2. On March 25, 2002, the first-ever episode of The Bachelor aired, and the reality-TV dating landscape was never the same.
Up to that point, all the shows in the genre were gloriously sleazy, like Fifth Wheel or Temptation Island, or they were presented like a game show, à la the infamous Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? — but The Bachelor was supposed to be different. Like the others, it would be a competition, but unlike the others, it would play out like a romantic fantasy and result in real, lasting love.
Nearly 15 years, 20 (!) seasons, three spinoffs, and countless promises of “the most dramatic season ever,” it’s hard to believe The Bachelor was ever supposed to successfully produce functional relationships.
When we saw that ABC rereleased all seven — that’s right, just seven — episodes from the first season, we had to take a walk down memory lane and see how it all started and what’s changed. Was it always a wine-fueled race to the finish line? How did they get anyone to be a part of this thing? How bad were everyone’s eyebrows in the early 2000s? Most importantly, what changed — and how did we get to Nick Viall, Season 21’s star suitor and perhaps the most inevitable Bachelor there’s ever been?
For the past decade or so, every bachelor has been a reject from a previous season of The Bachelorette, which is as comforting as it is mildly incestuous, but leaves very little mystery as to what we’re getting into.
The first season, in contrast, starred a businessman with Kennedy-esque good looks named Alex Michel — someone so perfect (at least on paper) that on the first episode, he’s called “the most eligible bachelor in America.” (Where are they getting this data? We want the receipts.) None of the ladies know who Alex is before setting foot out of the limo in the first episode. Considering the fact that every contestant on the new season probably knows the name and birthday of all eleven of Nick’s siblings, this is truly insane.
Episode 1 features a deep dive into Alex: We meet his parents, see his childhood photos, and get a little background info from his friends. What’s truly shocking, though, is Alex’s pedigree. The man graduated from Harvard undergrad and Stanford Graduate School of Business! Nick, our current bachelor, was originally in some vague type of software sales, but soon ditched that gig for the siren song of Hollywood and modeling?? Or just, like, event appearances?? We’re really not 100% sure.
At the beginning, Alex seems like the kind of bland, unoffensive guy who’s perfect for heralding in a new TV dating concept. He smiles, he engages the women in mindless chatter, he forcibly shoves his tongue down their throats. As the season goes on, though, Alex’s true colors come out, and it turns out that he’s as gross as he is boring. Dating multiple women at once definitely brings out his inner teenager, which is not a good look for our tall, dark, and handsome bachelor. When he’s not asking them immature questions about their boobs and sexual preferences, he veers into asshole territory. Case in point: He shouts, “Minimum wage!” at the top of his lungs as he mimes cracking a whip while riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, presumably to taunt the driver, during a date.
Flaws aside, the most intriguing thing about Alex, in retrospect, is that he’s pretty much dropped off the face of the planet in the ensuing years. This is not a dude who wanted to self-promote — he just actually wanted to find love. Shocking.
In the end, it’s hard to tell whether Alex actually sucks or if the cameras emphasized his worst parts. Either way, he’s an interesting case study for choosing a known quantity, aka a castoff from a previous season, as the next bachelor. Recycle casting is a little lazy, and eventually starts to feel vaguely incestuous, but, hey, at least you know what you’re getting into.
This man does not age. Apparently chugging mimosas in a terry cloth robe does wonders for the skin because Chris still looks more or less the same as he did on day one.
Chris is such a mainstay of Bachelor Nation that it’s truly insane to watch him clarify, in the first episode, that he isn’t the Bachelor (although we’re still hoping for a season where he hands out the roses). Anyway, time has been kind to Chris’s beautiful face, although the tan suit he wears in the first episode is another story.
When Alex first arrives at his new digs, Chris shows him around as if we’re on an episode of House Hunters. Chris literally says, “If you can’t find love here…” Then what, Chris?! What’re you implying? That if he can’t find love in this depressing, orange AirBnB, he should just throw himself off of one of the nearby cliffs?!?
From the moment the contestants are first introduced, it’s clear that some things haven’t changed a bit. There is an NBA cheerleader in the mix, a constant in this uncertain world. The producers also do Trista, the runner-up who went on to become the first star of The Bachelorette, the massive disservice of describing her as a “Miami Heat dancer” even though she is, in fact, a pediatric therapist. So anytime you see someone described as a “twin” or “unemployed nurse” these days, know that they’re following in a grand tradition of fakery.
