A History of The Bachelor, by the People Who Lived It


You know the opening shot in your sleep: the lush driveway of a Los Angeles mansion, our Bachelor patting beads of sweat, nervously adjusting his jacket and tie, with trusty host Chris Harrison by his side and ABC’s cameras all around him, awaiting the arrival of five limos, each filled with five women in their cocktail finest, one of whom could be his future wife, or at least his partner in Instagram product endorsements for as long as they can stand feigning a relationship, until the public’s interest wanes and it’s on to the woman he didn’t pick, our beautiful new Bachelorette!

When Ben Higgins, a six-foot-four, 27-year-old software accounts manager from Denver, takes his place in that iconic tableau on January 4, he will be the 20th Bachelor in 15 years to place the fate of his love life in the Machiavellian hands of network-television producers. Since it first aired in March 2002, ABC’s reality-dating-show franchise has gone from novelty to phenomenon to joke to institution. In addition to 20 seasons of The Bachelor, there have been 11 seasons of its spinoff The Bachelorette; three seasons of the now-defunct Big Brother–style game show Bachelor Pad; and two seasons of the glorious gift to summer that is Bachelor in Paradise, in which rejected participants from various seasons of the main shows gather on a beach in Mexico and must hook up to survive.

Ben H., as he’s known among Bachelor cognoscenti, owes his future Make-Out Bandit status to being the third-to-last guy to be sent home on waitress-slash-dance-instructor Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of The Bachelorette — the season that came closest to reflecting real life. While most “leads” follow the show’s rigid progression from group dates to one-on-one dates, to meeting the parents, to spending the night, to putting a ring on it, Bristowe took a date back to her hotel room early in the season because she was feeling the vibe, and ditched her camera crew for alone time in the hotel room of a different guy, who eventually became her fiancé. She may well be the first person in those 36 seasons of prime-time reality television to utter the word “sex.”

That season, as they all do, eventually became an advertisement for old-fashioned, heteronormative matrimony between white people. But for all its traditionalism, The Bachelor may be a template for modern dating. Because what was that opening night 15 years ago, in which a single man speed-dated his way through 25 women, other than Tinder swiping in person, years ahead of its time? The Bachelor is a show based less on the idea of kismet than it is a careful process of elimination by which you try people on and see if they’re right for you, and if they’re not, there’s always another one who will please accept your rose.

Today, terms like “rose ceremony” and “Fantasy Suite” and “journey” and “connection” and “here for the right reasons” have become such a part of our lexicon that it’s hard to remember there once was a time when The Bachelor was a foreign and somewhat terrifying concept.

Though the show debuted in the spring of 2002, hot on the heels of Survivor, Big Brother, and Fear Factor, and months before American Idol, creator Mike Fleiss claims the concept is sui generis, developed at the same time as those other shows. Reality TV in those early years was the province of cable networks: The Real World and Road Rules had been going strong on MTV. For a show to displace sitcoms or dramas in a prime-time network lineup, it needed to have a stronger hook, like 16 strangers left on an island to eat bugs and compete for a million dollars, or four couples left on an island with a bunch of hot singles to see who strays, as in 2001’s Temptation Island.

Comparisons to P.T. Barnum fly fast and loose when talking about Fleiss. “Back then, we were more interested in spectacles and breaking the rules. We were trying to see how far we could approach television with a ‘You can’t do that! Yes, we can!’ sort of attitude,” Fleiss says of his time partnering with Mike Darnell, then in charge of specials at Fox. Before The Bachelor, their biggest ratings coup was 2000’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, in which 50 women competed in a pageant for the hand of a barely multimillionaire, Rick Rockwell, who remained hidden in a pod until he emerged to marry the winner, Darva Conger, live on prime time. Love wasn’t even a consideration, says Fleiss. “We just wanted to do big, noisy, controversial specials.” The ratings doubled to a record high over the course of two hours, as people called their friends to tell them something insane was happening on Fox, and then two weeks later, when the couple returned from Barbados to annul their union, news broke that Rockwell had had a restraining order filed against him nine years prior by a previous girlfriend.

