Season 16 of The Bachelorette truly reflects all the changes that the popular franchise has gone through since its inception in 2002. The latest, and biggest changes, have of course been due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Bachelor looks very different in 2020 than it did in 2002, but these changes haven’t all been for the worse. There are significant benefits to conducting the show in a more intimate setting. 

Everything about this year’s Bachelorette has been completely upside down. Not only was the entire show, including hometown dates, shot in quarantine at a resort in Palm Springs, but we had two Bachelorettes, Chris Harrison bailed for two weeks, and the ending hasn’t been spoiled yet. For anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, almost all of this is completely unprecedented. And for anyone who’s been watching for a long time, you might have seen this coming.

How Has The Bachelorette Changed?

The Bachelor franchise has been changing subtly for several years. With the increased focus on social media stardom for the contestants, the traditional formula for the show is becoming obsolete. This has never been more apparent than during this season of The Bachelorette. Clare Crawley, a longtime partner of the franchise, did something the producers never thought she would do; she broke the rules. Crawley was a contestant on The Bachelor back in 2014, where she made it to the final two. The lead was Juan Pablo Galavis, one of the first Bachelors to gain serious criticism from fans. The playboy soccer player wasn’t The Bachelor’s usual type; to start with, he was (and still is) the only Latino Bachelor. His sexy performance on Desiree Hartsock’s season of The Bachelorette won him the title, even though he hadn’t connected with her on any other level than physical attraction. It became obvious quickly that producers had made a mistake; Galavis was rude to the contestants and unforgivably superficial. Crawley and another contestant, Andi Dorfman, won serious points with fans for telling Galavis off when they left the show. Dorfman was named the next Bachelorette, while Crawley went on to appear in two seasons of Bachelor In Paradise and Bachelor Winter Games in 2018. 

Throughout her Bachelor franchise appearances, Crawley maintained a good relationship with producers and even got engaged on Bachelor Winter Games. She played the game, and played it well. There’s not doubt that producers were thrilled to have her on board as The Bachelorette. But Crawley flipped the switch instead, and refused to do what many other Bachelorettes have done in recent years. Nearly every man who has received the Bachelorette’s first impression rose, handed out within the first hour of meeting the men, has won the show at the end. Crawley knew who she was interested in right away, so she just left instead of playing the game. Tayshia Adams was brought in to replace her, making it the first season ever with two Bachelorettes. 

How has this not happened before? Contestants and the lead know at this point what you’re supposed to do if you are a contestant or the lead. You’re supposed to make it exciting for viewers. You’re supposed to fall in love, and fast. You’re supposed to win fans so you’ll make more money after the show, and be asked to come back for Bachelor In Paradise. There’s nothing real about almost anyone who appears on this show anymore. The only way to combat that is to change the formula. 

Who Else Has Changed The Franchise?

Leads have been doing just that in recent years. Maybe not as much as Clare Crawley, but the past three Bachelors, Arie Luyendyk, Colton Underwood and Peter Weber, have all ended the show on non-traditional terms. Luyendyk shocked audiences when he split with his winner, Becca Kufrin, on camera to ask his runner-up Lauren Burnham to marry him. Colton Underwood famously hopped a fence to get away from cameras after Cassie Randolph broke up with him. He later refused to go on any other fantasy suite dates, dumped who the producers thought was his top pick and ended the season by asking Randolph to be his girlfriend instead of proposing. Weber proposed to Hannah Ann Sluss and then broke it off to pursue Madison Prewett, who quit the show after meeting Weber’s family. He’s now dating Kelley Flanagan, who he eliminated from the show weeks before the finale. All of these instances looked like complete screw-ups at the time, but they’ve all led to long term relationships, unlike some of the other, more traditional seasons of the franchise. 

What Has Been Different About This Season?

In a recent interview with Us Weekly, host of The Bachelorette Chris Harrison spoke about the impact of filming restrictions on finding love on the show. “There are aspects of the intimacy of this pressure cooker environment that I do like,” he said. Harrison’s right; intimacy is the key here. Watching this season has been a different experience for longtime viewers, and not only for the obvious reasons. The season was filmed at La Quinta Resort in Palm Springs, where the whole cast and crew was quarantined. Dates weren’t as extravagant as usual, but that made everything seem more real. When Tayshia Adams was on The Bachelor, she went on a date with Colton Underwood where they bungee-jumped off a building together. This season, her one-on-one dates haven’t been more exciting than a horseback ride. She and Ben Smith went on a scavenger hunt while riding scooters, she had board game night with Ivan Hall and a silly wedding dress try-on with Zac Clark. Watching Adams and Hall discuss politics over a glass of wine and play a round of Twister was so much more satisfying than that bungee jump.

Whether purely by coincidence, or because of this more comfortable and intimate environment, the topics discussed this season have been deeper and darker than ever before. Smith and Clark both opened up about depression and other mental health issues, while Adams and Hall’s discussion about Black Lives Matters made headlines all over the internet. The contestant’s candidness about addiction, eating disorders and politics is a huge step into the twenty-first century for a show that gives the guys literal keys before allowing them to have sex with a woman. Adams is also having a harder time deciding between the guys than any Bachelorette in recent years. In most seasons, it’s painfully obvious who the lead’s first choice is, but Adams is finding real connections with her top three guys. The “pressure cooker” environment is working wonders on the show, pulling back the fakeness and formulaic layers to give The Bachelor back some heart. 

As this season comes to an end, it will be interesting to see if the franchise is able to retain any of this newfound intimacy moving forward. Post COVID, it’ll be easy to go back to watching the player play the game. This season’s best moments haven’t been the drama, but instead the quiet thrill of watching Adams make genuine romantic connections with three strangers.