The Bachelor has, for 27 seasons (plus 20 more of The Bachelorette) maintained a consistent formula: an eminently eligible single courts contestants in their 20s and 30s with storybook intentions, ginned-up drama and, more recently, a Christian overtone. The participants are all wrinkle-free, buffed and energetically scampering the steps to heteronormative bliss – first date, first kiss, follow-up destination date, hometown visit, engagement. (And then supposedly marriage and children, though that almost never happens.)
The Bachelor is a conservative behemoth in a crowded dating show field that has a common demographic: young people, usually telegenic and attractive, looking for anything from sex (Too Hot to Handle, Love Island) to companionship (Love is Blind, Are You the One?) to fame (all of the above). The Golden Bachelor, the ABC franchise’s latest spinoff, thus offers a too-rare opportunity. The new bachelor, Gerry Turner, is, naturally, sun-kissed and handsome, with ice-blue eyes and a crinkly smile. He’s also 71 years old, a widower courting women aged 60 to 75 who mostly look the part (though there are a lot of blonde highlights).
The Golden Bachelor, which premiered on Thursday evening, is sanguine and starry-eyed about its representation of dating in the senior years, with participants who have already lived full lives and aren’t primed to build a TikTok following. Many times throughout its hour-long season premiere, either Turner or his suitors list positive representation in our vigorously ageist pop culture as a statement of purpose. “People my age still fall in love,” he told the New York Times. “People my age still have hope, and they still have vigorous lives.” The contestants range from a fitness instructor to several teachers to a “pro-ageing coach and midlife speaker”. Almost everyone mentions children or grandchildren, and deceased or divorced former spouses. Turner, who jokes about not knowing what “rizz” is, more than once notes the women’s “poise”. The episode opens with his preparation for the first limo night, and lingers on his hearing aids on the counter.
It’s still The Bachelor, though, canned and manipulative – the hearing aids cut to Turner’s tear-filled recollection of his 43 years with his late wife and high-school sweetheart, Toni, set to a very on-the-nose Fire and Rain by James Taylor. No one, he says, will ever replace Toni, who died in 2017 after a sudden illness, days after they moved into their dream retirement lakehouse. But now he, like many a bachelor before him, is looking for a companion.
As are the 22 women who appear in the first episode, each of whom have a story of their own, though most are barely relayed. Such is the great missed opportunity of the episode – unlike normal Bachelor seasons, each of the contestants have plenty of heartache, disappointment and joy to their name, full lives already under their belt. But we only get to hear a tiny fraction of it, in tantalizing drops – how Ellen, 71, went on the show because her best friend of several decades, a fellow Bachelor Nation member, was battling cancer; how Theresa, 69, was bouncing back after losing her own spouse; how Leslie, still a dancer at 64, once dated Prince.
Instead, the majority of the episode is cut for platitudes about “butterflies”, some semblance of drama out of a remarkably uncatty crowd, and indications that there’s no age limit to double entendres (“I’m very comfortable with six inches,” one contestant says of her heels). The women spend a lot of time noting Turner’s assets in a scarce marketplace. As Natascha puts it: “Gary is in great shape. I’m not going to need to resuscitate him if we have an intimate moment.”
A case could be made that it’s a win to see the show’s standard tone – eager, artificial, saccharine, sometimes juvenile – applied to people on social security. It says a lot about our culture that it’s genuinely startling to see two 70-year-olds make out. The Golden Bachelor is treading in relatively sparse but fertile territory; the success of the UK’s The Romance Retreat, which requires contestants to be single parents of adult children, and the elderly couples on First Dates suggests there’s plenty of interest in seeing people fall in love later in life. (We won’t get into Milf Manor, a much queasier dating show about single 40-60-year-old mothers dating each other’s sons that aired on TLC this year.)
But the show risks squandering the maturity and perspective that is its new greatest asset. A good portion of the premiere observes some of the women jockeying for Turner’s attention, as usual; the golden bachelor seems more distressed than his predecessors at the prospect of trimming the herd, but the episode nonetheless hinges on the standard rose ceremony, featuring some women we don’t even meet. Worse, the subsequent season promo suggests a level of drama and theatrics at odds with Turner’s ethos of organic chemistry or his main concern, as he told the New York Times, that the loss of his wife would be milked for drama, tragedy or views. “I wanted to make sure that the story of my wife’s passing was told in a kind and sensitive way, and never sensationalized,” he said. “I really didn’t want to tell that story over and over. I wanted it to be out there for people to know, but I also wanted to move on.”
Still, it’s a fascinating watch, if only for witnessing dozens of people usually so ignored by the scripts and tropes of dating TV try it out for themselves, for better and for worse. It’s a phase of life we still don’t see enough, with enough intrigue to merit at least one more rose.