This was before background checks were routine for reality shows. The scandal was covered in the New York Times and was the lead story on NBC Nightly News. “I had satellite trucks parked outside of my house for almost a week,” says Fleiss, who’s still proud of the show. “I think it should be in the Library of Congress. That show was beautiful.” He claims he was blacklisted after that, forced to pitch shows through other people (“somebody who wasn’t a pariah”) who’d cut him in on the deals, because he couldn’t get into the room. (One discarded pitch idea from that time: Mail Order Bride.) Eventually, though, memories faded and Fleiss himself was able to sell a show called High School Reunion to the now-gone WB. He’d had another idea at the ready for a show in which one guy dates 25 women and proposes to one — Multi-Millionaire had convinced him that America was thirsting for a show about relationships, “just more romantic and more responsible” — but had learned not to keep pitching once he’d sold something in the room. He took the concept for The Bachelor elsewhere.

People were not exactly falling over themselves to buy this concept from the guy who’d caused a national scandal with a show about marriage. Darnell at Fox passed; he already had Temptation Island. Jeff Zucker at NBC passed; he had Fear Factor. ABC told him to retool it and come back. He tried again, this time pitching to executive Andrea Wong, now head of international TV at Sony, who’d actually been a fan of Multi-Millionaire. “That show was incredibly well-produced,” she says. She ordered six hour-long episodes of this new show, The Bachelor, to be shot over two months, the typical order for most reality shows at the time, when they were pretty much low-cost grabs for advertising dollars before their inevitable flameouts.

Jason Carbone, now founder of the production company Good Clean Fun, who directed the first season of The Bachelor and served as executive producer through season six, remembers Fleiss handing him the gigantic proposal he’d sold to ABC, “and then he gave me a budget and he goes, ‘How do we make this happen?’ Originally, Mike Fleiss had 50 women, not 25. He had them traveling around the world. He really sold the notion of Cinderella on a grand scale.” And it was left to Fleiss, Carbone, and producers like David Bohnert, Scott Jeffress, and Lisa Levenson, a veteran of soap operas who’s now in charge of unscripted programming at Fox, to hole up in a room and figure out how to create that kind of fantasy with less than a million dollars. Much of development was spent on formatting the show to progress like a typical relationship, moving from group dates (kind of like hanging out with friends), to one-on-one dates, to more serious one-on-one dates, to meeting the parents (known in show parlance as “Hometowns”), to taking a weekend away (the “Overnights,” complete with a “Fantasy Suite”), and finally ending with a proposal. Fleiss’s original vision was almost identical to how the show exists today. “Some of the details, like the Fantasy Suite Card” — the somewhat-creepy note from Chris Harrison to the lead and each of his or her final three paramours informing them that they may choose to forgo their individual rooms and spend the night together — “I came up with later when I was in production,” says Fleiss. “But the whole rose thing, the Hometowns, all of that clicked in. I saw the whole show in my head almost instantaneously. It was a weird experience.”

The biggest hurdle was finding a guy who seemed like a decent catch who’d actually agree to star on a reality show that had never been done before. “Nobody wanted to do this show! Or any shows! How do you think we ended up with Rick Rockwell?” says Fleiss. During casting, Survivor really was the only network reality show on the air. “So when we started talking to people about doing the show, they couldn’t envision it,” says Fleiss. “They were like, ‘What?’” Andrea Wong remembers sending the casting directors back to the drawing board after seeing the first batch of potential Bachelors they’d brought in. “None of them were good enough,” she says. “In order to make it palatable that 25 women would date one man, the first Bachelor had to be the right guy to launch the format. We had to put him on a pedestal.”

Enter Alex Michel. He was a tall, dark, handsome businessman, 31 years of age, and had been valedictorian, student-body president, homecoming king, and captain of the swim team in high school before going to Harvard as an undergraduate and then on to Stanford Business School. “Andrea Wong is a brilliant woman,” says Fleiss, “and in her mind’s eye, the most eligible man in America, the most desirable single man — marriage material — should be a highly educated guy. So that’s how he got the job over guys that I think were probably more like the guys we cast now.”

