I’ll admit: I may have groaned when I heard Ben’s season would be recapped in this week’s Greatest Seasons Ever roundup. It’s not that I think his wasn’t a good season (quite the opposite, really), but, as I said in my first recap of the season, I would hope Sean Lowe’s 2013 season isn’t considered “vintage.” Last week’s recap of Kaitlyn’s season brought us to 2015, and seeing how Ben’s and Jojo’s seasons are both from 2016, it sure seems like my fears are coming to fruition. It’s actually starting to feel a bit conspicuous, as though there are legal reasons for keeping earlier seasons from being highlighted. Or perhaps many of today’s producers themselves haven’t even watched earlier seasons and therefore aren’t acquainted enough to highlight them? This show has been around since 2002! Surely there were interesting, “greatest”-worthy happenings in that first decade of television? Or do The Powers That Be really think this franchise’s best and most memorable scenes all occurred in the last handful of years? (Newsflash: They didn’t.)
Last night, as if predicting our side-eye, Chris Harrison qualified the choice, touting Ben as another “trailblazer,” even comparing him to Kaitlyn. With all due respect, Kaitlyn would spark a years-long conversation about gender double standards, The Bachelor’s unwritten rules involving sex, and might have even played a role in the term “slut-shaming” going mainstream. Meanwhile, Ben telling two women he loved them wasn’t exactly some glass ceiling in need of shattering. If we must credit Ben for changing this show in some way, it would be for diminishing the meaning of the L-word for every subsequent season. Before you think I’m being harsh, hear me out: There have been several leads since Ben who have told more than one contestant they loved him or her. (Here’s looking at you, Arie.) Ben was just the first to get that ball rolling. I’d rather we all just call it like it is: Ben’s season performed very well. Like Kaitlyn’s season, it introduced many iconic Bachelor Nation stars to the world. Above all, Ben is clearly a producer favourite, frequenting our screens season after season. That’s reason enough for me; no need to fit the square peg that is Ben into the round hole that is some trailblazer of a lead.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying Ben Higgins’s turn as Bachelor was a momentous one. As a longtime viewer and now longtime recapper, it has become clear to me that Ben’s season draws a distinct line in the sand in terms of viewers; I cannot tell you how many people have told me they began watching with Ben’s season. New viewers were moths to Ben Higgins’s flame and, indeed, even after all these years of Ben being advertised to us as so perfect, I have to admit he comes about as close to living up as any human can. First, the fact that none of us have gotten sick of him yet is unto itself a major sign—if he were remotely too weepy, too outspoken, too meek, Bach fans would have had their fill a long time ago. It’s obvious he is self-aware. He’s a good conversationalist (as I learned when I joined as a guest on his podcast with Ashley I). He’s the opposite of the Bad Boy, yet he’s a Good Guy with enough edge to evidently leave several women weak in the knees. He’s unwaveringly respectful and kind. I loved how he handled Olivia’s appearance last night; it would have been much easier for him to just not show up. Instead, he went out of his way to not only point out how strong Olivia is, but to take responsibility for how he could and should have been better for her. Crucially, you won’t ever hear a former contestant from his season—even if they were brutally hurt by him—speak ill of him. He’s just THAT beloved.
That’s all well and good, but a season can only be as good as its cast of contestants. Perhaps what Ben deserves the most credit for is his exceptional taste in women. His Final Four is an impressive line-up of Bachelor Nation who’s-whos: Lauren Bushnell (now Lauren Lane), the Jojo Fletcher, Amanda Stanton, Caila Quinn. Last night, I enjoyed being reminded of Lauren’s quiet confidence and how, even on a reality show filled with feelings and tears, she maintained an air of privacy and dignity about her. (Also, this may sound weird but I’ve always loved the sound of her speaking voice—she just has a calming presence.) Jojo was THE cool girl, the one you want to be friends with. She charmingly broke the fourth wall time and time again, even saying, “Are you allowed to say that?” when Ben told her he loved her. During her chat with Chris Harrison, I loved how plainly she admitted she’s had a pit in her stomach over these recap episodes—as I said two weeks ago, my own initial feeling was one of dread, so suffice it to say Jojo echoed my thoughts. I didn’t need to be reminded of Amanda’s sweet turn on Ben’s season, but it was still nice to see that emotional clip of her tearfully greeting her daughters on the beach during her Hometown date. What I like about Amanda was how she defied the single mom stereotype and would continue to do so well into her spins on Paradise—much like Emily Maynard before her, here was a woman who could be both a loving mother and a romantic lead. It wasn’t one or the other. And of course, there’s Caila. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet most of these lovely women, but it’s especially neat to watch back the journey of someone you’ve since gotten to know, and well. For all the gripes contestants often have about their edits, I’ve got to say Caila’s appearance on The Bachelor was a pitch perfect representation—she really is that “bubbly” (Ben’s frequent adjective for Caila), that warm, that thoughtful. (Her asking me to be her bridesmaid on TV will forever be one of the most touching—and surprising!—gestures I’ve ever experienced.) But at the same time, she is an enigma and, as Ben put it, some might consider her difficult to truly get to know. I’ve always related to that aspect of her, to the side of her that is a people-pleaser and something of a chameleon. We’re very alike in this way, and it’s been a uniquely rewarding experience peeling back those layers in each other and somehow recognizing the person on the other side. All in all, you can tell a lot about a person by what they look for and value in a partner, and we have Ben to thank for identifying and keeping around so many future Bachelor Nation fixtures.
