gloss-free glory that purports to bare its own production completely, the show manages to brilliantly insinuate that “it” is the show itself. The very fact of showing this footage in the spirit of “full disclosure” performs a jujitsu move with the weight of Emily’s words, redirecting her attack to serve in the show’s defense. It’s not just an unprecedented admission to the existence of The Bachelor’s production, but a statement of quality; it acknowledges the show as not only a product of labor, but as a product of love, made by real human beings with real relationships.

In the end, Emily and Arie kissed and made up, and Emily got engaged to someone else (one-F Jef Holm, the skateboard-riding Jack Mormon; they broke up after the show), and Arie was a good sad sack who was heartbroken and cried just like he was supposed to. He stayed entangled in the Bachelor family’s notoriously incestuous dating web, apparently getting involved with Bachelor 16 Ben Flajnik’s on-again, off-again fiancé Courtney Robertson. (Best sex of her life, in her childhood bed, Courtney says in her tell-all book.) A couple of years later, Arie was almost cast as the Bachelor himself, but he seemed too historical even then.

For a few good years after the revelation of Arie’s dating history provoked the show to highlight some of its B-roll, The Bachelor’s increased concessions to production became one of the most interesting things about the show. Take, for example, Andi Dorfman’s season of The Bachelorette in 2014, when contestant Eric Hill accused Andi of being an "actress,” provoking her to point to the “guys right there” filming them, yelling about the struggle to remain authentic and present under the show’s exhausting filming conditions. And then, in a horrible coincidence, Hill died in a tragic accident shortly after his exit from the show, before the season was done filming. Andi was wrapping up hometown dates when she and her final four men were given the terrible news; rather than cut the action, the cameras were mounted in the corner and left rolling as we watched producers, cast, and crew mingle in shared grief, turning the work of making the show into the source of the drama.

In a Bachelor era before tabloid attention and social media, it might have seemed like the point of reality TV was to deliver something that looked smooth as fiction; now the show has learned to expose its own seams strategically, as a way of establishing authenticity in a new, newly-mediated world. Captioning producer dialogue to give fuller context to a sound bite, or showing glimpses of boom mikes swinging and cameramen jumping out of view, or dangling hints about casting decisions: These are ways of assuring modern viewers that this show is real, not in spite of the fact that it is made, but because of it.

This has been a kind of golden age of producer-performer-audience interaction — the zenith of Bachelor Nation — and it’s continued right up until recently. But as of this summer, the show’s flirtation with its fourth wall curdled into something a little less comfortable as real-life allegations of misconduct on the Bachelor in Paradise set were transformed into an on-air cliff-hanger.

And now here we have Arie being un-deaded into 2017, a time when reality shows stream simultaneously across many tributaries of Instagram posts and tweets and clapbacks and comments, and when, if the “real” Bachelor isn’t on, we can tune into eerily on-the-nose episodes of UnREAL. None of us knows what we’re supposed to be looking at. Now, the news of the next Bachelor is classified and back-channeled and leaked like there’s an inquiry going down; the levees that held apart all our making and consuming and performing have finally burst. Here’s betting that right now someone, somewhere is photoshopping in a shark. And someone else is strapping on a pair of waterskis, practicing their jumps. ●

Suzannah Showler is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently Thing Is (Penguin Random House, 2017). This essay is partially excerpted from her forthcoming book Most Dramatic Ever: The Bachelor (March 2018, ECW Press), available for preorder now.

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