He also had an X-factor that’s crucial to the show: “Alex wanted to be on a reality show,” says Carbone. “He had applied for Survivor before he had applied for The Bachelor.” When it came to throwing his love life and reputation in the hands of an untested reality scheme, “Alex needed no convincing,” says Carbone, though Fleiss remembers he required some “wining and dining.” [Writer’s Note: I made multiple attempts to contact Alex, following leads from Wong, Chris Harrison, people who knew him at Harvard and Stanford, and his LinkedIn page. He appears to be the head of strategy at Microsoft in London; to his credit, he hasn’t been in the fold of the franchise for years. As Rob Mills, the ABC executive in charge of "alternative series," including The Bachelor, tells me, “He is absolutely the D.B. Cooper of The Bachelor.”]

Alex’s pedigree gave the show a certain gravitas it desperately needed. The casting of the women became immediately easier. “When you’re trying to convince women to do a dating show, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Well, the Bachelor has a degree from Stanford and a degree from Harvard,’” says Carbone. “Ladies’ ears perk up.”

Now they needed a host. Chris Harrison had moved from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to help launch a horse-racing network, TVG. In addition to sportscasting, he was host of the competition show Designers’ Challenge on HGTV, which he proudly tells me was the network’s highest-rated show. “Chris Harrison had done absolutely nothing prior,” says Fleiss. “He did TVG, which was horse-racing. Something so low to the ground. I swear to God, back then, reality was such a negative to everybody in the business that it was hard to get a host.”

The first meeting with Fleiss, says Harrison, “went horribly wrong. We hated each other. It was a five-minute meeting that I was told would take an hour.” The job went to someone else, but two weeks later Fleiss wanted to meet again. Harrison nearly refused because he hated Fleiss so much. “It’s funny, Mike Fleiss walked out of his office and yelled across the room, ‘Harrison, you were F-ing terrible in our first meeting, but I hear you’re a good guy. Let’s do this again.’ And I did it and we hit it off and we’ve been best friends ever since.”

No one will say who was originally cast as host, but apparently the things that made Harrison clash with Fleiss at first were exactly what the show needed. “Mike is very Hollywood, California, black board shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops,” says Harrison. “I’m from Texas and grew up in the South. Very old-school and traditional. Married, had a kid. Suit and tie. The guy next door. So it was like oil and water when we first met, but I think eventually that’s what they wanted to settle on and not some Hollywood host.”

All the pieces were falling into place. They’d found a mansion with a pool and a hot tub in Malibu overlooking the ocean. Production was set to start January 2002 date. In the meantime, there was meeting after meeting to discuss details. They’d gotten as far as deciding on five limo arrivals with five women each. “We were very, very cognizant of the order in which the girls were introduced to Alex,” says Carbone. “You wanted to make sure that you just don’t have a blonde limo or a brunette limo. Every creative decision that was made on that show was debated and discussed and scrutinized to within an inch of its life. And then it’s go time.”

Andrea Wong took Alex aside. “I felt a certain amount of responsibility,” she says, “and I remember saying to him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because this will fundamentally change your life, and you will forever be known as the Bachelor.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He was prepared to go into this knowing that it would define him.”

Fleiss was less optimistic. “Back then, we didn’t think we’d be doing 20 seasons of it. We thought we’d do two seasons of it,” he says. “I didn’t think it was going to be big. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, you won’t be able to walk down the street without being mobbed.’ And that’s what happened to Alex Michel three weeks into the first season. By episode three, he couldn’t go anywhere.”

A few months earlier, Trista Rehn (now Sutter), a 28-year-old pediatric physical therapist at Miami Children’s Hospital, who’d also been a cheerleader for the Miami Heat, turned on Extra when she got home from work and saw the casting director for a new reality show called The Bachelor was looking for applicants. “She said they would have international travel and you could live in a mansion in Malibu,” says Trista. “And I wasn’t 100 percent happy in my life, so I applied and thought I could meet a lot of fun new people and maybe meet a guy.”

