This year was supposed to signify a new era for The Bachelor. Matt James, whose season could never have fully made up for the franchise’s years of mistakes, was nonetheless chosen as the show’s new lead, seemingly in answer to the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The country as a whole could no longer ignore the blatant police brutality and racial injustice that has plagued Black citizens for decades, and suddenly ABC decided that 24 seasons without a single Black Bachelor had been enough. (The Bachelorette wasn’t much better; when James was cast, Rachel Lindsay was still the only Black Bachelorette in 17 years.)
Producers named James as the first Black Bachelor in the summer of 2020, just before Tayshia Adams took over The Bachelorette midway through Clare Crawley’s season, becoming the second-ever Black Bachelorette. James’ season kicked off in January 2021, but instead of building on the momentum of Adams’ season, his turn as Bachelor quickly gave way to a flood of off-screen chaos. Combine that with a disastrous Chris Harrison interview and a restraining order scandal, and it’s easy to see why this franchise is in such an existential crisis. The question now is how to move forward.
As James’ Bachelor season aired during the first few weeks of the year, attention quickly diverged from what was happening on screen to a controversy brewing in real time. Fans had uncovered a handful of offensive and racially insensitive posts made by the season’s frontrunner, Rachael Kirkconnell. While both James and Kirkconnell kept quiet as the season aired, the lid blew off when photos emerged of Kirkconnell dressed in an Antebellum-style frock while attending an Old South plantation-themed college party in 2018.
By the season finale in March, a tearful James had to sit next to Kirkconnell—the woman to whom he’d just declared his love—and attempt to describe the hurt that her ignorance had caused him. He painfully admitted that he had to walk away from their relationship.
“This is the last conversation I thought we’d be having,” James said at the finale’s aftershow. “I didn’t sign up to have this conversation. And I knew that I had to take a step back from you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do. And that’s something that you have to do on your own. And that’s why we can’t be in a relationship.” (James and Kirkconnell have since gotten back together.)
Apart from the Kirkconnell scandal, the season did itself no favors by barely expanding upon James’ backstory, beyond that he was raised by a single white mother and was best friends with former Bachelorette contestant Tyler Cameron.
In a widely criticized moment, producers had James sit down for a heart-to-heart with his father, who had been absent for most of his life. It was a tough conversation to watch—one that probably shouldn’t have made it to air—as James challenged his father on his shortcomings. The entire scene ultimately played into the “absent Black father” stereotype, and after James and his father awkwardly said their goodbyes, neither seemed to come out of the conversation for the better.
But the biggest controversy surrounding James’ season came courtesy of longtime Bachelor host Chris Harrison, who defended Kirkconnell during an appearance on Rachel Lindsay’s Extra show by decrying the “woke police” who called out her behavior. Kirkconnell herself seemed to hit back at Harrison’s interview when she released a statement asking that people stop defending her.
Perhaps the most inflammatory comment from Harrison’s interview came when he defended Kirkconnell’s attendance at the Old South-themed party. When Lindsay pointed out the move was “not a good look,” Harrison shot back, “Well, Rachel, is it a good look in 2018? Or, is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.”
“It’s not a good look ever,” Lindsay replied. “Because she’s celebrating the Old South. If I went to that party, what would I represent at that party?”
Faced with backlash from both viewers and cast members, Harrison apologized and took a temporary leave of absence from his hosting duties, but it was too late. The franchise sent him off this summer with a reported eight-figure golden parachute. Former Bachelorette leads Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe have replaced Harrison for the past two seasons of The Bachelorette, while Jesse Palmer is set to make his debut as The Bachelor’s new host during Clayton Echard’s season next year.
Adams and Bristowe’s easy rapport with Katie Thurston and Michelle Young during their Bachelorette seasons this year has proven Harrison is easily replaceable. While Harrison often occupied something of a dated paternal role on the show, Adams and Bristowe approach the position as veterans of the process. (They also, like Harrison, enjoy the odd comedic interstitial here and there.) Summer spinoff show Bachelor in Paradise, meanwhile, fell to a series of guest hosts including David Spade and Lance Bass.
We already know that Echard’s Bachelor season is poised to be its Most Dramatic Yet; previews have revealed he tells three finalists he loves them. Palmer, a former quarterback for the New York Giants and ESPN announcer, was the Bachelor in 2004, during the show’s fifth season. In January, he’ll take his turn at playing host.
Palmer shared the news of his impending role with a statement in September: “For more than 20 years, The Bachelor has brought the world dozens of unforgettable love stories, including at one time, my own. Falling in love is one of life’s greatest gifts, and I am humbled by the opportunity to return to the show as host this season to offer the newest Bachelor advice gained from firsthand experience and I am grateful to play a small part in his journey.” He’s set to host Season 26 of The Bachelor and, Variety reported at the time of his announcement, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise—but no official agreement has been made to seal his future with the franchise.
