The Bachelor franchise operates from deep inside a vacuum—a hybrid dystopia/utopia in which aspiring personal trainers are marriage material and every skinny blond lady in the United States is a nurse practitioner. The problems arise when producers try to blur the lines between Bachelor-land and the real world, corralling their contestants into problematic and performative conversations about serious issues.
On the latest season of The Bachelorette, we witnessed the franchise attempt to tackle racism and race relations, with lackluster results that ranged from well-meaning but ineffectual to offensive and painful to watch. As vital as these conversations are, a 26-year-old startup recruiter named Dean is not going to help America unpack the invisible knapsack, and a black bachelorette isn’t going to push us into the post-racial era.
If anything, The Bachelorette’s season-long flirtation with “racial tension as a viable plot line” revealed the lengths to which producers would go to manufacture a little on-screen drama. If ABC felt comfortable milking racism for ratings, what else would it do?
The answer came unexpectedly this summer, when Bachelor in Paradise was suspended after only two days of shooting amid sexual-assault allegations. According to reports, the suspension came after a producer filed a complaint over a sexual encounter between contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. Olympios subsequently released a statement in which she described herself as a “victim,” explaining that, “Although I have little memory of that night, something bad obviously took place… As a woman, this is my worst nightmare and it has now become my reality. As I pursue the details and facts surrounding that night and the immediate days after, I have retained a group of professionals to ensure that what happened on June 4 comes to light and I can continue my life.”
The obvious implication was that Olympios may have been too intoxicated to give consent.
Despite speculation that Bachelor in Paradise may be canceled for good, the show quickly wrapped up its investigation, declared no wrongdoing, and shipped the contestants straight back to Sayulita. “The safety, security, and well-being of the cast and crew is our No. 1 concern, and we suspended filming so that the allegations could be investigated immediately and thoroughly,” Warner Bros. said in a June 20 statement. “Our internal investigation, conducted with the assistance of an outside law firm, has now been completed. Out of respect for the privacy interests of those involved, we do not intend to release the videotape of the incident. We can say, however, that the tape does not support any charge of misconduct by a cast member. Nor does the tape show, contrary to many press reports, that the safety of any cast member was ever in jeopardy. Production on this season of Bachelor in Paradise will be resuming, and we plan to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety and security of all participants.”
Those “certain changes” reportedly included a two drink per hour maximum—a policy that totally ignores both the average BMI of contestants on this show and the potential effect of drinking 24 Red Bulls in one day.
The Olympios-Jackson scandal quickly sucked the fun out of a show that encourages wannabe famous people to drink, fight, and sleep with each other for airtime, reminding us all that we are complicit in this semi-obligational orgy. A good guilty-pleasure show makes the viewer feel like they’re treating themselves to something frivolous and decadent—not aiding and abetting. Still, flouting all rules of common sense and basic decency, Bachelor in Paradise premiered this Monday, only slightly off-schedule and set on serving up its trademark cocktail of surf, sand, and sex (albeit, in moderation).
This did not go well.
The premiere opened on a desolate image of the Mexican beach set we’ve come to know and love—cabana abandoned, bar closed, nary a floral romper or six-pack in sight. Voiceover snippets from gossip reports crisscross; one ominously intones that, “There’s trouble in paradise.” Here to guide us through the cacophony is Chris Harrison, the last man in paradise. Addressing the camera, his only friend, Harrison begins to narrate the BIP controversy, noting that the production halt marked an extremely stressful time for the cast, the crew, and, most importantly, Chris Harrison. But before we get to the substance of the scandal, he insists, “Let’s start with everything that happened during the two and a half days of filming before we stopped production.” Because nothing says “we take sexual allegations very seriously” like urging viewers to stay tuned for all the rapey stuff that’s coming up after the commercial break.
Harrison promises that this season “will go down in Bachelor history as the most shocking and dramatic season ever.” But before we get into that, we apparently have to watch two full hours of regularly scheduled programming. We’re introduced to the cast and start to get a sense of the plot lines the producers would have been focusing on if two contestants hadn’t promptly had possibly non-consensual sex in the pool. It’s strange to sit through an entire “normal” premiere after the production-halt tease. Of course, Paradise is never really normal, and remains the best reality-TV source for incredible quotes and full-on absurdity. A contestant named Jack Stone feels the need to tell us that, “I am not a serial killer. I am a lawyer.” A girl who I do not remember but who apparently rode into Nick’s season on a camel insists that, “I’d rather be known as the girl who came in on a camel than not be known at all.” Under his name, where you’d usually see a contestant’s profession, Matt is simply described as “penguin.”
On Bachelor in Paradise all the male contestants have interchangeable names like Dean and Ben or Iggy and Diggy. Raven owns approximately infinite pairs of denim Daisy Dukes and Robby the social-media influencer might iron his hair. Like a Bachelor in Paradise contestant who willfully ignores all the red flags, I quickly felt myself falling back in love with this clinically insane franchise.
And then Corinne and DeMario showed up.
Corinne walks into paradise holding two Champagne flutes and promising “to make paradise Corinne again,” and I can’t even make a joke about how Corinne Olympios IS Tiffany Trump because I feel too sad for her. She also tells Chris Harrison that she’s single (which might not be true?) and that she’s “not gonna jump on the first guy that shows me a little bit of attention.” DeMario immediately expresses interest in Corinne (who, BTW, is wearing a nameplate necklace that says “Corn”), and their initial bond over the state of New Jersey quickly and unexpectedly turns romantic. After some intense back-rubbing and hair-braiding, Corinne and DeMario go into the pool, while another contestant stands nearby and… narrates? “This is 30 minutes into Paradise and it is already going down,” he intones. We can only assume that this is the beginning of the sexual encounter that will lead to allegations.
The most enticing thing about this episode of Bachelor in Paradise—and the series in general—is that it appears to offer a glimpse behind the scenes of the highly formulaic, trope-filled world of reality-TV dating shows. There’s something extremely candid and even a little bit naughty about pseudo-celebrities actually talking about their almost-fame (one contestant admits that she couldn’t get on an A-list dating app), or making fun of the dating-show conventions they had to follow back on The Bachelor/Bachelorette. It’s this weird veneer of transparency that tricks the viewer into forgetting that this has all been hyper-edited—days worth of footage precisely cut into something that just resembles real life.
So when we’re watching what looks like the confusion of cast members learning about the alleged incident for the very first time (after what appears to be a few days of filming), it’s important to remember all the footage that didn’t make it into the final cut. A producer comes up to Corinne and DeMario, separately, and asks to speak with them. Another team member frantically gestures at the camera, repeating “cut it, cut it.” Danielle opines that, “It’s kind of like a chill came over paradise,” with Jack Stone recalling, “The cameramen just kind of put their cameras down—suddenly we look around and there’s no crew, it’s just us.” We see the familiar flashes of an empty cabana and ominous waves, only now it’s nighttime, and paradise goes dark.