The Bachelor, a show that is ostensibly about giving people a shot to find love in a rapid polyamorous atmosphere that is filmed from every angle, follows a script. Like almost every reality television show, there are marks to stand on, tears to induce, and I-love-you's to be whispered. For 19 years, The Bachelor script was identical. But this year, the show changed its tune.
Bachelor Ben Higgins—who host Chris Harrison called "undeniably one of the best Bachelors in history"—wasn't really so much the best as he was a decent man after a series of assholes. Ben Higgins didn't make the show different. What changed is that this season on The Bachelor, the creators of the show started winking at their audience. The fourth wall, which had been built of bricks made of love and hope and promise, crumpled into a series of subtle acknowledgements that, yes, this is a reality show, and yes, there is a plot, and yes, here we are, we see you.
All season, this winky undertone has been present, but nowhere was it more evident than in a single clip from last night's "Women Tell All" episode. Twenty minutes into the show, in the middle of a heated conversation about biracial identity (of all things!), the show cut to commercial. When it came back, a few contestants were out of their seats. The camera showed Jubilee, a contestant, blotting tears from her perfectly drawn eyeliner as she returned to her assigned place in the bleachers. A camera panned behind the cameras and the set as a voice counted down—"5, 4, 3, 2, 1"—and the studio audience began to clap.
No viewer of The Bachelor has ever been under the illusion that this reality show isn't a complete construction. You can't watch a show with as much drama as The Bachelor without knowing somewhere deep in your soul that it's a built story. Someone told that girl sobbing where to sit, and someone handed her the tissue in her hand. You knew this, as a viewer, but you did not see it.
This clip, this tiny moment, never would have happened in Jason Mesnick's season, or Juan Pablo's season, or even the most recent Bachelor Chris Soules' season.
This moment of self-awareness and adjustment doesn't look like The Bachelor at all. Instead, it looks like a clip from its bastard cousin UnReal, a Lifetime show created by former Bachelor producers about the behind-the-scenes drama of a reality show shockingly similar to The Bachelor. This shot, one of people preparing themselves to be seen on television, is a staple of the heart of that show, which desperately tries to remind you that everyone involved in this process is a human.
In the past, The Bachelor has been prone to flattening people into stereotypes. Here is the drunk girl. Here is the girl who thought something was an onion. Here is the girl who loves him too much. And that's something they can legally do. As Jennifer L. Pozner, the author of Reality Bites Back, told me at Vox, "Nothing is real from the moment someone signs the contract… In layman's terms, these [reality show] contracts basically say we can turn you into a fiction and you have no legal recourse."
Previous seasons of The Bachelor used that contract to their benefit. But in this season, something has changed. Even Olivia, who was cast in the natural villain role this season for her constant obsession with stealing Ben first, got a moment on last night's "Women Tell All" to speak honestly about how terribly she has been harassed online since her episodes aired. It's a sentiment that any woman who has become a public figure can identify with, and one that made her seem more like a person than the "mean girl" she was initially cast as.
Maybe this is the impact of UnReal, the way that clip showing the construction of the show certainly is. Or maybe this change is possible because on this season of The Bachelor, there is real tension going into next week's finale episode. Ben Higgins, a good Christian boy from middle America, has created some honest-to-goodness drama on this show. He's told two beautiful, smart women that he loves them, something not a single Bachelor in history has done. And he seems truly emotionally distraught about having to pick between them.
But in breaking down that fourth wall, like the show did last night, the emotional core of this season has become even realer. Sure this is a reality show, it seems to be saying, but these are still people who feel deep emotions and don't know how to process them. It's a huge change for the franchise. The Bachelor has always been a series about love, but now it's a series about people.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.