‘The Golden Bachelor’ Turns Grief Into Joy
9:04 AM EDT on October 25, 2023
Like most fans of the Bachelor franchise, I am aware of my complicity in supporting what is often a genuinely sick spectacle. This awareness was sharpest during the brutal pandemic seasons, which saw one Bachelorette leave the show after a handful of episodes, a hastily cast first Black Bachelor followed by a racism scandal that forced host Chris Harrison off the show, and a series of cover-your-eyes mental breakdowns. But one thing kept me going during those dark times: the promise of Golden Bachelor.
Interstitial promotions calling for single seniors have aired during episodes of the show for the last few years, and each time I saw one I found myself wanting to yell, "End this torture,” at my phone or TV. “Just give me Old Bachelor!” I saw the promos as a beacon of hope for what the future of the show could be.
The Golden Bachelor is here now. Maybe ABC decided it was finally time. Maybe it truly took two years to cast the perfect Golden Bachelor. Or maybe the network saw some wide-open slots in its fall lineup because of certain labor strikes that lasted longer than expected. Either way, they got it together and finally made the season.
The Sept. 28 premiere drew more than 9 million viewers across broadcast and streaming, which is the highest rating a Bachelor show has seen in more than two years. The show features 72-year-old Gerry Turner in the lead role, dating 22 women (also between the ages of 60 and 75) in a game of attrition, with the goal of proposing to one at the end. It's the only reality dating show I've ever seen that is about grief, and it couldn't have arrived at a better time.
Where normally the first few minutes of a Bachelor franchise show features slow, panning shots of water droplets on the lead’s washboard abs set to sexy music, the first minute of Golden Bachelor is silent. Gerry is buttoning up a crisp, white shirt and looking at himself in the mirror. Then, a close-up shot of his hearing aid. When he puts the hearing aid in, Cat Stevens’s “The Wind” starts playing.
Gerry moves to another mirror (a lot is different about this season, but the emphasis on mirrors for pensive shots remains consistent) and then looks at the framed photo on the mantle next to it.
“How lucky would I be to find a second true love in my lifetime?” he says.
Right away, it’s clear the tenor of this season is different. It’s gentler. Grief infiltrates every word, every action in the show. Gerry’s wife, Toni, died seven years ago. They had been high school sweethearts.
Over the last decade, the specter of fame and wealth, manifested primarily through brand deals on Instagram and TikTok, has infiltrated the way the show is made and consumed. The podcast Game of Roses—full disclosure, I’m a fan—even posits that the Bachelor franchise is America’s fastest growing professional sport. The hosts, Lizzy Pace and Chad Kultgen, published a book last year called How to Win the Bachelor, where they lay out the rules of the game, complete with a scorecard viewers can use to score while watching each “game.”
I don’t think contestants need to be there “for the right reasons” for the show to be good; in fact, my favorite contestants from the last decade have been those who managed to craft compelling, idiosyncratic, but believable characters for themselves on the show. But between the secondary game of winning social media followers and the production team's attempts to juice up conflict, the shows have started to feel like big bummers. For example, Clayton Echard’s season (Bachelor 26) climaxed with him sleeping with his two remaining contestants and then telling both of them he loved them in front of each other. He’s since been accused of cheating on his then-girlfriend and separately accused of impregnating a woman and refusing to take a paternity test (it seems this has been cleared up now). Which is all to say, the Bachelor franchise hasn’t historically been the best place for heartfelt, honest conversations in the genuine pursuit of finding love.
We’re four episodes into Golden Bachelor, though, and I’ve cried watching every episode. On Golden Bachelor, you get the sense that people really do see their participation on this show as a last shot at finding a meaningful relationship later in their lives. It really hits different to hear people talk about the love they’d already found as a model for what they’re looking for, instead of their parents’ or grandparents’ marriages. These are people who have been through some shit, and that adds weight to everything.
In last week’s episode, Gerry and one of the contestants, Ellen, sit on a bench before the rose ceremony. She tells him, “You brought out a spark in me that I didn’t realize how much I needed. I can’t remember the last time I felt this way.” And then she tells him that she’s falling in love with him. In an interview, Gerry says, “She makes me think back to the last time that someone looked at me like that and said those things to me. The last time that happened was with my wife of 43 years,” Gerry’s crying now, and so am I, and so are you. “When I lost Toni, and I thought the world ended, I never thought I'd see it again, and yet I am. I’m seeing it and feeling it.”
Every new Love Level Raise (Game of Roses-speak for the arbitrary levels that have been standardized on the Bachelor: I could see myself falling in love with you. I’m falling in love with you. I’m in love with you) is fraught with the loss both parties have experienced. But instead of bringing the tone down, somehow the show feels joyful and full of hope.
Usually on Bachelor shows, the existence of a child or other caretaking responsibilities is something contestants build up to revealing with a lot of hesitation. But with this group, any mention of kids or other family is met with joy. Of course the contestants have full lives outside of this. Of course they have families.
The storytelling is also tighter because Golden Bachelor episodes are only one hour compared to usual franchise shows, which are two. The shorter timeframe means the show is focused on only the most important narratives—the love and, yes, a little bit of drama—while the other fluff is cut out completely. In the last episode, the show managed to convey a complete breakup arc from beginning to crying-in-the-SUV in a minute and four seconds.
It’s possible Golden Bachelor is a cynical attempt to retain ABC’s core audience of aging conservatives, but it’s also been a refreshing break from the onslaught of cheap trauma the franchise has been churning out the last few years. This season represents a step back from the blatant manipulation that defined so much of the pandemic-era seasons, and a step toward the core drama that makes this format so compelling. I just hope we get a Golden Bachelorette, too.