ABC’s took its longest-running reality TV franchise into a new chapter with The Golden Bachelor, opening with a scene of its star, Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) Turner, age 71, getting dressed, and reaching for his hearing aid.
The camera zoomed in on the device, and then on his ear as he slid it on. You see, he’s very old.
“I’m 71, and I’m your first Golden Bachelor,” Gerry said.
The Golden Bachelor echoed its non-metallic sibling in many ways. The candles were lit, producers had prepped the women with props and corny introductions, and the preview for the season shows Gerry bringing the drama by saying “I’m done” and walking away.
Gerry, who seems very genuine, was well-coached in repeating the show’s bullshit. “I’m going to meet the woman of my dreams very shortly,” he told host Jesse Palmer. “I hope I recognize her.” You mean: I hope they cast her.
ABC even managed to squeeze in a Jimmy Kimmel promo, with his aunt, Concetta, showing up as a pretend contestant.
This is very much The Bachelor, just with an older contestant. The show has taken no risks, no derivation from its well-worn formula. Yet it also had more life than a typical season.
The Golden Bachelor did this all this, though, on a different foundation.
After the hearing aid scene, Gerry told us the story of his wife’s death. They bought their dream house; shortly after, “I took my wife to the emergency room on July 7, and she never came home,” he said.
Crying, Gerry said, “I yearn for the second chance in life, to fall in love again.”
During a commercial break, there was a preview for Bachelor in Paradise in which its pretty young dumb things said “I’m ready to do life with somebody” and “I want to find my person so badly.”
Of course people in theirs 20s and 30s can desire connection, partnership, and love. Yet compared to Gerry’s ache, and similar stories shared by the women who’d arrived to the mansion, Bachelor in Paradise just seemed ridiculous.
A cast’s life experience makes for better reality television: there’s more to draw from, more to compare to. That doesn’t mean sad stories, either, and The Golden Bachelor didn’t just construct a foundation of sadness during its arrivals episode.
There was a joyous early-morning dance party, and a fun moment about the production’s expectations after the first woman pulled Gerry away.
When 75-year-old Sandra arrived, she asked Gerry to do some meditation with her, and then said “fuck” with each breath, making Gerry laugh, too.
And even in an episode that doesn’t have time to do much more than give each of the 22 women one character note—”I can’t wait for the next chapter of this journey. What I’m most looking for is to get to the next layer,” Gerry said, and I agree—there were additional beats.
For example, Sandra told us, “I want intimacy with a guy.” We may be 38 years after the premiere of The Golden Girls, but television shows, especially prime-time broadcast TV reality dating shows, still don’t acknowledge the sexuality of older people.
There’s a lot of room for The Golden Bachelor to still go wrong. This is a franchise that hasn’t earned trust, from its treatment of women to its treatment of people of color, never mind the decades of manipulative producing to engineer drama. And the hearing aid scene worries me that they’ll settle into comfortable clichés.
Yet The Golden Bachelor’s first hour was more watchable than I expected, and more interesting than the start to any recent season of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette I can remember.
It proved that a cast with depth can overpower even the most rigid of formulas, even if it’s not exactly fresh. The stories and experiences all the cast brought to the mansion grounded even this, a ridiculous, high-failure-rate competition that exists to be a soap opera, not a matchmaking service.
I found the first rose ceremony, which usually is almost perfunctory since we know so little about most of the about-to-be-eliminated people, actually heartbreaking. The women vying for Gerry’s affections can certainly find love elsewhere, but to have this opportunity cut so short after just an overnight cocktail party and two conversations? Alas.
And I just about lost it after the episode ended. Earlier, Ellen, a 71-year-old retired teacher from Florida, got out of the limo and exclaimed “Roberta, we made it!”
She was talking to her best friend, who’s dealing with cancer, and who watched The Bachelor with Ellen and encouraged her to apply.
Ellen referred more than once to the excitement of getting to watch herself on TV with Roberta. And then came this title card:
“This season is dedicated in loving memory to Roberta Zaktzer, 1952-2023.”
The show filmed in August and debuted in late September, and Roberta didn’t live long enough to see Ellen on The Golden Bachelor.
This was not the only death mentioned in the spin-off’s premiere episode, but what really came through for me—in Gerry’s story, Roberta’s death, and many of the stories we heard—was not lament, as tragic as those losses were. Instead, it was about the cast taking advantage of the time they do have, and continuing to find new experiences and connection.
Whether or not finding love can happen in a few weeks of filming a highly produced reality TV show remains to be seen, but I’ll keep watching The Golden Bachelor for now, because with this cast brings more weight and seriousness to the proceedings than those who’ve occupied the mansion before them.