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ABC accidentally made the best version of The Bachelor this summer

The Greatest Seasons — Ever is the best way to watch the franchise

chris harrison talks to Bachelor Ben Higgins about his season on The Greatest Seasons — Ever Image: ABC

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced broadcast networks to get creative. At the beginning of the state lockdowns, many networks filled their 24/7 schedules with reruns, old movies, or series premieres originally set for the summer. But with waning supplies of shows and no end to the pandemic in sight, producers have resorted to quarantine-friendly ways to shoot new content. Some are scripted specials, like the Parks & Recreation reunion and Freeform’s upcoming Love in the Time of Corona, but the hurdle has been easier to jump for unscripted shows, which don’t have to justify why their stars are calling in from home.

Much of the at-home reality programming mimics pre-pandemic TV. American Idol contestants perform from their homes without the adrenaline-fueling energy of a live audience. A lot of it just feels disposable, like CBS’s one-night special dedicated to at-home hairstyling hosted by celebrity couple Rebecca Romijn and Jerry O’Connell. (Stephen Colbert’s audience-less Late Show monologue, however, was sublime.)

But ABC’s new spin on The Bachelor, a retrospective on past seasons dubbed The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever, is more than an acceptable placeholder for a delayed season of The Bachelorette. Filmed from host Chris Harrison’s house with Harrison’s 18-year-old son filling in as cameraman. Each week, Harrison walks viewers through one season of the franchise (with the exception of episode 5, which tackles the first season of both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette). Harrison introduces clips from the season, sometimes interjecting with his own memories. He also catches up with some of the stars over Zoom to talk about their experiences on the show. Not only is The Greatest Seasons — Ever a blast of joy during dark times, it’s also the ideal format for watching the show.

Jason Mesnick cries over a balcony
Jason Mesnick’s iconic balcony cry/me when I learned The Bachelorette was postponed
Photo: ABC

Personally, the postponement of this year’s Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise seasons was one of the biggest blows of the larger TV shakeup. I love reality dating shows, and The Bachelor franchise is the OG. (It’s been running for 18 years, with several spin-offs and international editions.) I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but I do find myself defending my affection for The Bachelor far more than any other media I consume. There are certainly valid criticisms to be made — the format is heteronormative by design and producers have handled racism and sexual assault on the show quite poorly — but most of the family and friends who scoff at my enjoyment of the franchise just have a vague sense that it’s trashy.

The Bachelor is trashy, full of over-the-top drama, mascara-streaming-down-faces breakdowns and awkward declarations of love. But to quote Marie Kondo, “I love mess.” It’s fascinating to watch beautiful people try to figure out how to make the Bachelor or Bachelorette (not to mention the audience watching at home) like them, and it’s either funny or devastating — sometimes both! — to see their attempts go horribly awry. One of the best “villains” of the franchise, Olivia, clearly thought she was the front-runner to win Bachelor Ben Higgins’ final rose. Her shock when Ben sent her home was heartbreaking and cathartic and hilarious all at once.

Moments like that are what keep me coming back to The Bachelor franchise, but it’s hard to recommend the show to people who aren’t already fans. For one thing, the new Bachelor or Bachelorette is usually a former contestant from a previous season, so it’s hard to come in as a new viewer without any context as to what this person’s deal is. It’s taken as a given that you know them and like them already. But by far the biggest hurdle to loving the Bachelor is how much filler a regular season contains.

Kaitlyn and Britt greet a contestant
Yes, one season had two Bachelorettes.
Photo: ABC

Every new season of The Bachelor franchise brings on a wave of excitement followed by the realization that so much of it is going to be a bore. A season of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is 12 episodes, which is far too long to sustain interesting storylines. The real juicy stuff comes later, when people actually start getting their hearts broken as the Bachelor/Bachelorette has to make some hard decisions about eliminating contestants they have genuine feelings for. But until we get there, we’re stuck with a bunch of episodes rehashing bland interpersonal arguments between the contestants. It’s often the same three or four beats: someone is there “for the wrong reasons”, someone is taking too much of the Bachelor/Bachelorette’s time, etc. The emotional highs and lows are worth getting through the slog, but someone who isn’t familiar with the format might bounce off before they get there.