There is one “wild card” contestant, Rhonda, and by wild card, we mean that she was 1) the first person on the franchise to say, “I’m not here to make friends,” and 2) also the first to get carted away in an ambulance, thanks to a post-elimination panic attack. Still, people seem to get along with Rhonda, and she’s a far cry from the Courtney Robertsons and Olivia Caridis the show has produced since.
Also, some of the women are really young, especially considering that Alex is a ripe old 31. One woman, Cathy, is 22, and she’s got the sparkly hair clip to show for it. It’s nice to know that the show has stayed consistent — Nick is 35, and FOUR of the women vying for his heart are 23.
Most notably, though, these women say they’re here to find love, and we actually found ourselves believing them. Unlike now, when we just assume everyone who signs up for The Bachelor is more interested in Instagram Fit Tea and Sugar Bear Hair sponsorships than, you know, a relationship, these women opine their sad love lives with more than an ounce of believability.
When the limos start rolling into the driveway during the first episode, there’s a parade of early 2000s beauty and fashion not seen since the finale of Friends. The eyebrows are so razor-thin, blink and you’ll miss them. The spiky updos are as plentiful as they are voluminous. As for the outfits, the most mind-blowing thing was some of the women arriving in pants and a snazzy top. Can you imagine??? In 2016, if you don’t show up dressed like Matthew McConaughey’s date to the Oscars or Miss Teen South Carolina, you’d better start packing.
Throughout the rest of the season, there are Hot Tools hair straighteners, tan boots, shapeless leather jackets, high-cut bikinis aplenty, and so many sleeveless turtlenecks that the mind stops pondering exactly what kind of weather those were designed for. But god bless these women for bringing clothes they’d actually wear in real life, not just what could lead to a style blog or a popular Instagram page with a liketoknow.it account. After all, there was no precedent for “rose ceremony cocktail party” attire, or attire for any other part of the show, for that matter.
They actually call them invitation nights!!! Because apparently this is sorority rush? Before Alex makes his cuts, he watches the video messages the women recorded for him in their “journal room,” which also sounds like something a sorority house would have.
The women get to sit during them, and they wear slacks and turtlenecks to their “invitation nights” because nothing is sacred. Some people go home, very few people have meltdowns, and there is almost no post-elimination footage from inside the limos. Snore.
The first episode opens with an assault on the eyes. The title credits haven’t changed a bit since the first season, so that was nice and reassuring. But in 2002, nothing was shot in HD, meaning the show looks like a softcore-porn VHS tape.
Confessionals are filmed so tight on everyone’s faces that there’s no hiding of zits or any kind of flaws. There’s no designated spot for the confessionals either; some women film theirs in front of the rest of the contestants, and Alex occasionally shares some thoughts in front of a potted plant. At one point, a producer even uses a pen light to illuminate Alex’s face. It’s rough.
There is so much exposition in the first few episodes that it’s like hearing a college professor read a syllabus. Just before we first “meet” the contestants in Episode 1, Chris announces the six-week timeline, which is absolutely mind-blowing. Nowadays, they never acknowledge how long the journey to find love lasts, mostly because it’s ludicrous to expect anyone to fall in love within that amount of time, especially in those circumstances. But in Season 1, it’s all out there.
Throughout the season, there’s a surprising emphasis on the fact that the women are allowed to turn down Alex’s roses. Even though no one did, they had much more agency, and seemed less like blindly obsessed minions than contestants do in more recent seasons. This is probably because now, people (mostly) sign up for the show because of the contestant.
Also, the first season has seven episodes. Just seven. And they’re all one hour each. Currently, there are 10 weeks of episodes, and they’re all two hours long. Imagine how much time we’d save — and how much less wine we’d drink — if the show had never been supersized.
