Although production of The Bachelorette shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, franchise fans still had plenty to chew on. From a crowdsourced anti-racism campaign to the (long-overdue) casting of the first Black male lead in its 18-year, 40-season history, the Bachelor universe has been making news even without producing new content. But according to a recent report from Variety, there will soon be more for viewers to sink their teeth into, namely Clare Crawley’s season of The Bachelorette, reportedly the first major show in the United States to head back into production. Warner Horizon Unscripted confirmed to Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister that the studio is preparing to begin production on The Bachelorette soon, and that the cast will begin traveling to an isolated location for the duration of production, with temperature checks and COVID tests a regular part of the routine. With cases rising across the U.S., the idea of shooting a reality show built around physical intimacy raises a lot of concerns. But the unique nature of a quarantined season might also present the best chance at forging a real romance in years.
At first glance, the Bachelor franchise seems like a perfect candidate for the brave new world of pandemic filming. Reality television in isolation has a long and storied past. Such venerated precedents as Survivor and Big Brother, and more recent entries like Love Is Blind and The Circle, have proven that jet-setting isn’t a prerequisite for watchable romance. The Bachelor franchise has already had a consummate semi-quarantined hit in Bachelor in Paradise, where co-ed castoffs from former seasons get drunk and fall in love on a Mexican beach. Still, while producers suggested to Wagmeister that it’s easier for the flagship franchise to resume production since filming doesn’t have to take place on a soundstage, a former Bachelor producer told me that the isolation of the new, undisclosed location makes little difference. “They are doing their damnedest to ensure a healthy environment by keeping staff and crew on that location, but the reality is they can’t control the people who work at that location,” said Jason Carbone, a former director and co–executive producer who worked on the show in its earliest seasons. “If they’re in a resort, the people that work at that resort are going to be coming and going. The people in the kitchen are going to be coming and going, the maid service is going to be coming and going.”
Questions of whether Chris Harrison will be personally holding employees of a remote Southern Californian resort hostage aside, a Bachelor in Quarantine will be a fundamentally different show then we’re used to seeing. Historically, by week four, the lead and his gaggle of prospects have abandoned the Bachelor mansion for such exotic locations as Cleveland, and the traditional hometown dates present one of the most important opportunities for drama. Last season the most cringeworthy (and clearly produced) confrontation came when Bachelor Peter Weber was pulled aside in Virginia Beach by a friend who insinuated that one of his finalists had made a habit of sleeping with married men. According to Carbone, moments like that will require even more engineering than they already did. “If you know that of these six individuals, at least three will be going on hometown dates, you’ll begin to plan those hometown dates two to three weeks ahead of time,” he explained. “If there is someone from that hometown that the Bachelor franchise feels will be good TV, they will say to that person, ‘Hey can you come to this location? We’ll isolate you for two weeks to make sure you’re healthy,’ and they’ll be ready for the drama.”
It presents a tough balance to strike for a show whose producer manipulation has become more and more obvious over time, much to the consternation of fans who expect a finely tuned balance between artifice and recognizable emotional stakes. Recent seasons have trended toward the former, to the detriment of the core tenets of the show. The long-term success rate for the relationships produced by the franchise has always been abysmally low, but the fact that the past three leads have all left sans engagement speaks to a need for a fundamental overhaul of the system. The relative youth of the contestants along with the increasingly lucrative reality-television-star-to-Instagram-influencer pipeline has made it increasingly implausible that anyone from the last few seasons is actually on the show for the purpose of finding a life partner. As the oldest lead in the franchise’s history, Clare Crawley was supposed to change that. Now that the distraction (and allure) of traveling has largely been removed and many of her contestants have been recast—in her original group of suitors, 23 of the 32 were in their 20s—Carbone thinks that she might actually have a better chance of being surrounded by men who are there for the right reasons, rather than to score a free vacation and a DIFF Eyewear sponsorship. “For the first time in years, you have the best opportunity at success on The Bachelorette, simply because the only thing they’ll be able to work on and think about and do is this relationship.”
But still, this golden opportunity to re-inject some of the candor that made the show enjoyable in the first place doesn’t matter if the producers continue to overinvolve themselves, and the lure of a coronavirus plotline seems impossible to resist. It’s well established that Bachelor producers rarely have the contestants’ best interest at heart—and former participants have been increasingly vocal about the ways in which they were thrown under the bus for manufactured storylines. Producer meddling was already hard to stomach in seasons like the one focused on Rachel Lindsay, who was the first Black lead, and whose storyline included producers’ hiding a contestant’s anti-Black racism from her. Now that there’s even more at stake, Carbone seems skeptical as to how the producers will handle the lives they hold in their hands. “The show certainly has a history of not acting in its participants’ best interest, so how do you now expect the television show to convince others that they are now working in their best health interest? If the show producers have the opportunity to create drama, what do you think they’re going to do?”