If you wondered how The Bachelorette would address longtime host Chris Harrison’s absence during Katie Thurston’s Season 17 premiere Monday night, know this: the show handled it with all the grace of Hannah Brown attempting to give a toast.
The Bachelor franchise is still charting its course through a reckoning over its longstanding struggles with diversity and inclusion. Earlier this year, the first Black Bachelor, Matt James, unwittingly selected a winner whose past racist behavior fans uncovered before the series even aired. Harrison, who is now on an indefinite hiatus from the series, landed in hot water when he defended Rachael Kirkconnell’s decision to attend an Old South-themed party in 2018 during an Extra TV interview with the first Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay. He has since apologized and promised to “do better.”
Katie’s premiere felt off from the very beginning, when a disembodied male voice that did not belong to Chris Harrison told us to “get ready for a Bachelorette like we’ve never had before.” The episode did not mention Harrison’s absence or what caused it, even as an aside—and that wasn’t the only omission, either. While Thurston and her contestants occasionally referred to her time on Matt’s season during Monday’s premiere, the show included absolutely no mention of either in her formal introduction. Maybe that’s because Katie left Matt’s season so early—or perhaps it’s because The Bachelorette would prefer we all just forget the season entirely.
And yet, even after that clumsy beginning, Katie’s premiere was the most compelling Bachelorette season opener in years. Temporary co-hosts slash former Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe kept the energy high and the mood light, and their natural ease in Harrison’s old role proves once and for all that he’s far from irreplaceable. And perhaps this writer has been in quarantine too long, but this seems to be the hunkiest group of guys we’ve seen in a while. Several of them even seem to possess a fair amount of… could it be… emotional intelligence? It just might!
As any seasoned Bachelorette fan might have guessed, Katie’s choice to bring her vibrator onto Matt’s season has become her brand as a “sex positive” Bachelorette. As Katie herself put it in her premiere, “It’s 2021—let’s talk about sex!” But she also emphasized her serious side, and her desire for a partner who, to quote Clare Crawley, is a grown-ass man. Several contestants seemed to fit that bill—and Katie seems to be forging genuine connections with several of them already. But the real mission of her season, as far as the franchise is concerned, will be proving that this franchise is capable of change.
“I expressed what I wanted with my journey, and I think I was listened to,” Katie told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview about her decision to become Bachelorette despite the turmoil. “As [viewers will see] with the first episode, it feels different. I have a great group of guys and I think Bachelor Nation is going to be really excited to watch that and see a change.”
As Matt James’ Bachelor season unfolded, viewers were disappointed to see the show had squandered an opportunity, with its first Black male lead, to actually feature its contestants of color. White contestants received the majority of the screen time, as the show focused on their squabbling over the actual love stories unfolding at the same time. Perhaps because of this, and Katie’s reputation from last season as the mature adult in the room for most of the petty fights, her premiere was largely drama-free. In one stunning show of restraint, a contestant reacted to losing out on the First Impression Rose by saying of the winner, “Kudos to him for whatever he did.” (Although that said, from the preview clips, it looks like things will heat up in this season like any other.) And in an even more refreshing change of pace, several contestants of color received significant screen time—both on their own and with Katie.
And speaking of Katie’s many hunks: Several frontrunners have already emerged for this season—including one who showed up in a cat costume.
But first, the limo entries! As is the case every year, several contestants chose to introduce themselves with outlandish, occasionally uncomfortable gimmicks—and some worked better than others. Cute: Tre, a software engineer from Georgia, showed up hidden in a pick-up truck bed that he’d turned into a ball pit. (“I’m here to have a ball with you,” he said, because of course.) Not so cute: Jeff, a surgical skin salesman, showed up in his RV—and didn’t bother tidying up before welcoming Katie inside.
“She seemed really happy,” Jeff said of the moment—right before we cut to a shot of Katie saying “wow” in a voice most women will instantly recognize as anything but.
“He’s throwing his dirty boxers, and unfortunately I wasn’t feeling the vibes with the RV,” Katie said. Jeff, you’ll be shocked to learn, was among the unlucky suitors sent home on night one.
Some other ploys for attention: Conor C. showed up with a catcher’s mitt and made a pun about “catching feelings”; Andrew S., an impossibly charming professional football player from Chicago who plays in Vienna, showed up in a classic car and faked a British accent before copping to the ploy; Cody showed up with a blow-up doll who’d been keeping him company in quarantine, whom he’s named Sandy.
“Cody showed up with a blow-up doll who’d been keeping him company in quarantine, whom he’s named Sandy.”
And in one serious example of committing to the bit, a contestant named James showed up in a giant wooden box, complete with a big bow—and proceeded to stay inside it for most of the night until Katie finally showed up to let him out. Thankfully, his efforts were not for naught; he was among the men Katie chose to stay until next week.
Another gambit that clearly worked was math teacher/ukulele player Connor’s decision to show up in a full-on cat suit—complete with face paint. Katie, an avid cat lover, visibly fell whiskers over tail for the Nashville native even before they shared an adorable moment playing one of those floor keyboards with their feet.
The coveted First Impression Rose, however, went to Greg—a shy marketing sales rep who presented Katie with a pasta necklace made by one of his nieces after explaining that his entire social circle has begun “popping out” babies. “I know you’re nervous,” Katie said as she affixed the rose to his jacket, “but I do feel there’s something there and once we can get past those nerves, there’s a great guy under there… I hope this gives you some validation.”
Greg, Connor, Tre, Andrew, and a single father named Michael all feel like strong contenders, but it’s far too soon to make any predictions. One thing we do know, however, is that a potential spoiler is also on his way. Later this season, Blake Moynes will join in on the fun—and as you might imagine, the other contestants are not exactly thrilled. (Blake, you might recall, was the thick-jawed contestant on Clare Crawley and Tayshia Adams’ joint Bachelorette season last year.)
One thing we can say from the premiere? The powers that be at ABC and producer Warner Bros. really should consider keeping Tayshia and Kaitlyn on board for future seasons.
It was odd to see the Bachelorette premiere neglect to introduce Tayshia and Kaitlyn in any formal way; it seemed like a maneuver to avoid making their roles seem too official, or their stays too permanent. With Harrison reportedly not set to return this fall for Michelle Young’s Bachelorette season and celebrities taking turns guest-hosting Bachelor in Paradise, it seems clear Harrison’s position with the franchise is still up in the air.
Over the years, Harrison has morphed into a somewhat paternal figure in The Bachelor/ette; he shows up, pats the lead on the back, and nods along as they cry before inevitably disappearing again. Tayshia and Kaitlyn have replaced that emotional remove with vicarious excitement. The two have come aboard ostensibly as “mentors”—romantic doulas, if you will. But they’re at their most delightful when they’re watching the Bachelorette from afar like the rest of us—chomping down popcorn and screaming every time a new hottie exits the limo. Should the franchise ever need a permanent Chris Harrison replacement, these two should be at the top of the list.