Trista would eventually become Alex’s heartbroken final rejectee and the franchise’s first Bachelorette, who also gave the show its first, and for seven years only, marriage. But what she remembers about the franchise’s very first night, she says, was “stressing out about the dress that I was going to wear.” They were in charge of their own clothes — there wasn’t really a budget to outfit 25 women, ten of whom would be gone by the end of the night. Plus, says Trista, “The show hadn’t been on, so you don’t know what everyone else is going to wear.” The concept of the show at the time was total surprise, so she’d never seen a photo of Alex and knew next to nothing about him. “The way that I looked at it was if we had a connection, then awesome. I was really open and honest with how I was feeling, and I just felt, If he likes me, great, if not, then this was cool.”

Behind the scenes, though, nothing was casual. “It was the most stressful night of my life, period,” says Carbone. As a veteran of MTV, he’d directed plenty of reality-TV shows before, but nothing of this scale. “It was the first reality show where we had that many wireless microphones working at once. You had 25 ladies miked. You had microphones on both Chris Harrison and the Bachelor. Every wireless camera had at least two wireless receivers on it. We didn’t know, frequency-wise, if we were even going to be able to make this work.”

They had ten cameras rolling for ten hours, for 100 hours of footage to be cut into one hour, trying to catch the Bachelor interacting with women, women saying catty things about each other, and pulling aside everyone one by one for on-the-fly interviews now known as “in the moments,” or ITMs. Carbone was in a room of the mansion that had been repurposed as the control room, staring at a bank of monitors. Fleiss was trying to calm down the half a dozen ABC executives who’d shown up and all had opinions.

Harrison, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what his job was. What was he supposed to do between saying his lines? Just hang out? He’d asked Survivor host Jeff Probst for advice upon running into him at a charity event just before shooting started. “He said, ‘You’re going to find your place. You’ve got to figure out your little thing in this.’” Harrison is now an executive producer, serving as a kind of brotherly confidante for the Bachelor or Bachelorette and mediator of conflicts, including a couple juicy on-air interventions in affairs between crew members and contestants (not to mention an executive producer), but at the time he wasn’t much more than a talking head delivering scripted lines.

Harrison’s signature superlatives — “most dramatic ever!” “most shocking ever!” — were there from the very beginning, though. “That was Mike Fleiss one hundred percent,” he says. “Mike has this thing where he would put stuff in a show almost to annoy people and writers and critics until the point where they would write a story and people would talk about it. Really, his goal was, ‘We’re going to have you say this until people talk about it so much that it’s a thing.’ You push it, you push it, you push it, it becomes a joke, but then it becomes a thing where it wraps you like a warm blanket, where you hear it and you’re like, ‘Aw, this is The Bachelor. This is it.’ It’s funny, I’m about to say the same thing on season 20.”

Going into that first night, says Fleiss, “I didn’t know if the girls would care at all. I thought, Maybe they’ll see it as just a lark, or they’ll find it too misogynistic. But they started caring right away. I can tell, I swear to God, within 20 minutes of shooting whether or not a new show is going to be decent. And a lot of times it’s not. You can tell the concept’s just not working and you’re going to have to milk things out and manufacture stuff, and The Bachelor never required that. It just started working.”

Fleiss always knew that the night would end with some kind of elimination. “That was the only way to make the show work if you wanted to have a marriage at the end,” he says. “I wanted them to get married at the end, but in light of the Multi-Millionaire scandal, the feeling was maybe we shouldn’t push too hard on that.” And as Fleiss remembers picturing it, the elimination always involved roses. Why roses? He doesn’t know. “I like the Grateful Dead and they have a lot of roses and they sing about roses a lot, so maybe that was it?” he says. “It just seemed like a perfect symbol. I didn’t even consider anything else.”

Harrison remembers less certainty and more practicality. “There were massive discussions of, ‘What would a guy give a girl that is a token, that is something that’s visual? Would it be a necklace?” he says. The idea was that in any shot, the audience should be able to discern the forlorn women from the happy ones without having to rely on their faces. “At the beginning,” says Harrison, “it was just a tool to differentiate people that had been picked from those who hadn’t onscreen.”

