It was a little jarring not to hear Chris Harrison’s voice tease the upcoming twists and turns of “the most surprising season ever” during Monday night’s premiere of The Bachelorette. And he wasn’t there to greet Bachelorette Katie Thurston as she emerged from the limousine, as he has done for every bachelor and bachelorette for nearly two decades.
In February, Harrison announced he would temporarily step away from hosting the franchise. What was temporary became permanent Tuesday when ABC confirmed the former host had reached an eight-figure settlement on his way out.
Several franchise stars, including former Bachelor Peter Weber and Bachelorette JoJo Fletcher, expressed their support for Harrison on social media, with many of them calling the former host and Dallas native “irreplaceable” or referring to his departure “the end of an era.”
In many ways, it is the end of an era. And a welcome start to a new one.
When Matt James became the first Black Bachelor, it was an overdue step forward for the notoriously homogenous franchise. Including James, there have been only three Black Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and that’s if you count Tayshia Adams, who took over part way through season 16, which was hamstrung by the pandemic. A 2016 analysis from Splinter News concluded that over the course of 31 combined Bachelor and Bachelorette seasons, a Black contestant never made it past the halfway point of the show, and 59 percent of Black contestants were eliminated by week three (seasons are typically ten weeks).
The show’s lack of diversity was intentional. When it launched in 2002, The Bachelor targeted an audience that had just sent one of its own to the White House: white conservative Christians. The show was, and still in many ways is, a treacly fetishization of monogamy, virginity, and public expressions of Christian faith. ABC explicitly sought, and got, a host that was a near mirror image of its target audience.
“I’m a conservative Texas boy,” Harrison, an executive producer of the show, told NPR in a 2015 interview. “I was married, I had a child, I was on the way to having another child. . . . A church-going guy and Mom and Dad and apple pie and the whole thing. . . . [ABC] wanted the guy next door, the down-home guy that would be kind of the moral compass and the moral barometer on this show.”
The show was a smash hit from the start, but even then, there were tremors of embarrassment among ABC executives at the blinding whiteness of the show. “We always had to cast a Black girl or two. ABC would say that,” Scott Jeffress, who served as the series’ co–executive producer for its first seven seasons, told the Los Angeles Times last year. But it was obvious to Jeffress and everyone else then, as it has been since, that the show was engaging in tokenism, a half-gesture meant to soothe any troubled consciences among the audience, network executives, and advertisers.
Tokenism bought the show an uneasy peace as it grew into multiple spin-offs and, ultimately, a multinational franchise. Harrison was a huge part of its success. He shone as a talented, nimble host, delivering exactly what each show and each tension-filled moment demanded of him. To the leads of the The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, he was almost paternal—a confidante who would listen and dole out advice to guide them along their journeys. He could delight in the ridiculousness of the show’s competitive segments, or transform into a serious interviewer as he probed contestants on their behavior or the status of their relationships.
All the while, the show’s audience, along with the rest of the country, changed, especially with regard to sexual mores and issues of racial representation. Yet the flagship Bachelor and Bachelorette shows remained largely unchanged in their format and casting. The gap between the shows and their audience has provided opportunities for other dating shows, such as Too Hot to Handle and Are You the One?, both of which have featured queer relationships and young cast members who are eager and unashamed to explore their promiscuity.
Even other parts of the Bachelor empire have pushed into new territory. Vietnam’s The Bachelor made headlines in 2018 when one female contestant confessed her love for another, and the two left the show to pursue their own relationship. Australia’s The Bachelorette just cast its first openly bisexual lead, and the season will include male and female contestants vying for her final rose.
Meanwhile, the American flagships have yet to feature an openly queer lead, and they continue to awkwardly dance around the subjects of sexuality and sex (while simultaneously obsessing over the virginity of contestants like Colton Underwood). As the face of the franchise, Harrison often had to serve as its primary defender as criticisms of the flagship show’s staid homogeneity piled up.
Something had to give. Contestant casts slowly became more diverse. In 2017, Rachel Lindsay, a Dallas attorney, became the first Black Bachelorette. Then, amid 2020’s racial justice protests, came Tayshia Adams and, finally, the announcement of Matt James.
Along the way was early evidence that Harrison, who had helped grow an empire, was not up to the task of managing the challenges of increasing the show’s diversity. There was also criticism that the show was trying to cash in on diversity points without adequately protecting its non-white cast members.
During Lindsay’s 2017 season, the show failed to adequately vet contestant Lee Garrett, whose racist and misogynistic tweets were quickly discovered by fans. After the end of her season, Lindsay emerged as a leading critic of the show, and of Harrison. Last year, as cast members became increasingly vocal about the number of racist messages, comments, and death threats they received from viewers, it was Lindsay, not Harrison, who was called in to lead a conversation during the “Women Tell All” special about online harassment.
In one episode during this last season of The Bachelor, Matt James confided in Harrison about the pressure he felt as a biracial man and as the first Black Bachelor. Harrison, who built a career on knowing the right thing to say during moments of vulnerability, struggled to engage with James, a moment which did not go unnoticed among viewers and critics.
Then came the photos. Rachael Kirkconnell, a contestant on James’s season, was pictured attending an antebellum plantation–themed fraternity formal in 2018, when she was a college student. (Though Kirkconnell would receive the final rose from James, the photos emerged well after the final rose ceremony was recorded.)
Harrison was dispatched to conduct damage control in an interview on Extra. His interviewer: Lindsay. It was an odd move for Harrison, who chose to stay silent during a number of other Bachelor Nation controversies, including former Bachelorette Hannah Brown’s use of the N-word during an Instagram Live video and the time contestant Victoria Fuller faced criticism for modeling a “White Lives Matter” hat. Over thirteen minutes, he repeatedly spoke over Lindsay and asked for grace and compassion for Kirkconnell. At one point, he argued that the franchise didn’t have “the time of day” to deal with every problem viewers had with the show.
The fallout was swift. Harrison apologized the following day, but by the next week, he revealed he was stepping away from his role as host. Nobody knew it then, but it was the end of Harrison’s nineteen-year hosting run.
On Monday, with the premiere of Thurston’s season, former bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe were there in Harrison’s place to help the new bachelorette with her first night. It made a noticeable difference. Their conversations felt sisterly and natural, and it was hard to imagine Harrison doing a better job chatting with Thurston about her sex-positive approach to her role.
Of course, Harrison isn’t entirely to blame for every problem that’s plagued the show. His departure may be seen as a loss, but it’s also a much-needed opportunity for the Bachelor franchise to shake up its format and finally address the shows’ failings. During his tenure, the series got so caught up in its routine that Harrison, and his predictable interruptions or asides with the lead, began to take up space that should have gone toward new storylines and different voices.
Last year, a raw conversation between Adams and contestant Ivan Hall about Black Lives Matter was unlike anything viewers had seen on the show at that point. Similarly, during James’s season, contestant Chelsea Vaughn was overwhelmed with emotional responses from Black women who connected to her conversation about Black hair and white beauty standards. It was a refreshing change of pace.
At its core, the series will always deliver a manufactured, tightly produced fantasy (it is reality TV, after all), but by changing up the format and shifting the focus away from a singular host, Bachelor Nation can expand the very limited version of love it’s shown its audience and take long-overdue steps to do more.