August 4, 2022 8:26 AM EDT

If fans of The Bachelor know one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected. But it hasn’t always been that way.

For most of its two decades on air, The Bachelor—the problematic yet extremely popular reality TV dating show—followed an unwavering formula. Over the course of several weeks, a single man in search of his future wife dated a group of women, trimming down his prospects through frequent rose-ceremony eliminations. There were certain guarantees: drama would ensue as the (generally bland, conventionally attractive, and virtually always white) bachelor attempted to find a fiancé. The women would fight over intentions—who had the right ones, and who had ulterior motives for being on the show—and the bachelor would agonize over the Most Important Decision of His Life. He’d take a fortunate few on one-on-one dates where he’d hold their hands over uneaten plates of pasta and listen to them share the biggest traumas they’d endured in life. And by the season’s end, the bachelor would have only two contenders remaining. One he’d send home. The other would get the final rose and, in most cases, a gratuitously blingy ring. And they’d live happily ever after (or at least until after the reunion special).

That’s how it used to be. But since 2018, it’s been anyone’s guess how each season will end. The start of each season has looked much the same, but the five most recent bachelors have all seen their prospects implode before the day when they’re meant to propose, elected to try dating instead of getting engaged, or proposed and immediately broken up. And this pattern of chaos all started with Arie Luyendyk Jr.

A runner-up from six years prior—eons for a series that’s built on casting its next bachelor from among the latest bachelorette’s rejects, and vice versa—Luyendyk, a 36-year-old race-car driver, was an unexpected and somewhat obscure choice. His season was largely forgettable, with most of the narrative tension surrounding a contestant who spoke in a performative whisper and irked the rest of the cast. But Luyendyk made Bachelor history when, in the season 22 finale, he proposed to publicist Becca Kufrin, only to later break up with her in a brutal yet riveting moment that ABC claimed was “the first completely unedited scene in reality television history.” (In a 2018 interview for GQ, Luyendyk claimed the scene was indeed edited, and done so in a way that was “super unfair” to him; ABC executive Rob Mills and Mike Darnell, president of Warner Bros. Unscripted Television, declined TIME’s requests for comment.)

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In the scene, Luyendyk says in a voiceover that he has decided to call off the engagement. He and Kufrin are still hiding their relationship from the public, so production has arranged for him to meet with Kufrin in a house. Luyendyk walks in and asks Kufrin if they can talk. His fiancé immediately recognizes that something is off and quietly says, “You’re making me really nervous right now.” The scene moves into a split-screen, centering each of their faces in its own frame as Luyendyk reveals that he still has feelings for his runner-up, Lauren Burnham. In real time, The Bachelor shows Kufrin as she processes what she’s hearing, with a camera visible in the mirror behind her and Luyendyk’s heads. For a hyper-polished show, known for its expertly hidden cameras and slick editing of awkward moments, this Bachelor scene was markedly different. Suddenly, the show was smashing through its carefully guarded fourth wall.

When the episode aired in the spring of 2018, viewers erupted online over Kufrin being filmed in such a vulnerable moment. Former Bachelorette JoJo Fletcher tweeted: “STOP. FILMING. HER.” The Bachelorette season 7 winner J.P. Rosenbaum wrote: “This. Is. F*CKED. Up.” And former Bachelor Sean Lowe said: “I don’t like this one bit. Shouldn’t have filmed.” (Kufrin and Luyendyk did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment.)

It was not the first time a bachelor had changed his mind after proposing—Jason Mesnick, of season 13, had also broken up with his fiancé in favor of his runner-up, and plenty of others had ended their relationships off-screen—but this moment marked a lasting shift. When it came to defining what a Bachelor ending could be, and to delineating the show’s willingness to reveal the seams of its own construction, Luyendyk and Kufrin’s breakup changed everything.


A longstanding Bachelor cliche is the claim, made countless times over the years by original host Chris Harrison (who left the show in 2020 amid a racism controversy), that each season’s ending will be the “one of the most dramatic yet.” Since Luyendyk’s finale, that has arguably been true.

In 2019, retired football player Colton Underwood was dumped by speech-pathology student Cassie Randolph, his top choice, when he had three women left. Instead of pressing on with the show, he literally ran away from the production—jumping over a fence and hiding in the streets of Portugal, with crew members shown searching a darkened road for their lost star—before breaking up with the remaining two women. He ultimately left in a “committed relationship” with Randolph. (Underwood’s story continued in the tabloids and on the news: Randolph filed a restraining order against him after they split in 2020, and the following year he revealed that he is gay in an interview with Robin Roberts.)

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In 2020, airline pilot Peter Weber proposed to model Hannah Ann Sluss, only to reveal in the finale that they had ended their engagement shortly after, with Weber—at the televised encouragement of Harrison—pursuing another woman from his season.

In 2021, real-estate broker Matt James, the series’ first Black bachelor, did not propose to anyone, but started a relationship with Rachael Kirkconnell, who came under intense scrutiny while the season was airing for racially insensitive social media posts from 2018. The controversy led to a deeply unsettling After the Final Rose reunion special in which the show brought in an outsider—Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man author Emmanuel Acho—to facilitate discussions between James, Kirkconnell, and other members of the cast about race and the handling of Kirkconnell’s actions.

And just this year, the final scene from the filming of former football player Clayton Echard’s season featured him standing alone in the rain in Iceland, having rejected—or been rejected by—all his prospects. Echard had taken his final three women on a tumultuous journey of false hope and miscommunication. The last climactic episodes of the season included a “rose ceremony from hell” in which two contestants, Gabby Windey and Rachel Recchia, learned the bachelor was in love with both of them, as well as another woman. The show didn’t even try to hide the chaos on set as Windey and Recchia broke down, producers intervened, and videographers hustled to capture the action. The drama only continued from there, after Echard urged them both to stick around, then dumped them at the same time. (In true Bachelor fashion, the wounded Windey and Recchia are now serving as the first-ever Bachelorette duo.)

For The Bachelor, these days, there’s no ceiling on the drama. And it’s not just about what happens in front of the cameras. The creators of the show seem to understand that, after so many years of predictable yet unbelievable fairytale endings, the secret that Bachelor fans most want uncovered is not the identity of any given season’s winner—but instead what goes on behind the scenes.

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