Then they had to figure out how the rose ceremony would look. “The original concept,” says Fleiss, “was that they would all be seated at a table and the Bachelor would walk around and place roses in front of the girls that he wanted to stay. But it seemed dorky.” They tried having the women sit on couches, which looked ridiculous. Then they tried staggering the women on the staircase, says Harrison, “and we thought, Well, that looks like they’re singing in a choir.” Finally, they settled on arranging the women in a horseshoe so they could get shots of everyone’s faces, with the Bachelor standing at a podium under an arch. “It had this great formality,” says Harrison.

“It was a night I’ll never forget,” says Fleiss. “To see them do that for the first time — now it’s like, ‘Well, of course you line up and he stands there and he hands them roses and you say, ‘Yes,’ and you hug him or you give him a little kiss. Back then, they didn’t know what was going on. And neither did the crew or the cameramen. They’d never seen that before. It was awesome.”

Even the signature way the Bachelor or Bachelorette calls out names was born that night. “It drove Alex crazy how he had to hand out those roses, and if you watch the show, it’s really specific,” says Carbone. “There is somebody you don’t see off-camera, who is our assistant director, and when I am good and ready for the Bachelor to hand out a rose, I give a signal to the assistant director, and the AD gives a hand signal, and that tells the Bachelor that he at that point is only allowed to say their names.” Alex would say a name, the woman would walk up and stand in front of him, and then Alex would have to wait for the next signal to say the line “Will you please accept this rose?” “The reason why you have all those wonderful shots of people perspiring and getting nervous is that literally what should take about 20 or 30 seconds, I would milk those moments for probably two or three minutes,” says Carbone. “I knew that I needed to create drama, and the best way to create drama amongst ladies competing against the same gentleman is making them wait and making them sweat.”

Fleiss remembers a producer friend calling him up right after the rose ceremony had ended to ask how it was. “And I said, ‘Well, I know it’s weird.’ And I thought it was good, but I was positive that it was very weird.’”

That first night began at sundown and ended just as the sun was coming up, with the remaining women being put into vans to go back to their hotels to gather their belongings so Harrison could move them into the house were they were going to live for the next month. An hour later, he was back to set up the first group date, a concept that would never fly in real life but was an expeditious way for the Bachelor to spend more time with his bevy of paramours in their limited time frame of six episodes. (Little-known fact, given the frequent criticisms of the show’s lack of diversity: Alex’s first kiss, and the first kiss ever on The Bachelor, was with an African-American woman on a group date.)

The producers were also dealing with contestants who had grown up at a time when neither reality television nor smartphones — let alone the idea of constantly documenting one’s life and putting it on the internet for public consumption — existed. Fleiss thinks the biggest change to the show is the cast’s comfort in front of the cameras. “Now this generation of people who show up on this program, they’re used to selfies and filming everything and taking pictures of their food,” he says. “They’ve lived their whole lives in front of a camera and they’ve lived their whole lives in a universe where a show like The Bachelor exists. You get a much more authentic portrayal of who the person is than back then when people were so guarded about it. They were afraid of everything.”

Fleiss now laughs thinking about how Alex's dad nearly punched him on the show's first Hometown (for making a fool of his son on national TV), or how much time contestants would spend in the Fantasy Suite searching for hidden cameras. Being filmed in swimsuits was another issue. On the overnight dates in episode five, he remembers one woman refused to get in the hot tub. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, you won’t get in the hot tub? It’s part of the show,’” says Fleiss. He tried every tactic possible. “It was a combination of the Bachelor reassuring her and me coming in and saying, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t show anything explicit, and you can wear your robe and get into the water before we even start filming.’ Finally, we got her in the hot tub, but it took three hours. Now they dive right in.”

Before The Bachelor aired, Carbone handed Fleiss a letter in a sealed envelope with instructions not to open it until the first season had finished airing. “I made ten predictions in that letter as to the fate of The Bachelor, before the world saw it,” says Carbone. “And eight of my ten predictions came true. I said we would get picked up for season two before we were done with season one. That came to pass. I said that after the first episode, every subsequent episode would do better than the previous. I was off by one episode. We dipped in episode two, but from episode two to episode six it went up like a gorgeous stock chart. I predicted it would be the most-watched reality show during its run and it was.”