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My own personal attachment to this season notwithstanding, last night’s episode brought one of the most important appearances to date: a chat with former villain Olivia Caridi. To me, this addition single-handedly made Ben’s season worth recapping. Think about it: How often do we get to hear from a villain describing the post-filming experience, four years after the fact? Tell All episodes don’t really count, because at that point the villain is still mid-experience. (They film the Tell All partway through the season, after all). They don’t know yet what the next years—or even year—will look like.
Historically, this show provides villains with a couple of options:
1. Pursue redemption. Go on Paradise or look for love on another Bachelor/ette season. Behave very differently. Last long enough to be seen by viewers in this more flattering light. (If you don’t last long enough, you’ll come off as desperate for reappearing at all.) This route has inherent risks, the most obvious being trusting your fate in the hands of the very people who were responsible for your portrayal in the first place. The poster children success stories for this route are JJ Lane and Krystal Nielson. The horror stories are Chad Johnson and Corinne Olympios.
2. a) Choose never to trust this show and its producers again. Resume normal life as best as you can while getting recognized on a daily basis for an experience you wish you could forget. Tierra LaCausi not appearing on Sean Lowe’s recap two weeks ago put her firmly in this category.
2. b) Never trust the show again, but take control of the narrative by profiting off your defamation. There are few in this category: Courtney Robertson wrote a fantastic tell-all and ultimately profited off her edit. Olivia’s aftermath hasn’t been unlike Courtney’s: She leaned into the criticism, started a podcast and gradually shared her story in a similarly intimate way. (If you missed it, Olivia and I did a deep dive into edits when I was her guest a year ago.)
Notice what’s not included: The legal ability to tell your side of the story, to describe how your edit and/or production played a role, to wholly defend yourself. Even last night, Olivia wasn’t able to go into the ins and outs of production, deftly managing not to blame her edit or producers (though they undoubtedly played some role). But what she did was far better: She showed self-awareness and took responsibility. She owned the behaviour that led to her being disliked by the women, that in turn made her villain edit easy. She took the high road and, in doing so, she added credence to her tears. There’s no two ways about it, being the “villain” is HARD. It makes him or her doubt themselves, even hate themselves. It fills them with sorrow and regret and trust issues. It strains real-life relationships.
I often feel reality TV brings out the worst in people, and as Rachel Lindsay aptly put it at Peter’s finale, “People have become so comfortable being mean.” Some of the things viewers and fellow contestants said about Olivia were disturbing—to say she was cyber-bullied is no exaggeration. As Olivia said last night, criticize the things one can control. Physical attributes are off limits. Peter’s season, with its many screaming matches and curses hurled from one woman to another, still sends a chill down my spine. Thus, Olivia’s interview felt important and necessary. To hear from someone on the receiving end of that firing squad of millions, four years later, and to witness the dichotomy of strength yet the obvious long-term effects of hurt and self-doubt….Well, it hopefully gives viewers a bit of pause before hitting “send” on their next nasty remark. Hopefully.
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Last night, the big takeaway in Olivia’s appearance was that, today, she’s strong and resilient. She’s back in the family! She should come on Paradise! They’re there for her, no matter what! Let it be known, though, that despite what the show might have you believe, and no matter how many adjacent success stories they may lay claim to, Olivia’s resulting strength and resiliency are in no way thanks to this “family.” She’s in a good place today not because of the show, but in spite of it.