It's Been 10 Years Since "The Bachelor's" Most Dramatic Season Ever

I love “The Bachelor” and I’m not afraid to say it. Is it stupid, over-produced, and probably a bit sexist? Yes, but I, and millions of people around the country, are still drawn in when Chris Harrison utters the iconic line, “this will be the most dramatic season yet”. As much as I love this show, I’m not too into season 23, which premiered January 7th and stars Colton Underwood, a former NFL player who currently doesn't really have a job, nor much of a personality. But it got me thinking about the Bachelors of years past, namely, Jason Mesnick, whose season is turning 10 this year. His name might be unfamiliar to newer fans of the show, but his season may have actually been the most dramatic in “Bachelor” history, and it changed the franchise forever. 

Cast your mind back to January 2009 - chunky highlights, thin eyebrows, and French manicures are in. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is at the top of the charts. Barack Obama is America’s first black president. And Jason Mesnick is America’s thirteenth Bachelor. To understand just how much his season ushered in a new era for the show, it's important to know a little Bachelor Nation history. When “The Bachelor” premiered on ABC in 2002, nobody had ever seen anything quite like it. The reality TV boom was still in its early stages, and though today “The Bachelor” is practically an American institution, at the time a bunch of girls competing for engagement was a very, very weird concept - and an instant hit. The following year, Trista Rehn, who placed second on “The Bachelor’s” inaugural season, became the first Bachelorette. Her wedding to winner Ryan Sutter propelled the series to even greater heights, scoring some of the highest ratings in reality TV history [1]. A pattern for the franchise was established - after every two “Bachelor” seasons, a “Bachelorette” season would air. The leading ladies were always plucked out of their heartbreak from a previous “Bachelor” season, while the leading men were strangers to the audience (with the exception of season four's Bob Guiney from Trista's season), whose appeal rested on being educated, or rich, or even royal. But ratings began to falter in the mid-2000s, and after a disappointing third season in 2005, “The Bachelorette” was canceled entirely [1].

The flagship series scraped along for the next couple years, pumping out bachelors that the audience cared less and less about as ratings continued to fall. But in late 2007, the season 11 finale gave the ailing franchise a jolt it desperately needed when Brad Womack rejected both of his final women, leaving the show just as single as when he started [2]. ABC milked this finale for all it was worth, drumming up public sympathy for DeAnna Pappas, who was expected to win Brad’s heart. The network took this opportunity to revive “The Bachelorette” with DeAnna as the star, and although her season wasn’t as well received as they might have hoped [1], it did give them Jason Mesnick, a sweet single dad who was crushed when DeAnna rejected his proposal.

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ABC decided that instead of picking another unknown to be the next Bachelor, they would crown Jason, who had already earned the investment of the audience’s emotions. They’d tried it once before with Bob Guiney, but with Jason, the trend stuck, turning the franchise into a sort of cyclical thread where one can only become the lead after suffering as a jilted contestant first. They also changed the pattern from Bachelor-Bachelor-Bachelorette to Bachelor-Bachelorette-Bachelor, so that Brad gave us DeAnna who gave us Jason and so forth, creating a 12-year chain that has continued all the way to today’s Colton Underwood. But though the twist of Brad’s season did extend the series’s run, “The Bachelor” still hadn’t been rescued completely. “I remember [during my season] they told me ‘Bachelor’ might be canceled that year because the ratings were so bad the previous season,” Jason said in a 2018 interview [4]. That previous season was Matt Grant’s, which came between Brad and Jason’s, and is still rock bottom for the series ratings-wise [1]. It was up to Jason to save “The Bachelor”, and he did it by delivering the most dramatic finale yet.

At first, season 13 wasn’t much different from the ones that had come before. There were roses and hot tubs and candles and girls sobbing in the backseats of limos. As the women went through the routine catfights, behind the scenes a much more interesting battle was going on between Jason and the show’s producers over the survival of the franchise. And as Jason battled the producers, he also faced an internal struggle over his feelings and his morals.