Rob Mills was an assistant at Fleiss’s agency, CAA, at the time, and remembers feeling the trajectory among viewers. “It came on somewhat quietly,” he says, “and then the next week three or four people in the office were talking about it, and the next week three or four more, and by the second-to-last week it was a dull roar, and for the finale, you saw people leaving early to get home to watch it, like, ‘Oh my God, I have to see who this guy’s going to choose.’ It was this really big event and you had to watch TV when it came on. There were no DVRs. This was the olden days.”

The show had hate-watchers, too, from the very beginning. “There were women I worked with, colleagues who had nothing to do with my department, who thought it was completely sexist and inappropriate,” says Andrea Wong. “Because it was 25 women fighting for the attention of one guy. I think they got over it. Look, a hit is a hit, so when it became a gigantic hit, people got over it very quickly.”

The women on the show got caught up in the excitement, too, Trista says. “I totally bought into the fact that I was falling for Alex. Looking back I definitely — I liked him, I liked who he was on paper, and we did have great conversations and a good connection, so I kind of put all of that together and thought, Oh yeah, we’re made for each other! Taken out of context without television cameras around and 24 other girls, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have had the same kind of thoughts, that it was going to be a forever relationship. I mean, I literally went into the final rose ceremony thinking that I was going to get engaged. Because he told me the night before, on our final date. I put him on the spot, and I said, ‘If you had to make your final choice now, who would you choose?’ And he said me, of course. Duh. What else was he going to say?”

Carbone says he knew on the Hometown episode, though, that Alex had no intention of proposing to anyone, “and there was no amount of cajoling or towel-wringing that was going to change his mind.” And on the day of the final rose ceremony, he also knew that it wasn’t going to be Trista. But to make the show, they had to let it play out. They’d have the woman being sent home come up first, alone (“we had to figure out a way for her to have her dignity,” says Andrea Wong), and then cut to commercial break to give the audience time to emotionally recover before the joy of the proposal — or in Alex’s case, the proposal that he and Amanda Marsh, that season’s winner, explore a future together. “When we had Trista falling in love and he picked Amanda, but he was going back and forth,” says Chris Harrison, “we were sitting in the control room going, ‘Oh my God, this is some of the best television we’ve ever seen.’”

“You saw how truly hurt and devastated and angry Trista was. She reacted the way we all would have,” says Brooke Karzen, an executive vice-president at Warner Horizon Television, the studio that makes the show. “That, to me, was a defining moment of the franchise. That’s when you know it’s going to work, that people will watch the show, they will relate to it. Constantly throughout the process we’d have 50 crew members gathered around a TV monitor waiting to see who would get picked next because the people in the cast cared so much.”

What Trista didn’t know that day was that Fleiss and the other producers were actively pitching The Bachelorette to the network and had her in mind as its star. She was so distraught at the time, she tells me, that she begged the producers to let her speak with Alex. “I thought I was getting engaged and then all of a sudden I wasn’t and I couldn’t even have a conversation with Alex. He was off doing his thing with his new fiancée.” The producers set up a phone call between Trista and Alex on the condition that they could tape it. “And I remember telling him how upset I was and how heartbroken, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I think I may have made a mistake. I want to come over there. Can I come to your hotel room?’ And Fleiss and Lisa [Levenson] were listening in and they were like, ‘Absolutely not!’ Can you imagine? Whoa! I thank God they didn’t let him come over because who knows what would have happened. My life would be so different now.” 

Trista went back to Miami. Three months later, while she was at a viewing party for the finale, Fleiss called to see if she wanted to be the Bachelorette. “I mean, a national television network, having people paid to search for someone who would fit what I was looking for?” she says. “That’s crazy! And I was striking out in Miami, so why not?” The show’s announcement was met with violent criticism from the public and press, who said Trista was anti-feminist for looking for a husband on TV (“I remember being told that I was setting the women’s movement back a decade”), and a slut for dating 25 guys at once. But on the show she met Ryan Sutter, a sweet, handsome firefighter from Vail, Colorado, who wrote her poems. He proposed on air, they married a year later in a spectacular wedding paid for and broadcast by ABC, and now live in Vail with their daughter, Blakesley, and son, Max. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if they’d let Alex come over that night,” says Trista, “because that means I wouldn’t be with my husband and we wouldn’t have just celebrated 12 years of marriage, and I wouldn’t have my beautiful babies.”

