Watching last night’s Greatest Seasons Ever recap, I found myself surprised that I never thought to seek out these OG seasons before. I fancy myself an authority on The Bachelor franchise but didn’t even know who coined the phrase “I’m not here to make friends”?! I am an unworthy recapper!
I had high expectations for last night’s episode and it did not disappoint. It was downright fascinating to see how far back certain traditions of this franchise stretch. Things like Limo Exits and Rose Ceremonies and even Fantasy Suites—down to the word-for-word verbiage on a Fantasy Suite card!—appear to have been part and parcel of the show’s initial sales pitch to America. It’s debatable whether or not there was meant to be designated 1-on-1 time within group scenarios, but those (as well as the “steals” necessary to make them happen) ended up occurring naturally anyway (thanks to “bold” Rhonda, certainly the franchise’s all-time MVP).
Meanwhile, the differences were distinct: The first-ever Night One almost looked like a scene at a lounge, with Alex chatting easily and naturally with multiple women at once. I practically shouted at my TV screen when I saw the Rose Ceremonies, with the ladies permitted to sit comfortably on whatever sofa or chair was in the room. (My feet are still traumatized from long Rose Ceremonies spent standing in heels for well over an hour.) Today, you pretty much never eat dinner with the lead, regardless of what sort of date you’re on. (In both Group Dates and 1-on-1 scenarios, you’re separated between the day and evening portions to clean up—especially if the day involved anything athletic or messy—to change up your outfit/hair/makeup, and to eat.) Thus, it tickled me to see Alex, presumably on the show’s first-ever Group Date, blithely toasting his five girlfriends at a dinner table prior to digging in. Simpler times!
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It was interesting to observe how the show took further form even from Alex Michel’s season to Trista’s. In Alex’s final Rose Ceremony, he stood in a basic (and endearingly ill-fitting) suit in the grassy backyard of the same house where everything happened. Next to him sat a simple pedestal with a lone rose on it. Trista and Amanda wore knee-length cocktail dresses and looked no more formal than if they were headed to a nice dinner. There was no long, winding walkway, no exotic locale, no rose petals, no exploding fountains and no, not even a proposal (a testament to our first Bachelor’s judgment)! Meanwhile, at Trista’s final scene, she stood in a floor-length beaded gown. The journey toward her was strewn with hundreds of rose petals and flickering candles, many of the aesthetic trappings we associate with today’s show. Side by side, you could literally see how the show upped the ante in a year’s time, taking a massive stride in the direction of what we know The Bachelor to be today.
The ante being upped wasn’t limited to the show’s creative details. With these early Bachelors, it felt as though The Powers That Be truly did scour the country for a quality man multiple women might genuinely want to date. Indeed, by the end of Alex’s recap, I found myself utterly charmed by him, maybe even a little wistful that I didn’t get to pursue a man of this calibre on TV. Note how back then, a dreamboat didn’t necessarily include huge arms or a six-pack; a man’s education and career prospects (and thus, more broadly, his drive, intelligence, interests) were the heavy lifters. Think about not only what that means for the Bachelor in terms of traits, but for the women who are most interested in dating him; they too were career women, women who were clever, analytical, brimming with personality. These women were beautiful, sure, but their careers weren’t dependent on their being beautiful. What Alex found himself drawn to in these women didn’t disappoint, either. Even in that short recap, we heard him mention multiple times what a woman did for a living, emphasizing how “together” she was, how impressed he was by her, even calling one “a genius.”
Today, it’s as though the show has gone down something of an ante-upping rabbit hole. Instead of casting a truly impressive Bachelor, they pick based on little more than a popularity contest, and then proceed tell us how “eligible” this person is. Look at this Bachelor’s beefy arms! He’s an ATHLETE. Look at him hugging his dog! Holding his niece! He’s a FAMILY MAN. But here’s a shot of him crying when he got broken up with! He’s SENSITIVE. Everything is so literal and black and white, not to mention heavily produced; we know today’s Bachelor/ette must consult with their producers on every decision, every elimination. Meanwhile, Alex Michel’s behaviour didn’t feel remotely performative or designed for “better TV.” It was a televised social experiment, yes, but every decision he made was entirely for himself, based on his preferences and analysis (analysis which he so astutely narrated). Watching Trista and Charlie each deal with runner-up rejection (note the lack of a proposal on Charlie’s part—another ante upped), I marvelled at how graciously they handled it. But then I also realized that even that ante has been upped; those runners-up were blindsided, sure, but it still didn’t compare to the extent to which non-winner finalists are misled today (complete with ILYs—thanks, Ben!). Notably, considering the direction the show would take in later seasons in depicting its contestants, there wasn’t a single contestant last night—even including The Aggressive One, Rhonda—who you would single out as being “dumb” or “crazy,” as being the laughingstock you’d ridicule. It’s clear the show even upped the ante on that front as well; the contestants would become further and further pigeonholed into their roles, with a clear-cut villain as a drama safety blanket.