These days, Harrison is supposedly thriving outside the franchise—at least, that’s what Bachelor star Catherine Lowe recently told Page Six. Former contestant Wells Adams, meanwhile, says he believes Harrison has “something up his sleeve” for the future.
As for Lindsay, who as the lone Black lead had stuck her neck out time and time again while defending the franchise and advocating for change when it came to issues of diversity, James’ season turned out to be the final straw.
As the season unfolded, Lindsay offered her unfiltered opinion on how the show was handling sensitive subject matters, and was particularly outraged over the producer-orchestrated conversation between James and his father.
“I know for a fact Matt was uncomfortable with this conversation and the fact that it was going to be aired,” Lindsay said in a March episode of The Ringer’s Bachelor Party podcast. “We’re talking about certain stereotypes that have been perpetuated in this society when it comes to Black men, and The Bachelor put it front and center in the worst way tonight.”
And Harrison’s comments during the Extra interview pushed Lindsay over the edge. While the car-crash conversation had remained friendly enough—as an incredulous Lindsay somehow maintained her composure while Harrison staunchly defended Kirkconnell—she freely voiced her frustrations on her Ringer podcast.
“I’m fucking tired. I’m exhausted. I have truly had enough,” Lindsay vented. “How much more do I want to be affiliated with this? How much more can I take of things like this?... I can’t take it anymore. I’m contractually bound in some ways. But when it’s up, I am too. I can’t. I can’t do it anymore.”
Her candid remarks, paired with Harrison’s hiatus from the show, led to vicious Bachelor fans blaming Lindsay for the host’s fall from grace. After a hiatus from social media, Lindsay stood by her word and broke off her ties with the franchise, including quitting her Bachelor-produced podcast, Bachelor Happy Hour, in April.
Two months later, Lindsay penned a searingly honest essay for Vulture about her perspective on the franchise, ripping into ABC, production, Harrison, and some of the show’s rabid fanbase, which she described as “cultivating a toxic audience.”
“There is a Bachelor Nation, and there is a Bachelor Klan,” Lindsay wrote. “Bachelor Klan is hateful, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic. They are afraid of change. They are afraid to be uncomfortable. They are afraid when they get called out.”
Her divisive split from the franchise—which had helped pave a way for a new career path in influencing, podcasting, and TV hosting—was a clear sign that the Bachelor was in peril.
With leads like Lindsay and James breaking rank and directly calling out ABC and the Bachelor franchise, some contestants made a bold move: banding together to make their own demands of the show.
The women of James’ season, for instance, issued a stunning statement following Harrison’s bombastic remarks, condemning the longtime host, backing Lindsay, and calling for radical change. “We are deeply disappointed and want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism,” the statement read in part. “Any defense of racist behavior denies the lived and continued experiences of BIPOC individuals. These experiences are not to be exploited or tokenized.” The men of Crawley and Adams’ season quickly followed suit with a similar statement of their own.
As the controversy deepened, some of the BIPOC contestants declared they would not be appearing on Bachelor in Paradise if Harrison was the host, risking their standing with the franchise, as well as potential future paychecks that come along with being tied to the series. In the end, the franchise listened, and Harrison sat the summer spinoff show out.
And then there’s former Bachelor lead Colton Underwood, something of an ongoing nightmare for Bachelor Nation, who this year debuted his own Netflix series as he tries to move on from the fallout with his season’s winner, Cassie Randolph.
A judge granted Randolph a temporary restraining order last fall after she alleged Underwood had stalked and harassed her and went so far as to put a tracking device on her car. Randolph dropped the request months later, after the two reached a private agreement; a statement from Underwood said in part, “I do not believe Cassie did anything wrong in filing for the restraining orders and also believe she acted in good faith.”
Underwood came out as gay in April with a splashy interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. Soon after, news broke that he had a new docuseries in the works with Netflix: an hours-long puff piece that wraps his frightening misdeeds in a rainbow flag.
A healthy portion of Bachelor Nation has had its problems with Underwood for a while; he’s gained something of a reputation as a fame-seeker. But this year, Underwood made his rift from the franchise permanent—at least, it sure seems that way. Speaking on Alex Cooper’s Call Her Daddy podcast, Underwood said he’d distanced himself from the Bachelor world “pretty heavily” because of how little support he received from the show when he was going “through a lot mentally.”
“There was just a lot of bad blood on my end and their end,” Underwood said on the podcast. “It was not a healthy relationship. So I really distanced myself from that franchise completely.”
All of these controversies, plus consistently sliding ratings, tell the story of a franchise in existential crisis. As Palmer makes his debut on The Bachelor next year, we’ll see the next phase in Bachelor Nation’s journey forward. Maybe he’ll be able to help right this ship—or maybe it’s already sunk too deep. Either way, we—and a whole lot of rose obsessives—will continue watching closely.