'The Bachelor' Is More Relevant Now Than Ever. | Gradient

‘The Bachelor’ Is More Relevant Now Than Ever.

There was a time, when I felt sort of guilty for being a voracious and indiscriminate consumer of all things Bachelor-related, but I’ve transcended the “guilt” phase and moved on to “acceptance.” Scientists say our brains are fully formed by the age of 25. It’s too late for me now.

And in any case, there’s no need to feel that guilty about it. Although The Bachelor and its spinoffs, like most reality television, are largely a producer-driven manipulation of fantasies and emotions—both ours and the cast’s—I do believe some of it is legitimate and sincere, as well. Moreover, while its entire premise is often derided as being unrealistic, if not downright unhealthy, that argument has started to sound a little out of touch with the current state of romance.

Take the recent season finale that just aired on March 14. Benjamin Higgins, the least loathsome bachelor in recent history (although let’s be honest, every guy looked a little better after Juan “It’s Okay” Pablo), is caught between two actually delightful and seemingly kind women: Lauren B. and JoJo. Sometimes at the end of the season it’s extraordinarily clear who the lead should choose or who they would be better with, but this time it wasn’t. You had a hard time rooting for either girl, because you really did like them both.

Lauren B. is distinct from the other three Laurens, a Laura, and a Leah that were on this season, and she is adorable. I wish she could bottle her ability to rock daisy dukes. I would buy it by the gallon. She really likes Ben, and Ben really likes her. She’s been a frontrunner from the beginning and is basically everything Ben’s sweet little small-town Indiana self was looking for.

But then there’s JoJo. JoJo is a goddess, and she is a goddess with substance. She’s able to navigate difficult and awkward conversations with Ben gracefully, and she doesn’t open up to him prematurely or do things she’s uncomfortable with in order to get his attention. She treats him, by and large, like a regular dude, and he’s into it. Throughout the season he confides in JoJo more than any other girl, and whenever he gets a case of The Feelings he usually goes running to her to process it. By the finale, he was calling her his best friend.

Yet, when the final episode aired, he chose Lauren.

And they seem very happy together. But before he proposed we got to watch an hour of Ben agonizing over his feelings for the two women, and we got a bit of insight into his decision-making process. He loved JoJo, he reasoned, and she was his best friend. They had experienced hardship together (her brothers were horrible to Ben), and he implicitly trusted her. But at the end of the day, he simply “loved Lauren more,” even though, as he himself said, they hadn’t experienced anything difficult together yet, and he was hoping they wouldn’t have to.

He was hoping they wouldn’t have to.

Experience anything difficult together.

In life.

Of course Lauren said yes, and JoJo, blessedly, is going to be the next Bachelorette, which is currently filming and expected to air in early summer. She totally deserves it, and I’m excited she gets a second chance at manufactured-in-6-to-8-weeks love.

But I have a couple of things I want to say about that.

First of all, is it really so hard to believe that people fall in love in 6 to 8 weeks? We do that all the time in real life. Sure, luxurious tropical beaches and bottomless margaritas aid the process a little bit, but in reality, most people have fallen in love in far shorter periods of time in far less romantic circumstances. I myself fell in love in about 6 hours on a rainy Phoenix afternoon in a smoke-filled “Mexican” bar carpeted in Astroturf called “Dos Gringos.” We make fun of people for doing it on The Bachelor, or look askance and swear it can’t be real, but it’s mostly because we know, deep down, that we’ve done it too. Sometimes it works out. Mostly it doesn’t. But the actual amount of time it takes to do the initial falling is largely irrelevant.

The truth is, while The Bachelor‘s premise may have seemed ludicrous when it launched in 2002(!), it was really just ahead of its time. In the ensuing 14 years, our culture of love and dating has come to accept the premise that love can happen in a flash—or at least over a short window of time. Tinder and other online dating apps have made love digitally savvy, and digitally savvy things move fast. The notion of love at first sight is as old as Shakespeare, it’s just more ubiquitous now than it has been in the past, and The Bachelor was primed to capitalize. In a way, the show is more relevant now than ever. The current debate is about whether or not our current brand of fast-paced digital dating is ultimately healthy, and that brings me to my second point.

Whether or not you love someone doesn’t have a great deal to do with whether or not you can build a life with them. The bleeding heart in me loves the sentiment of The Beatles’ “Love Is All You Need,” but at the end of the day, it’s not. Especially when it comes to marriage: the purported goal of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I have been desperately in love with people I had absolutely no business trying to marry and absolutely no possibility of building a functional, mutually beneficial life together. Similarly, there are people I would have been great with on paper, but the spark just wasn’t there in real life for one or both of us.

My working theory is that the sweet spot lies somewhere in between those two extremes. A good rule of thumb is that if someone makes you feel like you were covered in gasoline and lit on fire all the time, they’re probably not a person that you can wash dishes and go to family reunions and raise children and fight honorably with, as fun as it may be to make out with them. But there has to be a burning of some sort, because there’s nothing like a good fight to make you realize all of the things you dislike about your partner all at once.

A slow burn. It sounds a little unromantic compared to the gas fire, but a gas fire will incinerate you eventually. A slow burn keeps you warm, and it doesn’t run out.

Unfortunately, the “slow burn” type of people rarely get picked on The Bachelor. Because at the end of the day, it’s not really that kind of show, is it? There have been a few successful relationships and marriages out of the franchise, but they’re incidental. The Bachelor‘s purpose is primarily voyeuristic. We love to watch the train wreck. We love to watch the incineration. Even Ben, who seemed like a relatively well-rounded and emotionally in-touch human man, got caught up in the moment and picked, in my opinion, a gas fire over a slow burn. He may have loved Lauren “more,” but JoJo I think would have made a better partner and friend in life to him. After all, he was in love with her, too.

That voyeurism is another way The Bachelor anticipated a coming culture of backseat dating. Head over to Twitter and check out the stream of screenshots from fumbled Tinder first lines that run the gamut from endearingly awkward to downright ghastly. Walk into a bar and watch a group of friends debate whether or not to #swiperight on one particular profile. The Bachelor championed (and continues to champion) the idea of love as a spectator sport. Now, we’re all on our own JV teams, looking for our own gas fires.

Ben and Lauren may very well work out and live happily ever after. Time will tell. Metaphors like “gas fire” and “slow burn” can’t exhaustively account for the human experience. The heart wants what it wants. I wish them all the best.

But I’m mostly looking forward to JoJo’s season of The Bachelorette. I’m looking forward to seeing how a goddess falls in love, how ABC will try to top itself, and how culture will continue to catch up to the world The Bachelor helped create.