There are obvious metaphors, and then there’s Colton Underwood standing shirtless in a pair of angel wings, rainbow flag slung over his shoulders like a cape.
In Netflix’s Coming Out Colton, the former Bachelor attempts to move on from a tumultuous 2020 in which his ex-girlfriend Cassie Randolph received a temporary restraining order against him. Underwood came out as gay months after the incident; in an interview with Variety this spring, he claimed he’d been blackmailed into doing so. The streaming series observes Underwood sharing his sexuality with his family and the world. As hard as this production works to telegraph sincerity, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling that none of this is being done “for the right reasons.”
As cynical observers might have expected, this docuseries (best read with forceful air-quotes) frames last year’s upheaval as a dark spot on Underwood’s road to coming out. “I’m trying to do right by a community that I’ve run from,” Underwood says. But if the argument for Coming Out Colton’s existence is its potential evangelical power—the chance that it might teach straight Bachelor gossip-hounds or football fans about the gays and our history—perhaps we should have waited for him to finish the readings before streaming the trailer for his book report.
For those who don’t keep track of the comings and goings of Bachelor Nation: Underwood, a former professional football player from Indiana, competed on Becca Kufrin’s 2018 season of The Bachelorette. The then-26-year-old had previously dated Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, and after a sour turn on Bachelor in Paradise he earned something of a reputation in Bachelor Nation as a fame-seeking player. Cue his Bachelor season in 2019, which branded Underwood the “virgin Bachelor”—a season-long nod to his revelation in Kufrin’s season that he’d never had sex. The journey culminated in a widely teased Most Dramatic Moment Ever™ in which Underwood jumped a fence, all for the love of California native Cassie Randolph.
That Underwood and Randolph never made it down the aisle is hardly a surprise—The Bachelor isn’t exactly known for its marital success rate. But Randolph’s request for a restraining order alleged that Underwood had sent her and himself frightening text messages from a private number pretending to be a stalker, that he’d begun taking obsessive walks by her house and placed a tracking device in her car, that he’d lurked outside the window of her bedroom at her parents’ house at 2 a.m. Months later, Randolph dropped the request and Underwood shared a statement that said they’d reached a private agreement. “I do not believe Cassie did anything wrong in filing for the restraining orders and also believe she acted in good faith,” he wrote. “I appreciate everyone’s respect for privacy regarding this matter.”
Underwood came out as gay this April with a gentle, splashy interview on Good Morning America, and reports soon emerged that Netflix was working on a series about him. As it turns out, Coming Out Colton was already underway by the time its subject appeared on GMA. Perhaps that’s what Roberts meant when she told her fellow anchors that Underwood “has really taken the time.” The question remains: to do what?
Like many vanity projects before it (HBO Max’s Wahl Street, that god-awful Peacock Ryan Lochte show) Coming Out Colton hews too closely to its subject to establish critical insight. Each of the six episodes focuses on one theme: “Family,” “Football,” “Friends,” “Church,” “The Public, ” and “Past & Future.” Somber music and carefully-shot interviews might evoke the look of a documentary, but there’s little substance to be found. Instead we observe familiar story beats—all organized to paint Underwood as the harmless, nonspecific stand-in for closeted youth everywhere, especially those who happen to be white Christians. Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy, Underwood’s friend and “gay guide” (a title that quickly disappeared due to social media mockery), compares him to a golden retriever puppy.
So, what does Colton’s journey into the queer community look like? It’s Gus taking our boy Colton to a sex shop to try on harnesses and ask such incisive questions as, “What’s cis mean?” (It’s here that the aforementioned shirtless-angel moment transpired.) It’s Colton “learning” that gay people can like country music by chilling on a party bus with CMT personality Cody Alan. It’s Colton talking to a Black trans priest about how to forgive himself for the damage he caused before coming out. (“Legally I can’t talk about it,” he says in reference to the Randolph incident, “and the only person I have to blame is myself.”) And it’s lots of awkward conversations with relatives who shockingly don’t know what to say when seemingly ambushed with a full camera crew. I stared in awe as Underwood paid a visit to the The Stonewall Inn, where he reflected on gay rights activists’ fight for his right to appear on Good Morning America and say “Hey, I’m gay” and learned that up until very recently, you could be fired for being gay. If this triumph of educational programming doesn’t make you want to jump on a float waving a rainbow flag and screaming yas, gay rights! at the top of your lungs, I can’t imagine what else would.
“I just want to do my homework now,” Underwood says—inviting us, for the briefest moment, to imagine what this series might have looked like if he had anything to say about his sexuality beyond pointing it out over and over again.
It’s not that Underwood’s story has no value. Given the anti-gay sentiment that continues to pervade most locker rooms, plenty of young, closeted football players might see themselves in Underwood. The “Church” episode also seems bound to resonate with plenty of young Christians who remain closeted to avoid being ostracized as a “sinners.” But Underwood’s relationship with these institutions is essentially the show’s—so while a more objective storyteller might have found an interesting vantage point, the series mostly just hits all the expected beats.
Mostly, however, it’s impossible to shake the impression that all of this is part of a broader publicity campaign designed to relegate what happened with Randolph to the past and protect Underwood’s place in the spotlight.
Underwood never denies any of the allegations made against him. At one point he meets with mutual friends of his and Cassie’s—one of whom tells him that regardless of what he was going through as he came to terms with his sexuality, “What you fucking put her through was bullshit.” The alleged stalking, Underwood repeatedly says, was a desperate grasp for control; Randolph was the woman he thought would either turn him straight or prove he was gay once and for all. He says he self-medicated with Xanax and that at one point he took so many he thought he wouldn’t wake up. Reverend Nicole Garcia’s advice to him regarding how to move on from that? “The best thing you can do is work on you and face up to what you’ve done before you get in your next relationship, before you go in and fuck up somebody else’s life. Take responsibility for what you’ve done and then work on not doing it again.”
Coming Out Colton would like us to believe that it’s part of that work. But if the past few years of celebrity and corporate apologia have taught us anything, it’s that a proper “I’m sorry” should contain a few basic elements that are missing here. Underwood alleges he is legally barred from naming the specific actions that he’s supposedly “owning,” and although it’s entirely possible he made restitution to Cassie during their private interactions, that remains uncertain. Underwood says that they have not discussed the project and that he doubts he’ll hear from her after its release. A source close to Randolph did, however, provide a comment to Page Six: “Cassie really just wants to move past any drama having to do with Colton,” the source said. “She’s being roped back into all this Colton mess because of the Netflix show... There are a lot of bad memories associated with the end of their relationship and she wishes there was a way to completely separate herself from his narrative.”
Underwood, it seems, is ready for that separation as well. In the end, we find him staring out onto a placid lake, hat backwards, soundtracked by what captions describe as “gentle music.”
“I know that there are a lot of untold stories in the LGBTQ+ community,” Underwood says. “And I’m grateful to be able to add my story to the conversation, to push forward until stories like this, you know, don’t have to be told anymore.”
On that last part, at least, we definitely agree.