The producers try to shoehorn so many unnecessary elements into the first season, in a desperate attempt to establish some kind of identity. They had a “deliberation room” (seen here) filled with photographs of the contestants in which Alex could make his decisions. In addition to the journal room, they have some of Alex’s friends move into the “Ladies Villa” in week two to decide who he’ll go on one-on-one dates with. It’s all so very…game show. The show was clearly trying to resist its ultimate identity, which is pinot grigio–induced catfights and contests to see who can have the longest streaks of mascara tears.
Forget date cards — these women find out what activities are in store through fully thought-out themed presents! Some poor PA probably had to spend all night finding little trinkets and the right bows to put on top of them.
The over-the-topness doesn’t stop there. The group dates take the women to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and on a luxury yacht in Santa Barbara. What happened to ABC’s budget???? These days, the first group date consists of making them run a mud obstacle course in some shitty lot in Burbank just to get an extra 15 minutes of alone time with the Bachelor. It really was the pre-recession heyday of network television but WOW, what a contrast.
There is practically zero drama on these dates UNTIL the very first contestant in Bachelor history “steals the main man away for a second.” “We should have done that,” another contestant muses. Um, yes, you should have. That’s practically a rule now.
There’s no one-on-one date or first impression rose in the first two episodes, meaning there’s no clear villain or front runner, and making everything feel too relaxed on the group dates. The women are all hunky dory buddies, and the group dates pass without anything of note to mention.
Drink in this information and let it swirl around for a second: Hometown dates happen in the fourth episode. THE FOURTH EPISODE. We’re pretty sure that Alex didn’t even know the name of Kim, one of the women whose parents he met; they’d never even been on a one-on-one date together. They would literally never let that happen on someone’s journey to find love now.
In spite of this, Alex travels to Tempe, Arizona, to get to know her folks. Thankfully, Alex does not ask Kim’s dad for her hand in marriage, something all bachelors are obliged to do these days. Kim, in a becoming pink turtleneck, introduces us to the hometown trope of “needing to see if the Bachelor is good with kids” (now often seen in the hometown dates of contestants with children, à la Amanda Stanton). Speaking of Amanda Stanton, here’s what she wore on her hometown date with Ben Higgins in Season 20, for comparison.
In this iteration, Kim wants to see Alex interact with her younger relatives. (Spoiler alert: Alex almost pulls a kid’s arm out of its socket.) It’s unclear by the end of Alex and Kim’s hometown date if he remembers her name.
Trista also gets a hometown date, and hers is much more entertaining — and not just because she and Alex had made eye contact more than once during the season. They do cute things like eat pizza in the limo and visit Trista’s high school. Trista, wearing her best turtleneck, introduces us to the hometown trope of the ~slightly wacky~ family who asks inappropriate questions. (This trope has been used in almost every season since.) Anyway, Trista has a cute family and all, but there is no crazy circus music to point out that someone’s acting weird and no ex-boyfriend hired to crash the evening, so, again, it’s all a little boring.
The next date, Shannon’s, is notable for a couple of reasons. For starters, Shannon also wears a turtleneck. And she introduces us to a hometown date trope that we literally never see again in the series, which is “woman who may or may not be more interested in her dog than with the Bachelor.” She leaves THE ONLY CONVERSATION this man will have with her parents before maybe proposing to “spend quality time” with the dog outside, and no one bats an eye. These days, that scene would have been heavily teased in the commercials, and we’d probably all be rooting for her, because who wouldn’t miss their dog more than their parents?
Anyway, Shannon is quite possibly the most closed-off contestant that’s ever been on this show, which means there is no chance in hell she’d ever sign up for it if it hadn’t been the first season. She’s described by the other contestants as being “a princess,” which we can only assume is code for not openly discussing sex, and seeming altogether wary of a reality-TV romance. Alex — who, remember, is a dull creep — asks her a question about sex during their limo ride, and she shuts. it. down. It gets a little frustrating at times, because come on, it is a TV dating show, but who wouldn’t also be frustrated in this scenario? Shannon is a relic.
By the time Amanda’s date rolls around, Alex is practically catatonic, but Amanda ALSO WORE A TURTLENECK, so who can blame him? All of the travel to the different hometowns has worn out our poor bachelor, and he spends a good portion of Amanda’s hometown date staring into the abyss. These days, the show never references how tiring the journeys can be or indicates in what order the hometown visits occur in, presumably to make things seem “fair.” Alex’s hometowns definitely seem much more real.
