It’s hardly unusual to have an underwhelming Bachelor season. In earlier years, when the Bachelor was an unfamiliar personality without much TV-tested experience, it was pretty common to run into a dull Bachelor slog (e.g. Andrew Firestone, season three). And among Bachelors of more recent memory, there’ve been some snoozy seasons. Chris Soules was helped along by some juice from his previous Bachelorette appearance, but was a wet blanket on his own merits. Ben Higgins, bless him, was obliging enough to tell two women he loved them near the end, but until that point was too easygoing to make much of a splash.
Even by those standards, though, this season of The Bachelor has distinguished itself. The only interesting stories are such hoary Bachelor tropes that they’re usually the stuff of background buzz: Krystal feels she has a better relationship with Arie than the rest of the women, and pouts whenever he spends time with someone else (that is, whenever he fulfills the role of being the Bachelor). Bekah is 22, which leads Arie, 36, to wonder if she’s really ready to settle down.
Chelsea’s a single mother and worries that Arie won’t see her as her own person.
And… that’s it, really. That’s all that’s happened so far, five episodes into the season. Because the real problem with season 22 of The Bachelor is not the women, most of whom are doing their level best to meet the basic Bachelor contestant job requirements. The issue is that Arie Luyendyk Jr. has less charisma than one of his beloved antique cars in an auto museum. Like Arie, those antique cars are mostly inert. But at least they feel unusual. They’re conversation pieces. Arie, meanwhile, may be perfectly nice in life, but as a Bachelor, he’s about as remarkable as a Kia Sorento. He’s functional. He gets the J.D. Powers award for “highest in initial quality,” which is what you say about something you don’t actually want to have to live with for any length of time. And he’s being given the most boring Bachelor edit imaginable.
It may well not be a coincidence that this season is so monotonous. Rachel Lindsay, the Bachelorette who preceded Arie’s milquetoast run, was one of the most interesting, charismatic leads in Bachelor history. Funny, intelligent, and willing to stand up for herself, Rachel was also the first black lead in the franchise’s history. And yet, ratings for Rachel’s season dropped precipitously, something series creator Mike Fleiss has described as “incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish sort of way.” Some of that may have been the fault of the show’s producers, who stocked Rachel’s pool of potential men with at least one racist straw man and then orchestrated matchups between him and some of the black suitors. But some of it may also have been what Fleiss dances around when he says that poor ratings for Lindsay’s season “revealed something about our fans.” (The Bachelor audience is at least a little racist, is what he means.)
So Rachel’s Bachelorette season significantly underperformed its ratings expectations, possibly because its lead was a black woman and the producers made black suitors grapple with a gleeful racist in one-on-one dates. Then, the usually fun free-for-all of Bachelor in Paradise became a dramatic, confusing disaster as production was shut down to investigate potential sexual misconduct between two cast members. Filming later resumed after the production company’s private investigation concluded there was no merit to the accusations, but the Bachelor in Paradise season became a messy Frankenstein of goofy beach hookups and catastrophic attempts to have a serious consideration of issues surrounding sex, alcohol, and consent. It was a rough summer for Bachelor Nation.
In that light, it’s not hard to see the appeal of Arie, a mild-mannered lunk who blends into the background of almost any shot he’s in, something you wouldn’t think possible as the only man in a roomful of women, but there it is. Nor is it hard to see the attraction in producing a season that leans back on what you could call the Bachelor Classic model of reality TV: many nearly indistinguishable women, nothing especially scandalous or threatening, and an extra coating of fairy-tale veneer over the rough bumps of real-world romance. There’s a villain, Krystal, who looks and behaves like a self-centered child and who archly declares, “I’m wife material!” There’s a weirdo, Kendall, who carries taxidermied animals with her, and who mentioned offhandedly that if she were among a tribe of people who believe in cannibalism, she would absolutely consider trying some human meat. There are a few women of color, who’ve gotten very little screen time, no major narratives, and who are being quickly eliminated from the contestant pool. And at the center of it is Arie, who expressed as much enthusiasm for a boat with a very large motor as he did for the woman he was out with on a date. Arie, who saw an alligator and was reminded that, yes, “love can be scary.” Boring, blue-eyed Arie.
And by at least one important measure, the dullness seems to be working: Arie’s season of The Bachelor did not do well in the premiere, and it’s still down in comparison with Nick Viall’s previous Bachelor season, but subsequent episodes have done much better and are continuing to build. Maybe, after the gross chaos of Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor Nation wanted to come back to something comforting and utterly bland. Maybe because Rachel Lindsay’s season failed for viewers excited about Lindsay’s role (by using race as a lever to create drama), and because it also failed for those unwilling to watch a black lead, Arie’s return to the status quo is just what the franchise was aiming for.
If that’s the case, it’s both depressing and discouraging. Fleiss has said he’s “raring” to cast another nonwhite lead. But Arie’s season demonstrates neither a willingness to experiment with updating the franchise, nor a clear vision of how to incorporate nonwhite voices on the show. Plus, it doubles down on The Bachelor’s infuriatingly blinkered view of what makes for good TV. On this week’s episode, Kendall actually said she would be willing to eat human meat, and yet that was barely given a few seconds before the episode cut back to endless footage of Krystal, sulking about how Arie wasn’t giving her enough attention.
Arie Luyendyk Jr. may be one of the most boring Bachelors in the history of the franchise, and that may be on purpose. But if The Bachelor is attempting to make itself great again by pivoting backwards, the franchise may finally be on its last legs. Comforting dullness might work for a while, but at some point it may become so predictable and so unexciting, with such cookie-cutter contestants and uninspiring leads, that Bachelor Nation will finally tune out. Or just fall asleep.
See also: The Bachelor Recap: Krystal Klear