The third episode of “The Golden Bachelor” begins with a shot of a 72-year-old man crying outside of a California mansion. “The Golden Bachelor” is a dating competition for people over 60, and the man is Gerry Turner, a kindly retiree with a hearing aid and a full head of hair. Just three weeks ago, Gerry — he pronounces it “Gary” — moved into the mansion with 22 women and started dating every single one of them. Already, he is overcome with emotion.
“The Bachelor,” the ABC franchise from which the show is spun, has been producing its bland heterosexual burlesque for more than 20 years, and it excels in manufacturing such melodramatic scenes. Yet by the end of the episode, I was crying, too.
“The Golden Bachelor” is identical in design to “The Bachelor” — Gerry must methodically eliminate his potential suitors until only one remains — and a promotional trailer for the season shows him and his women stepping into familiar romantic scenarios. Gerry and various dates ride horses, an all-terrain vehicle, a hot-air balloon. They rappel down a waterfall. They make out on a boat. Inside the mansion’s candlelit confessional booth, Gerry admits that he is developing feelings for multiple women. He weeps. His many girlfriends weep.
It’s all classic “Bachelor,” until Gerry says this: “The only time I’ve ever felt worse in my whole life is when my wife passed away.” OK. That is new.
Gerry is not a true bachelor: He is a widower. He has introduced the specter of death to “The Bachelor,” and this has both revitalized the show and scrambled its stakes.
In a typical season of “The Bachelor,” the worst-case scenario is that a couple of 26-year-olds rush into an engagement, and then rush out. The expectation of betrothal lends a ludicrous edge to an otherwise frothy contest.
But for Gerry and his potential partners, many of whom have also lost a spouse, love is not a game. When the producers of “The Golden Bachelor” scheme to turn on the waterworks, they draw from wells of grief. A few minutes after we meet Gerry, we see him cry for the first time, as he tells the story of his wife’s sudden death, in 2017, from a bacterial infection. “And so, and so, I took my wife to the emergency room,” he says, “and she never came home.”
The romantic artifice of “The Golden Bachelor” may be hokey, but for its players, it is risky, too. In the second episode, producers stage a faux romance novel cover shoot, and Nancy, 60, is unexpectedly stricken: her costume is a wedding dress, which reminds her of the day she married her husband. “I know this, my rational mind knows this — he passed away,” Nancy says. But the dress unlocks her emotions from that day, “still the best day of my life.” Later, Gerry takes Theresa, 70, to dinner, where she tells him that she feels hope, for the first time since her own husband died, that she will not always be alone.
The ostensible point of “The Golden Bachelor” is to give Gerry a second chance at love, but it represents an opportunity for the franchise, too. One refrain of “The Bachelor” is that some contestants are “here for the right reasons” (to find love) and others are “here for the wrong reasons” (to chase fame). But over the years, the show’s success has spawned a whole “Bachelor” economy — previous spinoffs include “The Bachelorette,” “Bachelor Pad,” “Bachelor in Paradise” and “The Bachelor: Winter Games” — and its most successful players are rewarded not with spouses but with influencer deals, podcasts or other forms of cultural ambassadorship within Bachelor Nation. (The show’s host, Jesse Palmer, is himself a former Bachelor.) “The Golden Bachelor” makes the initial promise of the show plausible once again.
It is made to feel so plausible that it becomes unsettling. The very idea of a wife contest is somewhat demeaning to all involved, no matter their age. As I watch women be ritualistically dumped by their temporarily polyamorous lover, it is soothing to remember that it is just a television show, and perhaps a launchpad to a remunerative brand partnership. But Gerry’s suitors have brought whole lives to the mansion. I am finding it harder, frankly, to dehumanize them.
Contestants on “The Golden Bachelor” vie to impress Gerry, but they also seem tasked with justifying their very existence. They must prove that women over 60 warrant love and attention, from Gerry and from us. One woman rides a motorcycle to set. Another approaches with a walker, which she tosses away in a kind of age-play striptease.
Even as Gerry’s dates are booted from the show, they are made to feel grateful — that Gerry spoke to them, Gerry smiled at them, Gerry gave them the hope of future companionship with some non-Gerry entity. When Gerry cries outside the mansion in Episode 3, it is because the 60-year-old Joan tells him that she must exit the show early to be with her daughter, who is struggling after a difficult childbirth. “My heart maybe got a little fixed from Gerry,” Joan says as a limo drives her away. “As you get older, you become more invisible. People don’t see you anymore. Like you’re not as significant as when you’re young.” That’s when I cried; I cried for Joan.
As I waited for a new episode of “The Golden Bachelor” to drop, I watched a very different reality dating show: “FBoy Island,” which returned for a third season this week, picked up by the CW after its cancellation by Max. “FBoy Island,” created by a former “Bachelor” producer, plays like a meta sendup of “The Bachelor,” and it makes that show’s obsession with ulterior motives explicit. On “FBoy Island,” three single women are confronted with a crop of men eager to date them, and the women must decide which ones have come “for the right reasons.” Half of their suitors have arrived on the island as designated “nice guys” (who are looking for love) and half as self-proclaimed “FBoys” (who are only pretending to be nice). If an FBoy cons a woman into choosing him at season’s end, he pockets $100,000.
If “The Golden Bachelor” raises the stakes for romantic gameplay, “FBoy Island” lowers them like a limbo stick. One contestant, Vince, jokes with one of the women that they have “shared trauma” because they have both entered into ill-fated engagements on previous reality shows. But “FBoy Island” is wise in its own way, and one of its insights is that being a nice guy is not everything. Many men are eliminated from the show not because the women suspect them of being FBoys but because they simply dislike them.
And then there is Gerry. On “The Golden Bachelor,” he plays the consummate nice guy — a father of daughters, a grandfather to granddaughters. As he bounces from date to date, he performs the work of seeing women. He holds their hands, compliments their outfits and listens to stories about their dead husbands. He kisses them and brings them flowers. But he is not there to make friends. If “The Golden Bachelor” believes that women over 60 are deserving of love, it also believes that some are more deserving than others.
After Joan leaves, drama brews between Theresa and Kathy, 70. Theresa tells a group of women that she and Gerry had a wonderful date and a strong connection, and that he spoke of a potential future with her. This rattles Kathy, who rats Theresa out to Gerry, accusing her of gloating.
In the real world, a woman tells her friends about her exciting date with a new boyfriend. But inside the mansion, her friends are also her rivals, and her boyfriend is their boyfriend, too. When natural social laws are suspended, the producers can meddle however they like. Nice Gerry sounds chilling as he parrots a longtime “Bachelor” catchphrase: Confronted with drama in the house, he tells the camera, “I’m not here for that.”
“The Golden Bachelor” is still “The Bachelor.” Its cast of older women manages to make the most artificial of shows feel deep and real, but this also makes it hard to watch. Gerry comforts Kathy and punishes Theresa. At that evening’s rose ceremony, he makes Theresa wait and wait for a rose, shaking in a little dress, before he finally saves her from the brink of elimination. For the crime of being excited, she is reminded that Gerry has the power to make her disappear.