In keeping with the first season’s lack of drama and surprise, Alex sends home Kim, the woman he barely knew, before the fantasy suite dates. The words “fantasy suite” are synonymous with sex now, but in Season 1, it was all about literally living out a dating fantasy — jetting off to an exciting location for an extended date. These days, all three overnight dates are likely to happen at the same Sandals Resort & Spa in Turks and Caicos, for example, but Alex trots his final three out to various places in the US. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
The sex-in-the-fantasy-suite tradition is laid out plain and simple during Alex and Amanda’s date. We know this because there were actual night-vision cameras in their fantasy suite. As if that weren’t scarring enough, Alex interrupts their romp to call room service to request a delivery of a dessert called “Sex in the Sheets.” Next, we are treated to an image of Amanda with said dessert smeared all over her face. It is traumatic. We are no longer afraid to die.
Somehow, Alex emerges from his and Amanda’s sex dungeon in time to catch a flight to his skiing date with Shannon. Amazingly, Shannon knows how to ski and isn’t scared of heights, which shows a big failure on the part of the producers. Anyone who’d get a skiing date now would’ve had to have a fiancé who died in a tragic avalanche accident. And then the producers would drag them to the exact mountain where said avalanche occurred and make them have brunch.
Shannon continues to baffle and inspire on her date by actively leaning away from Alex’s kiss. When they retire to the requisite hot tub after shredding the slopes, Shannon almost refuses to be seen in a bikini, like any person slightly wary of being on TV would. Still, her hesitation seems crazy in hindsight. Bikinis are like the standard Bachelor mansion uniform at this point. Half of the group dates are some kind of depressing pool party, for crying out loud.
Trista’s Hawaii-set fantasy suite date is memorable mostly because there’s a requisite helicopter ride. Said helicopter makes Alex violently ill for the rest of the date, meaning their fantasy suite is probably less “romantic,” which is fine by us.
This episode has become notorious for being a chance for the season’s villain(s) to redeem themselves. But with no real villain in Season 1, there was no clear reason to even have this episode.
The women don’t sit in the order in which they got kicked off, which left us wondering: Who are any of these fucking people? Alex whittled the field of 25 down to four after three episodes, so it’s basically just a sea of faces. Quite a bit of time is spent showing the women justifying why they went on this show, an unproven dating concept. Chris also presses them on why no one turned down the rose, which was a weirdly prevalent concept this season. Now it’s an open secret that you can leave whenever you want, but back then, you apparently needed to be constantly reminded.
We’re then shown some footage of contestants watching themselves on TV, and we even meet one of their new boyfriends. Nowadays, this would be time spent to verbally berate Olivia Caridi for talking about her cankles.
It seems highly likely that the first season’s editors were promptly fired, because it’s been revealed that they cut a lot of highly entertaining footage.
LeNease called someone an evil spirit, and Cathy passed out drunk in the bathroom. HOW DID NONE OF THIS MAKE IT ONTO TV? Drunk Tequila Cathy should’ve been an entire episode! A lot was made of how people called Cathy “young” during the season, which is true, but that can hardly be considered shit-talking. Now people get accused of being fame whores who have secret husbands.
There were also a few pre-commercial teasers offering random bits of trivia, such as the fact that 105 bottles of champagne were drank during the season, and that 20 of the women have college degrees. They probably did away with this because the numbers got too depressing.
Even though there are only seven episodes in this season, Alex’s Sahara-dry personality makes it seem like an eternity. Amanda and Trista, the finalists, go to Alex’s hometown of Dallas for a good, old-fashioned grilling from his parents, instead of the parents traveling to wherever he’ll propose.
By the last episode, Trista hasn’t told Alex she loves him yet, which is unfathomable by today’s standards. These days you’re practically forced to express your love on or before the fantasy suites. But Trista plays it sane and says she’s “never really been in it for the engagement,” proving why she’s a franchise MVP.
Alex’s parents obviously like Amanda more, probably because she tells him that she loves him, establishing a ridiculous precedent for seasons to come.
