“The Golden Bachelor” Is a Trip to a Prelapsarian Eden

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On the second episode of “The Golden Bachelor,” ABC’s new “Bachelor” spinoff, the titular protagonist, a onetime Indiana restaurateur named Gerry, sits down for some one-on-one time with Leslie, a fitness instructor from Minneapolis who is one of the women competing to win his heart. After sharing that, despite her confident exterior, she is sensitive and has a soft interior, “like a lava cake,” Leslie goes on to tell Gerry that she has one more thing to say. “If you ever want to whisper sweet nothings in my ear, I will be able to hear you,” she says, pushing back her long brown hair to reveal her hearing aids. Gerry, who also wears hearing aids, is visibly touched. “I thought that was really kind of darling,” he later tells the camera, his eyes moist.

Since “The Bachelor” began airing, in 2002, a big part of the appeal of the series and its long-running corollary, “The Bachelorette,” has been its casts’ youthful good looks. This is especially evident in the franchise’s most successful spinoff, the horny, spring-break-style offering “Bachelor in Paradise,” which has now been on TV for nine seasons. (“Bombshell: Bachelor Nation Stars Who Have the Most Insane Bikini Bodies—See Them All!,” as a tabloid headline recently put it.) In its début season, however, “The Golden Bachelor” explores a new horizon for the franchise. Like bachelors and bachelorettes past, Gerry is looking to find love, but this is not his first rodeo. A graying gentleman in trim buttoned shirts with a still full head of hair, Gerry is an effusively earnest widower who lost his wife to a short illness after forty-three years of marriage. Now he is a seventy-two-year-old grandfather, and the female contestants range in age from sixty to seventy-five. In other words, the bikini-body stats are down and the hearing-aid stats are up. But “The Golden Bachelor” is not a lifeless or depressing show. Though its participants are not spring chickens, their lives are also far from over. These are people with hopes and dreams and desires, and, as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that there was something pretty radical about a show that represents older people as still wanting more from life—romantically, emotionally, sexually—without pandering to younger viewers or infantilizing its mature subjects.

To be sure, the premise of “The Golden Bachelor” is just as stilted as the original franchise’s, whose formula it follows nearly to a T. In the six episodes that have aired so far, Gerry has attempted to get to know the ladies by going on a series of group activities and one-on-one dates—including a hot-air-balloon ride with Ellen, a seventy-one-year-old retired teacher and pickleball co-captain from Delray Beach, Florida, and a retro-diner meal with Theresa, a seventy-year-old financial-services professional from Shrewsbury, New Jersey. By the latest episode, which aired last Thursday, Gerry had managed to pare down the contenders to three finalists over a series of serious-as-a-heart-attack “rose ceremonies.” As in “The Bachelor,” this winnowing has relied on a delicate dance, in which Gerry’s simultaneous professions of affection to his potential betrotheds kept all candidates in play for maximum viewing tension, but didn’t go quite so far as to paint him as a careless, disingenuous cad. Many of the ladies, meanwhile, have had no issue with expressing their near-immediate love and thirst for him, and, as in “The Bachelor,” the swift and sudden pace of these courtships begged some suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Could feeling really emerge sincerely under such rushed and artificial circumstances, especially given many of the contestants’ previous experiences as happily married wives who have known long-standing, organic relationships?

And yet, over the weeks, I could feel my native “Bachelor” skepticism ebbing. One of the franchise’s perennial anxieties has always been whether the contestants are there “for the right reasons”: Are they on the show to find love, or just to gain fame and riches? After all, many “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” alums have managed to leverage their newfound notoriety into lucrative careers as social-media influencers. This, however, is not the world Gerry and the “Golden Bachelor” women are part of, which is why watching the show feels as refreshing as a trip back to some prelapsarian Eden. They have all lived a life, and now, in the limited time they have left, they seem to be genuinely looking for affection and companionship rather than renown. At long last, the franchise is taking the initial premise of “The Bachelor” at its word.

There’s plenty of vulnerability here, and a lot of tears. “For women our age, to meet someone like that, it’s really hard,” Leslie says, when Gerry, whom she admits she’s falling for, goes on a romantic helicopter ride with Faith, a sixty-year-old high-school teacher. “I wish I didn’t feel this way,” Leslie adds later, sobbing. If it doesn’t work out with Gerry, would she get another chance at a relationship, or is the clock running out? (“How often does a person my age get a second chance for love?” another contestant, the sixty-six-year-old Susan, asks rhetorically, echoing the sentiment.) Theresa, meanwhile, hasn’t confessed a burgeoning affection to anyone since her late husband, and that was fifty-two years ago. What if Gerry won’t reciprocate her feelings? “There’s so much on the line,” she says, tremulously.

Surprisingly, even though emotions are running high, the show is remarkably devoid of the catfights among contestants that are a usual hallmark of the franchise. One short-lived feud—which begins when Kathy, a seventy-year-old retired educational consultant, tells Theresa to “zip it” after the latter speaks too boastfully about her one-on-one date with Gerry—is a rare outlier. At this point in the ladies’ lives, it appears, bickering is a waste of time, and warm fellow-feeling is nearly always preferable. When Joan, a sixty-year-old private-school administrator, needs to leave because of a crisis at home, despite having just made a strong connection with Gerry over a dinner date, the women cry with her as she tells them that she hopes “one of you finds love with Gerry.” “My heart’s breaking,” Susan says. “I know how bad she wanted to be here.” As my colleague Alex Barasch noted when we spoke of the series, it seems as if the contestants are there to make friends.

The show, too, doesn’t shy away from depicting its protagonists as still libidinal. In one of my favorite moments, the ladies get bold enough to openly discuss their past amorous experiences in a game of Never Have I Ever. (“I’ve had sex in the workplace, and if I was married I’d do it again!” Sandra, who is seventy-five, tells the camera determinedly.) And the sexual spark is not a negligible part of Gerry’s courtship. (“I wake up through the night thinking about you,” he tells Leslie, whom he calls “a really sexy woman.”) The women, too, clearly have the hots for Gerry, practically cheering every time he walks in the room. In “Bachelor” fashion, there are makeouts galore—in a hot tub, on a Ferris wheel, on horseback—and the gusto with which these are enacted, I have to admit, gave me hope for the future. Not dead yet!

But, of course, it’s not all fun and games, and the emotional stakes remain high, as we were reminded on Thursday’s episode, in which Gerry visited the home towns of his final three choices—Theresa, Faith, and Leslie. In a nice twist on the original “Bachelor,” the ones doing most of the grilling and worrying here were not the contestants’ parents but their children. Would Gerry treat their mom right? Was he the one? “I really hope that this works out. I really hope that he’s in our lives forever,” Theresa’s daughter says, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t want my mom to get hurt,” Leslie’s daughter says. (“It would kill me to see your heart broken after you’ve made it this far,” she later tells her mother.) At the rose ceremony, in which Gerry has to select the final two ladies, he picks Leslie, and then hesitates, unable to choose the second woman, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger. “I feel like I’m gonna throw up,” he says. “Having to send someone home is gut-wrenching.” After six weeks of watching this gentle, heartwarming show, I actually believed him. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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