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Easily the most interesting part of this Greatest Seasons Ever episode was observing how singles in their 20s and 30s behaved in the early 2000s. My husband, who was dating in New York City in the early 2000s, even lasted around 30 minutes watching this episode with me (versus the whopping 0 minutes he has lasted with any other episode). I was expecting subtle differences between pre-social media, pre-online dating folks and their equivalents of today, but was genuinely astonished at how drastic those differences turned out to be. Whether or not you loved their fashion or makeup choices, the women were undeniably natural beauties. If you go back and watch, I challenge you to count how many “like”s and “um”s are scattered throughout contestants’ sentences; there are none! Everyone was better spoken, made better eye contact, used words with intention and specificity when describing each other and when speaking to one another.
Speaking of words, I was enthralled to hear Amanda talk about sex so openly, but this observation led me to a sad realization. At first, when I heard Amanda mention her bedroom trapeze and Wonder Woman costume, I felt she was ahead of not only her time, but ahead of our time; more sexually empowered, more evolved, certainly less judgmental. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are surely plenty of women so open-minded and adventurous, but social media has stifled their voices. The freedom Amanda felt to talk so openly came not only with the boldness you might feel on a brand new TV show that you’re not sure will even make it on air (versus an 18-plus-year-old franchise with a built-in, very vocal audience), but it also comes when you don’t have to read the cruel and judgmental things people say about you online. You don’t even know those exist! When I look back over my hardest times post-show, to the worst criticism I received, it was entirely via Twitter or Instagram. Early Facebook did exist in 2002, but the social media circle was generally limited to people you actually knew, to friends who were actually friends. Back then, few strangers approaching you in person would ever say anything even mildly critical; to your face, you’re everyone’s “favourite.” I’m sure Amanda heard the stray whisper here or there judging her recreational activities (just as Trista would feel the pressure of the timeless double standard about seeming like a “floozy”), it would have been child’s play compared to the scathing, often faceless criticism of today. It’s hard to imagine a contestant embracing her sexuality so freely on The Bachelor now, as much as I’d love to witness it. It would either be proof that that contestant has the thickest skin, the most troll-proof confidence ever, or it would inevitably feel like a gimmick to stand out.
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I went into last night’s episode thinking my biggest takeaway would be the evolution of the show, the then-and-now comparisons. But my biggest takeaway ended up being what social media has done (and is still doing) to us. Of course, I understand the irony that I will tweet this recap and post it in an Instagram Story. The opportunity for real-time connection and notification is unparalleled. But I’ve long felt social media, especially when introduced younger and younger, stunts character development. It increases vanity, it feeds (and grows) the ever-hungry ego. It causes us to compare what we have to what others (appear to) have and it increases depression. It decreases our genuine curiosity in others and our ability to communicate in person. It has made us crueller to one another than ever fathomable. Watching the first ever Bachelor season, especially back-to-back with JoJo’s season of famously lacklustre contestants, really made these differences painfully clear to me. It would appear that 20 years ago, we were better tapped-in, more articulate, we had better game and we were certainly more engaging than we are today.
In the end, Alex Michel showed what an intelligent Bachelor he was. It wasn’t by choosing his future wife and living happily ever after with her—in fact, he was the first to derail the show’s insistence that a season end with a proposal, an asinine rule that is still a struggle today. It wasn’t by being a ratings success (though it seems that first season was a roaring success, even without today’s bells and whistles). It wasn’t in altering his life and career path to 15-minutes-of-fame-adjacent notoriety. No, he showed us just how together he is by not showing up at all, by being largely untraceable, by evidently having no social media. The show, in its simplicity and honesty and legitimate “reality,” was worthy of him then. He’s far and away too good for it now.