Interestingly, Alex’s parents call the show a “game,” which would pretty much never make it onto the air today. Now if you say “game” or “competition,” Mike Fleiss pops out from behind a potted plant and shoots you with a tranquilizer dart and then you are swiftly replaced with a body double.*
Another thing that wouldn’t fly? Alex’s mom tells him not to get engaged and that he should just date his final choice for a while to get to know her better. This is fucking revolutionary. In this day and age, unless you’re Juan Pablo or human disaster Brad Womack, you’d better propose, or prepare to receive a tranquilizer dart in the neck courtesy of Mike Fleiss.*
*There is no evidence that Mike Fleiss actually tranquilizes people while crouched behind potted plants. Please don’t have me killed, Fleiss.
On their little post-grilling hang sesh, Alex openly tells Trista he would pick her, which is PRACTICALLY ILLEGAL NOW. Spoiler: He does not choose her. Double spoiler: Trista then sits on his bed and asks if the cameras are on, and Alex asks if she wants to get into a “compromising position.” This show is the worst.
When it comes time for Alex to pick an engagement ring, Neil Lane is nowhere to be found! Instead, the first season boasts the promise of a Harry Winston ring! That stuff doesn’t come cheap!!! Interesting to note we don’t actually SEE the CEO of Harry Winston, we just go to your run-of-the-mill storefront. Meanwhile, Neil Lane has practically moved in with Nick Viall, since he’ll be picking his fourth(!) ring from him this season.
On proposal day, there’s no mystery of who gets out of the limo first, aka who’s about to get sent home. Instead, Trista’s just standing outside and Alex appears from inside his McMansion. Alex mercifully cuts off his “relationship” with Trista really fast. There’s no misdirection or fake-outs, just a respectful hug goodbye. Trista takes it really well, crying a few quick tears and saying her life will go on. Times really have changed.
That all means that Amanda “wins,” which should be a shock to exactly no one. Alex, however, does not propose to her; instead, he gets down on one knee and gives her the final rose. For all of his flaws, this is actually a great move. What’s not a great move? Amanda’s closing words, which are, “I’m starting a fantasy world. With our own cameras!” Bye forever.
Emma: While staring at that horrific, grainy photo of Amanda with room-service chocolate sauce smeared on her face, I had a epiphany. I was Ebenezer Scrooge, and watching the first season of The Bachelor was my version of being visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This gave me time to reflect. After that viewing a rose ceremony-in-barn during the dumpster fire that was Chris Soules’ season, and having to listen to Ben and Lauren exchange quiet “angry glances” on an ill-advised spinoff, I had become a jaded member of Bachelor Nation. But this helped me see how far we have come (from sensible slacks and turtlenecks at a relaxed rose ceremony), made me thankful for all that we do have right now (a former software sales rep with 11 siblings and zero fucks to give), and made me hopeful for the promise of a brighter future (an Ashley I. Bachelorette season where she does makeup tutorials during commercial breaks).
I would also like to say that although I have talked a lot of shit about Nick Viall, I love him more than some of my own family members and truly believe he is the light at the end of everyone’s terrible 2016. He will bring the drama and probably sleep with every single contestant, and for that, I salute him.
Terri: I’ve never missed a season of The Bachelor — not when Jerry O’Connell’s little brother was the main guy and the whole season took place in New York City, not when that guy from The Doctors was the bachelor, and certainly not when someone thought that Juan Pablo deserved a chance at love. The show started when I was 12, and when it began I saw it as a classy way to find old-fashioned L-O-V-E. Now I assume that precisely no one signs up because they actually think they’ll remotely like the prize catch. The first season was a fascinating look into reality TV before people realized they could make a career out of it, and guess what? It was pretty boring. If the show started today in this exact format and with this kind of editing, I don’t think it would make it to a second season.
I loved seeing the roots of what have become franchise staples: Saying “I love you” in order to advance, hot tub makeout sessions, and awkward group dates. What I loved even more, though, was how it had none of what frustrates — and, in turns, entertains — me the most now: a clear villain, gossip, backstabbing, and stunt casting. Somewhere, at some point, these tropes emerged, they created good ratings, and producers never looked back. And without such mainstays, would the show have such a loyal, dedicated fanbase? Probably not. Basically, I can’t believe how much of my life has been wasted on this drivel, and how seriously I contemplate it all. And I regret nothing.
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