By condensing a single season into a three-hour special, The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever producers trim away all of the expository padding. We’re left with just the stuff that’s interesting to watch: the breakups, the drama, the hurt feelings, and the “win” (read: a proposal). Those emotional beats still land without the filler — it doesn’t feel like a highlight reel, it feels like a streamlined version of the show. As a fan of the series, I wondered if The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever would leave out any important details from my favorite seasons. Having watched every episode so far (including the one recapping what I consider to be the best season of the franchise, the aforementioned Ben Higgins’ run as The Bachelor) I can confidently say that it doesn’t skip any major plot points.

Ben Higgins stands in front of the 25 women tasked with wooing him
Ben Higgins and the 25 women tasked with wooing him
Photo: ABC

Ben Higgins was really good at being The Bachelor. He was charmingly self-deprecating on camera, and he seemed like a genuinely nice guy looking for love. He expertly handled the inevitable drama, letting each woman explain how she was feeling no matter how ridiculous the conflict. (One contestant, Lace, was angry at Ben because she thought he didn’t make enough eye contact with her.) He even stepped in when a group of women started bullying another contestant, Jubilee. Ben seemed like such a natural that it came as a huge shock when he broke one of the series’ most important unspoken rules — he said “I love you” to both of the final two women, JoJo Fletcher and Lauren Bushnell.

That bombshell made the finale of Ben’s season of The Bachelor fascinating to watch, as both women had every reason to believe that Ben would propose to her. (He eventually proposed to Lauren, but they’ve since broken up.) The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever dedicates the second half of Ben’s episode to that big twist, bringing Ben on via Zoom to explain himself and allowing JoJo and Lauren to lay out how they were feeling. (JoJo would go on to become The Bachelorette, and is engaged to her season’s winner, former pro football player Jordan Rodgers, so she doesn’t have too many hard feelings.)

The first half of the episode still hits the rest of the major beats from Ben’s season. The Bachelor franchise has the tendency to drag out conflict for as long as possible, which can make even compelling storylines turn stale. It’s refreshing to watch Olivia’s full arc, from getting Ben’s first impression rose to getting broken up with and left on an island, play out in just a few minutes rather than over the course of several episodes. The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever even had time for the fun, silly moments, like when Ice Cube and Kevin Hart tagged along on a date to promote their movie Ride Along. In paring down 24 hours of content to just three, there are surely some storylines that got cut, but crucially, they’re not ones that I remember, so they can’t have been very interesting or important. Instead, The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever got to the heart of what made Ben’s season work, and presented it in a nice, easy-to-consume package.

Catherine greets Sean outside the Bachelor mansion
Sean is the only Bachelor to still be married to his season’s winner (there have been 23 Bachelors)
Photo: ABC

In throwing together The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever in the midst of quarantine, ABC has perhaps accidentally created the ideal format for the franchise’s drama. I’m torn, though, on recommending it as a total replacement for The Bachelor experience. Part of the fun of being a Bachelor fan is in complaining about it. It’s a bit like living in a big city or being an older sibling — in my case, I love to complain about New York and my little sister, but it’s only because I love them so much. I’ve never formed a more instantaneous bond with someone than when I meet another fan who’s annoyed by the same things I am.

So yes, The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever is the ideal format for watching people try to fall in love in a compressed courtship. I wholeheartedly recommend it if you’re a fan jonesing for Bachelor content, but even more so if you’ve ever been Bachelor-curious — with the caveat that, even though it’s the best experience of watching the show, it’s not the full experience. You won’t get that until you’ve screamed at your TV that you’re tired of the Taylor vs. Corinne “emotional intelligence” storyline and you wish producers would just send them on a two-on-one already.

The five most recent episodes of The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever are streaming on Hulu.