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Like every Bachelor before him, Jason had narrowed his field of contestants down to two women, Melissa Rycroft (left) and Molly Malaney (right). Jason was extremely conflicted but decided to pick Melissa, though he wasn’t ready to commit to an engagement. The show’s producers, however, weren’t about to let this slide. “I...called Melissa’s parents, while we were filming, telling them I want to pick your daughter, but that I’m not going to propose to her,” Jason later said [6]. “And a producer called her parents immediately after I hung up the phone and said, ‘Jason is just nervous, he’ll call you back tomorrow, he’s rethinking what he just told you.’ Which was not the truth.” He tried to hold his ground, but “the executive producer came down and said, ‘That’s not how this works’. [4]”

Five Bachelors before Jason had been allowed to pick someone without proposing, so he thought it was an option for him, too. But given the precarious state of the franchise, his season was different. After Brad’s anticlimactic finale and Matt’s forgettable one, ABC wasn’t going to settle for anything less than a fairytale proposal from their most promising lead in years. So the producers laid the manipulation on thick: “There’s a team of like a hundred people all saying the same thing—audio people, producers and directors, and people who are just serving you lunch—and they’re all on this team and it’s like how can a hundred people be wrong?” Jason said [6]. Being the Bachelor is an isolating mind-warp of an experience; cast members have very limited contact with the outside world, so Jason had no one to help him process his confusion - no one, that is, except the people trying to make money off him. He was convinced to propose, but his feelings for Molly weren’t easy to push aside. When he sent her home on the last day of filming, he was devastated. He wept over the side of a balcony so hard that “pulling a Mesnick” - or crying as a man - became part of “Bachelor” terminology.

After he wiped away his tears, he proposed to Melissa, and in that moment it seemed as if they might really work out. But the relationship fizzled quickly, and according to Jason, they had mutually split by Christmas 2008, about a month after filming ended. (Melissa has alternated between confirming [7] and denying [8] this.) Whether or not they were officially broken up, they were definitely on the rocks, but Melissa didn’t know the real reason behind their troubles - Jason was still in love with Molly.

The problem was, Jason’s contract with ABC forbade him from contacting any contestant before “After the Final Rose”. ATFR is a live special which airs immediately after the last episode and is usually a time for rejected contestants to get closure from the lead and for the happy couple to discuss their plans for the future. The consequences for contacting Molly before ATFR were huge: “Legally you have a 5 million dollar bounty on your head,” Jason later revealed [9]. In hopes that they would let him break the rules, he told ABC about his dilemma.

You can only imagine what went through the producers’ heads when they heard about Jason’s twisted love triangle. Right in their hands was the potential for a bombshell finale even better than the fairytale proposal, and now all they had to do was manipulate their Bachelor into making the most of it. According to Jason, ABC said “We’ve asked Molly to be the Bachelorette and we’re going to be giving up a lot. [6]” If they were going to let Molly go, they wanted Melissa in return, and to do that they needed to blindside her. Recounting the story in 2017, Jason said the producers told him “‘we need your help to have America feel for Melissa in the same way they felt for you when DeAnna dumped you. The fans just need to feel sorry for Melissa. Work with us and we’ll let you have Molly.’ That’s what they told me. [6]” The plan was that instead of broadcasting ATFR live, they would film it in advance, and he would pretend to break up with her for the first time. But acting wasn’t enough - in order to get some real shock and betrayal out of Melissa on camera, they told Jason not to reveal his feelings for Molly until they taped the special. Desperate, in love, and afraid of losing Molly to “The Bachelorette”, Jason agreed. According to Melissa, he even lied to hold up his end of the deal: "I repeatedly asked [Jason], 'Is Molly involved in anything?’...And he said, 'No, gosh no.'[7]”

In early January, as season 13 premiered, the plan was put into action. “We had to rent a soundstage quickly, and we filmed it without an audience. We sat on it for two months,” ABC executive Robert Mills said [2]. But the secret couldn’t be entirely contained. A man named Stephen Carbone, aka Reality Steve, had been running a sarcastic blog about “The Bachelor” and other reality TV since 2003. He received a tip that Jason had dumped Melissa for Molly, posted it, and the rumor spread [10]. Interest in “The Bachelor” was higher than it had been in years. For the unspoiled, they were drawn to the sweet leading man with an adorable toddler, and for the spoiled, they wanted to see if he could really do something that seemed so cruel. Reality Steve has been spoiling the show ever since, and today, after surviving two lawsuits by ABC, he’s the authority on Bachelor Nation gossip.

