There was a romantic guitar serenade, a daring “birthday suit” entrance, some boozy bickering, and more than one make-out session in the season premiere of The Golden Bachelor—which is to say, despite the promise of something new with a senior citizen spin-off, it was still business as usual for Bach Nation. Since the show was officially announced this spring after years of development, it was viewed as a potential savior for the beleaguered franchise, which has been riddled with scandals and controversies in recent years. The franchise has been suffering from decreased viewership, a seeming reflection of a changing fanbase, oversaturation in the reality TV romance space, the increasingly tiresome contestant-to-influencer pipeline, and viewers who have simply moved on from the show’s arguably outmoded views on romantic love.
For over 20 years, viewers have watched season after season of The Bachelor, where a leading man (or leading lady, in its gender-flipped spin-off The Bachelorette) dates 20 to 25 women simultaneously, eliminating hopeful paramours each week, until he comes down to the final two, ultimately choosing one to be his one true love—and more often than not, his wife. The franchise made pop-culture history by gamifying the search for a long-term relationship and romanticizing a specific idea of true love: hetero, Christian, monogamous, and focused on marriage as a goal.
Along the way, it also became notorious for the cheesy, outrageous, and sometimes even cringe antics of its attractive 20- and 30-something cast members, whose booze-filled interpersonal drama provided much of the show’s entertainment as they vied for the affection of the bachelor. It’s a formula that made relative stars of its contestants, both the couples and memorable single ladies, providing niche fame, especially in the social media era, and helping to create the now-common phrase, “here for the right reasons,” which is used to question a contestant’s motivation for being on the show.
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With The Golden Bachelor, the Bachelor franchise had the rare opportunity to flip the script in a new way, if they could swing it. Their cast seemed less likely to be seeking influencer fame. The contestants were probably less attuned to creating viral moments born out of drunken drama and petty fights, by virtue of maturity and lives lived comparatively offline. And the goal of the show had the potential to be more complex. While a dating show centered around the romantic endeavors of young adults often focuses on the goal of marriage and settling down, a show about senior citizens looking for love could highlight how desires evolve throughout life, offering a look at what someone might want after having one or more marriages and kids. What the show delivered, however, was an aged-up version of their tried-and-true formula.
The “Golden Bachelor” is one Gerry Turner, a sweet and dapper 72-year-old widower with the conventional good looks required to be a Bachelor heartthrob, and the prerequisite tragic backstory that’s become a Bachelor signature. Turner was married to his high-school sweetheart, Toni, for 43 years, before losing her to an unexpected bacterial infection, just weeks after they had retired and moved to their dream lake house. Now, six years later, he’s open to giving love another shot—and begins his journey by meeting the 22 Golden Bachelor contestants. The arrivals of the contestants may be the most glaring proof that the Bachelor franchise has no intention of subverting its conventions with the show; like their youthful predecessors, the contestants put on a campy show, arriving in glamorous gowns and outlandish costumes, pulling stunts like riding in on a motorcycle in an attempt to keep Turner’s attention and capture the first impression rose.
While the backstories shared about the contestants gave some meaningful context about the fuller lives they have lived, the show proved much more obsessed with the tensions already rising in the Bachelor mansion. Like all other iterations of The Bachelor, the women fret and squabble over their time with Turner, with one cutting in on another’s session with him. The edit also seems more concerned with salacious moments than it is with true connection, with plenty of screen time given to Turner’s passionate makeouts with not just one, but two women on the first night and the diva-like antics of a contestant who seems destined to be this season’s villain.
It’s refreshing to see physical affection between older folks, something not usually shown on primetime, much less dating shows. And senior citizens are just as entitled to be divas or have conflicts as their younger counterparts. But the show seems (so far, at least) unconcerned with accounting for the years of life experience that their cast has or exploring how that could affect the way they look for love at this stage in their lives. While the preview of the rest of the season shows a make-out in a hot tub and many, many tears shed in future episodes, it would be far more interesting to see the show engage with the cast’s age and experience. Imagine a Golden Bachelor that seriously grappled with the question of whether a previous marriage changes what you look for in a partner in your golden years or if physical intimacy is as important later in life. Does the lack of young children and parenting concerns make a relationship less fraught, or do grown adult children complicate matters of the heart further?
While The Golden Bachelor’s lack of innovation may have disappointed fans looking for some welcome change to the franchise, it didn’t show up in the viewership. According to early data from Nielsen, the premiere drew 4.09 million viewers, 38% more viewers than the most recent premiere of The Bachelor. Whether or not it can hold those numbers remains to be seen—as does the possibility that later episodes go deeper into more nuanced conversations about what it means to date and fall in love in your 60s or 70s. But if there’s anything the franchise has taught us, it’s that first impressions matter. Judging from its premiere, it appears that the Golden Bachelor is still The Bachelor, the same old story with a few more wrinkles.
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