Thank God for the viewers, too, that the producers didn’t let Alex see Trista. Otherwise we would have never been able to witness her fulfill her destiny with Ryan, and the jilted-contestant-to-Bachelor/Bachelorette trajectory of the show would never have been realized. Beyond the surface joys of watching strangers meeting strangers, and going out in awkward group scenarios (or on the dreaded and always doomed two-on-one date), and figuring out how to make out with someone in a room full of other people they’re also dating, and getting whisked away to exciting activities and destinations like shooting guns in Deadwood, South Dakota, or communing with monkeys in Bali, Indonesia, what really makes this incredibly contrived yet entirely engrossing show work is exactly what happened with Trista: Spurned lover rising from the ashes to become, essentially, Portia — awash with suitors put to the test until the one she was truly meant to be with emerges from the rabble to take her hand. The Bachelor has become a looping Shakespearean universe of princes and princesses and clowns and villains, built on a belief in fate and the formality of process, and the incredibly rewarding viewing experience of watching someone get brutally heartbroken pick him- or herself up from a heap to become a prize, again and again.

Once an also-ran on The Bachelor started becoming the next Bachelorette and vice versa (every Bachelorette has been recycled from a previous season, but the trend only began regularly* on The Bachelor in 2009’s season 13, with Jason Mesnick, who’d been rejected by DeAnna Pappas, who'd been rejected by Brad Womack, the Austin bar owner who shockingly chose no one), the show found its groove not as a competition dating show but as a reality soap opera with recurring characters in whom the audience and each new batch of contestants already have a vested interest.* “Casting is so much better because when the girls come in, they tell us, ‘I can see myself married to Jason or Jake or Juan Pablo even or Sean,’” says Mills. “So it’s easier to cast than if they find out who the Bachelor is when they arrive and then if they don’t have chemistry with him, you’re stuck with a season of girls who don’t necessarily see a future with this guy.” Plus, by using known entities, the show lowers the risk of having a Bachelor who isn’t sincere about wanting to get hitched. “I think when people go a long way and they get their heart broken,” says Mills, “they also realize they’re ready to find the one and it certainly makes them more open to the process.”

The three-season game show, Bachelor Pad, in which previous contestants all lived in a house, hooked up with each other, and occasionally engaged in challenges with the goal of winning $250,000, is a direct result of the franchise wanting to capitalize on the phenomenon of the show’s jilted lovers (who are the vast majority of people who’ve been on it) getting together and even becoming couples at debauched reunions and cruises. “We just looked at it like we have created all of these lives and these characters, and these stories,” says Harrison, “and they all have this extraordinary thing in common, the very rare experience that they share, and we know that they’re already looking for love and they’re sincere and they’re single, so why not continue this and take advantage of it?” The franchise’s current juggernaut, Bachelor in Paradise, which last summer aired for two nights, and was followed by a one-hour talk show, After Paradise, in which celebrity fans like Kris Jenner hash out what happened, is the culmination of that idea. The show in which contestants must find “a connection” with someone of the opposite sex or risk being sent home has produced the highest percentage of successful couples of any iteration of the franchise, with season one’s Marcus and Lacy already married and season two’s Jade and Tanner living together and planning their wedding.

The Bachelor has created a fantasy world in which there are no losers in love. Get your heart broken? You could become the next Bachelor or Bachelorette, or at least get a slot on Bachelor in Paradise, with another group of attractive men or women trying to connect with you. Eventually, everyone will find someone — on the show and off. The stiff formality and steady progress of “the process” only adds to the sense that we, too, can find order in our love lives, which is a profoundly comforting feeling for the young and single — and even the old and married.

“Whether Mike Fleiss knew it at the start or not, the genius behind the show is that it’s so simple,” says Harrison. “The Bachelor is just about the one currency that transfers all around the world. It’s about love, and these two people in this amazing, awkward, hopeful situation. That’s it. That’s the entire show.” But only if you’re there for the right reasons, of course.

*This post has been corrected to account for Bob Guiney being recycled in season 4.

Collages by James Gallagher