There was a moment on this week’s episode of The Bachelorette that made my jaw drop. It had nothing to do with a fight between contestants or a heartbreaking revelation. Rather, it was water in the desert. Lots of it. And it made me think about the future of a show that has traditionally portrayed environmental excesses as the height of romance.
In the episode, this season’s current spunky single, Katie, has the task of narrowing her pool of bland hunks down from seven to four. On a date with one of the current pack leaders—Greg, a man with the affect and slightly dopey smile of a purebred Golden Retriever—Katie says she wants to give him a taste of her hometown. Accordingly, the producers turn the set into a mini-Seattle, letting Greg and Katie throw around a fish in an imitation of Pike’s Place Market and toss a football to honor the Seattle Seahawks (sure). At the end of the date, Katie tells Greg that “it wouldn’t be a Seattle date without some rain,” cueing the producers to unleash a full fake rainstorm for the happy couple to kiss in, set over sweeping orchestral music.
I’ve been watching the franchise for years, and I’ve seen a lot of the show’s “dramatic” twists and turns. This moment felt somehow different. I knew that, because of covid-19 restrictions, Katie and her stable of suitors were confined to filming the majority of the season in one location—the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be exact. I also know that in May, just two months after the show started filming, the Drought Monitor declared more than half of the state to be in the most severe form of drought. And I also know that right now, just a few months after Katie and Greg’s little Seattle date, there are wildfires engulfing the West—including several in New Mexico. All this in addition to the fact that the real Seattle and the rest of the Northwest just suffered through all-time hot weather; the region is still counting how many people perished in the heat wave.
I don’t watch the Bachelor for any sort of moral guidance (lol), but for whatever reason, my hackles went up. In our climate emergency, watching all that water go to waste in what was being presented as a “romantic” moment felt like anything but.
For those of you who haven’t spent hours of your life aimlessly watching this franchise (good for you), “dates” in The Bachelor-land aren’t just dinner and a little conversation, but extravagant, wild affairs. This week isn’t the first time that producers have messed with the environment to create “romance” for their contestants. In 2011, The Bachelor created an entire fake ski slope for winemaker Ben Flajnik and a group of women to go skiing—in San Francisco while it was in the mid-80s, while the women were wearing bikinis, naturally. In March of 2014, just two months after California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the then-newly developing drought, an episode of The Bachelor aired where Juan Pablo Galavis wooed contestant (and future Bachelorette) Clare Crawley with a date in a snow-covered fake “winter wonderland” that had been set up for them in Los Angeles. According to the special effects company that produced the date, it required “100 tons of real snow” and was set up in “80 degree weather” amid the state’s driest year on record.
Even these outlandish and resource-intensive dates pale in comparison to the sheer amount of carbon the show has expended on travel alone. Unlike other hit reality shows, where the action tends to take place in one spot (Survivor, anyone?), travel is an integral part of The Bachelor franchise. While the show usually starts filming in Los Angeles, contestants who make it past the first few weeks are usually treated in the middle of the season to at least one or two trips and/or a possible visit to the Bachelor or Bachelorette’s home cities. (In the first season I watched, in 2013, the Bachelor and his gang of ladies hopped from Montana to Canada to the U.S. Virgin Islands in the course of three short episodes.) The final four contestants are, famously, given “hometown dates,” where production travels to each of their hometowns to film encounters with their families.
The last couple of episodes are usually filmed in an exotic, “romantic” overseas location—think Thailand, Portugal, or Fiji—where beautiful vistas and breathtaking shots of nature make up the bulk of these last installments. And it’s not just a couple of folks coming along with the contestants, but the show’s whole crew. An 2018 article on travel in The Bachelor reported that ABC books 50 to 70 rooms for the production team at the resorts it films at. When you add up the fact that the show has been on the air for nearly two decades at this point and has pushed out more than 40 seasons, that’s a staggeringly huge carbon footprint—all in the name of getting a couple of shots of hot people making out on a nice beach.
It’s not like The Bachelor franchise is alone in showcasing the environmental excesses of capitalism—shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives series have made endless entertainment out of this entire premise. But there’s a difference between filming Kim Kardashian taking a private jet in the course of her normal life (which, to be clear, is still bad) versus creating piles of snow in Southern California expressly for the purpose of a show. Constructing extravagant experiences is the centerpiece of The Bachelor in a way that simply doesn’t exist on other shows.
Part of what keeps me so fascinated with this franchise year after year is the strict set of rules for love (heterosexual, of course) that the show has fashioned as a narrative backbone for itself: You come on the show for the “right reasons,” you have a set number of dates, you tell them you’re falling in love, you meet their family, you sleep together once, you get engaged, then married, and then live happily ever after. Nothing about “falling in love” on The Bachelor is remotely close to the way it works in real life, and constructing extravagant, often-wasteful dates has become a necessary part of keeping up that ruse. In that light, the rain producers made wasn’t really about Katie wanting to show Greg part of her city—it’s that on the show, falling in love requires a dramatic backdrop. You aren’t really serious about someone if you don’t get a moment to kiss in the rain during a megadrought while water managers take emergency measures to stave off the collapse of the power grid and water delivery system.
Things have changed for The Bachelor in recent years. The onset of covid-19 has meant that the past few seasons have been forced to film in just one or two locations, eliminating the elaborate travel that was once a centerpiece of the show. The franchise has also gone through an extensive and long-overdue racial reckoning following comments made by former host Chris Harrison. It seems as if the show is getting dragged along the path to progress by showcasing more diverse cast members. The recent success of romance-based reality shows with much smaller carbon footprints, like Netflix’s Love is Blind (straight people fall in love and get involved in drama simply by talking to each other in little rooms) or the UK’s Love Island (straight people walk around in swimsuits and have sex and talk smack about each other in one single location), has also changed the equation a bit. It turns out that people don’t need sweeping, hard-to-travel-to vistas or huge, carbon-intensive gestures to create drama—they do just fine making emotional messes by themselves, thanks.
Maybe I was expecting too much out of a show that once featured a contestant who couldn’t tell the difference between a pomegranate and an onion. But after a tumultuous year of change for the show, and in what seems to be a moment of climate reckoning for a lot of people, it does feel like a last look at an anachronistic time when we could sprinkle water around a parched desert without a care simply to create a romantic ambiance. It remains to be seen how producers will figure out intense environmental setpieces in the future, as resources become scarce—or if they’ll do the smart thing and let contestants create their own drama, no extra water needed.