When the finale aired in March, it was everything the network hoped it would be. Viewers were shocked as they went straight from the proposal to a brutal “break-up”, in which Melissa - visibly angry and embarrassed to learn she’d been dumped for another woman - cried and called Jason a bastard. Next, a clueless Molly was brought on stage, where she was stunned to hear Jason ask her for another chance. The backlash was swift. Jason was labeled a traitor by the tabloids, and the fans who had once adored him turned their backs. “America was so excited when he picked Melissa, and then to see this happen, it almost felt like Twitter was invented that night—there was finally a place for people to vent their hatred,” Robert Mills said of the scandal [2].

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Against the odds, Jason and Molly’s relationship actually survived. They have been married since 2010 and now have a daughter, as well as Jason’s son from his previous marriage. Jason isn’t proud of how his season went down: “When I go back to it, I wish I would have stood my ground and never did anything that was against my morals or hurt anyone.” But he’s also happy with the life that resulted from it: “When you have a great marriage and a beautiful child...it’s hard to have any regrets about where we stand now. [6]”  Melissa, meanwhile, turned down “The Bachelorette”* because she reconnected with her ex, who she later married, but she was still rewarded with a spot on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” [12]. After all the drama, Jason, Molly, and Melissa each seem to have gotten their happy ending.

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Jason’s season was momentous in many ways. He and Molly were the very first “Bachelor” marriage and the first in the franchise since Trista and Ryan’s seven years earlier. He gave us multiple iconic moments, from the balcony cry to the “break-up” itself. He gave us the origin story of Reality Steve, who is now arguably as big a figure in Bachelor Nation as the actual cast members. He cemented the new format of the series, so that one season loops to the next, each round of contestants giving rise to a new star to earn his or her own love story. He set the precedent for 2018 Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr., who also dumped his fiancée for his runner-up.** And most importantly, his season returned the dying franchise to its former glory, and “The Bachelor”, for better or worse, is still going strong today. This season is perhaps the best example of what a strange world Bachelor Nation is, a world wherein search of love (or fame, or both), a man will put his life in the palm of one of the most powerful TV networks in America. The show’s manipulative, corporate unreality has never been so evident as in Jason’s story, and yet, it somehow deals with the most real and human things of all: deception. Heartbreak. Love. Money. And maybe that’s why this weird, stupid, morally dubious show is just so hard to look away from, all these years later. So for every Monday night we’ve spent watching this ultimate guilty pleasure, laughing and gasping and mocking and hoping against the odds for true love in the end, we have Jason Mesnick to thank.

References

1: http://www.spottedratings.com/2010/08/war-of-18-49-bachelorbachelorette.html

2:https://ew.com/tv/2018/03/30/the-bachelor-behind-the-scenes-of-the-shows-most-memorable-moments/

3: https://www.seattlepi.com/ae/tv/article/A-moment-with-Jason-Mesnick-The-1278721.php#item-85307-tbla-2

4: https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/tv/inside-look-at-the-bachelor-kirklands-jason-and-molly-mesnick-weigh-in-on-proposal-drama

5: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Jillian+Harris/1353806/story.html

6: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/abcs-the-bachelor-star-jason-mesnick-tells-his-story_us_5880c111e4b0fb40bf6c46f9

7: https://www.tvguide.com/news/bachelors-jason-melissa-1003688/

8: https://www.realitytvworld.com/news/melissa-rycroft-say-jason-mesnick-broke-up-with-me-before-the-bachelor-after-final-rose-is-lie-21373.php

9: https://www.thelantern.com/2011/05/reality-tv-star-dishes-on-bachelor-life/

10: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/arts/television/for-the-bachelor-hes-the-thorn-in-their-tray-of-roses.html

11: https://marieclaire.com/celebrity/a19125114/heres-the-video-of-jason-mesnicks-brutal-bachelor-break-up-scene/

12: https://www.glamour.com/story/bachelor-bachelorette-couples-history?verso=true

13: https://www.eonline.com/photos/23823/jason-and-molly-mesnick-s-cutest-pics/831452

*Jillian Harris, who placed third on Jason’s season, became the fifth Bachelorette instead.

**For the curious, Arie and his runner-up, Lauren Burnham, got married on January 12th, meaning there are now more Bachelors who’ve married their runner-up (2) than Bachelors who’ve married their actual winner (1). His first fiancée, Becca Kufrin, became the 14th Bachelorette and is currently engaged to Garrett Yrigoyen [12]. Colton Underwood, the newest Bachelor, placed fourth on her season.