RECAP: The Bachelors Australia – S11 E01

I don’t know if any of us ever expected to be here again after the mess that was the last season of The Bachelors Australia, but what do you know, friends? Here we are, saddling up once again, to dive headlong into the world of rose ceremonies.

And – while they once again did not call me to consult (about which I am VERY OFFENDED, more on that later) – I have to admit that the timing for me personally couldn’t have been better. If you’ve been reading my recaps for a while you’ll know I’m also a romance author – and specifically, an author of rom-coms set on a show very much like The Bachelor called Marry Me, Juliet.

My trilogy all take place on the same season, which we get to see through the lens of three different love stories:

So yes, the franchise has done me a favour here (even while snubbing my offers to consult). Dropping a season a month before I’m dropping a book is deeply convenient.

(Brief advertising interlude – if you like my recaps, you’ll like my books!)

But let’s get into it and talk about this season. Once again, we have three Bachelors, and once again, the franchise is trying to reinvent itself. They’ve learned some lessons from last season, but they’ve also introduced some new elements – in this first episode, anyway – which I genuinely think are really smart.

The most obvious change they’ve made is in terms of visual language. After the last season, where they were all like LOOK AT US DOING ROMANCE WITH NO FAIRY LIGHTS AND CANDLES!!1!, this season has (intelligently) made a return to the spectacular maximalism of years past. If anything, it’s gone even harder. The Bach mansion this year has a sense of sweeping elegance and grandeur, and they’ve filled it with flowers and all the twinkly lighting you can imagine. I suspect they were shooting for Love Island in the last season, but where they ended up was doctor’s office. This time, it’s very, very clear that they’re going for Bridgerton.

Let’s unpack what that means, because using Bridgerton as an intertext comes with a specific set of meanings:

  • First and foremost: romance. Bridgerton is an adaptation of a historical romance series by Julia Quinn. They’re light and bright and sparkling – Quinn is more of a comedic writer than some other historical romance authors – but the promise of a romance novel is (you will be stunned to hear) romance. We expect the romance plot to be centred (as opposed to buried in favour of reality TV’s favourite thing, drama), and we expect a satisfying resolution that will give us an emotional payoff.
  • Fantasy fairytale old-timeyness: the TV show in particular gives not one single shit about historical accuracy – it’s a kind of gleeful anachronism. This allows it to ignore the parts about the old-timey setting that are uncomfortable and focus on the glamorous parts. Whether or not it does this well is a subject of much discussion – Bridgerton’s approach to race has been the subject of a lot of capital D-Discourse – but for our Bachie purposes here: we’re taking the fairytale fantasy of “old-fashioned” romance, the sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of love, and tying that directly to the promise of the show’s process.
  • Glamour and spectacle: this is related to the fairytale fantasy thing, but it’s worth pulling out and discussing a little on its own. Bridgerton is a visual spectacle – once again, we’re in that place of maximalism and excess, that sense of dressing up and entering a kind of fairytale space. I think beginning with a ball is a really clever intervention – more on that in a bit.
  • Scandal and gossip: this is a big one, and is more particular to Bridgerton than some of the others, which could be linked to most historical romance properties. Bridgerton is about gossip: the exploits of the aristocracy are regularly exposed in a scandalous newsletter authored by an anonymous (to them) figure named Lady Whistledown. In the adaptation, her newsletter is voiced by Julie Andrews, and Channel 10 did a very poor knockoff of it in the ads. It’s a sort of Regency Gossip Girl, where all the actions of the protagonists are commented on, and that commentary is a key part of the narrative.

Brief sidebar: If you’re interested in more on how scandal works in The Bachelor: my Kiwi colleague Dr Rebecca Trelease and I published an article earlier this year in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies about scandal and The Bachelor/ette franchise in Australia and New Zealand, where we looked at how Abbie Chatfield and Lesina Nakhid-Schuster were positioned as scandalous and how they remade their own reputations after the fact.

One of the things we argue in that article is that, “Scandal involves both a scandalous action and the talk about the action… Without the talk, there is no scandal” (2023, 4, emphasis in original). This is key to how Bridgerton works – the talk is more important than the scandal itself, and is itself scandalous because it focuses on revealing secrets. In this first episode, at least, Bachie seems to be doing the same kind of thing: there is a frankly astonishing amount of people spying on private moments.

This brings us to the ball itself. I suspect they decided to have one for a reason as simple as “because Bridgerton”, but balls have a number of key affordances that I think work really well for this show. The first is obviously the glamour and the Cinderella-esque fairytale associations – but balls are also characterised by tensions between public and private, and we see that come out so many times in this episode.

To put this another way: balls are public spaces, characterised by performative display. But that kind of display is also tiring, and so the public spaces are surrounded by quiet, private one – the spaces where the scandals happen, when things people consider private are surveilled.

Another argument Rebecca and I make in that article is that “because scandals are engendered by societal reaction to an act transgressing norms, they in turn underline what a society considers normal standards” (2023, 5). In a Bridgerton universe, this is obvious. If Miss Bridgerton is spied kissing the Duke of Hastings in the garden – a nominally private space – then they have to get married, or she will be ruined: a scandal which reveals the norms around expected female sexual behaviour. In Bachie, private spaces are positioned as the ones where you can be most yourself: but also where the norms of the Bachie social contract are revealed. When Luke is spied kissing Ellie, for example, Lisa goes right off him, because he has – in her eyes – broken the norms of that contract.

I could talk about this for a long time, but that tension between public and private is a clever one to play with on The Bachelor, because the show itself is characterised by this tension. Effectively, we watch people’s private lives on screen – and the show absolutely fucking loves it when they break some kind of norm, because then we, the audience, are talking about it.

I’m sure I’ll talk more about this as the show goes on, but for now – let’s talk in more detail about the episode itself, and meet our Bachies.

Ben: Ben is an ex-model who made a ton of money and now is looking to invest it in sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies. He’s also the oldest of the three (36) and is very much being positioned as the aspirational one. We see several times in this episode that he’s Mr Steal Your Girl – in Bridgerton terms, he’s the equivalent of a duke or someone, because it’s clear he’s the highest status suitor in the room.

Wesley: Wesley is a) Brazilian and b) very, very Christian (they don’t mention it on screen, but he’s a Hillsong man – I might write more about the intersection of evangelical churches and Australian reality TV in a future recap, because it has a long history). Look out for phrases like “traditional values” being used as buzzwords. He also claims never to have had a girlfriend (as Max from the Bachelor of Hearts podcast has argued, we might have a virgin Bachelor here), and it might be interesting to see if this gives women pause.

Luke: Luke is an ex-footy-playing lumberjack. He’s getting the full “I’m just a country boy” edit – the relational one, as opposed to the aspirational one. He’s probably the one most likely to have his girl stolen (Ben cuts his grass a couple of times in this episode), and has extreme little-brother-of-the-group energy. Be prepared for the word “authentic” to be used in respect to him a lot. He also seems to have a tendency to fall in love very hard, very fast – he basically does it twice on the first night.

In order to generate suspense, the show does a “let’s begin at the end” thing. While they’re promising high romance, they also seem to be promising heartbreak. We see an obscured shot through a window of two men embracing, one sobbing in despair, suggesting that at some point, something is going to go horribly wrong. One of these men appears to be Luke, and I think he’s the sobbee rather than the sobber, but I’m not totally sure.

I’m going to make a prediction that this will ultimately turn out to be quite underwhelming – like, maybe Wesley is very upset after having broken up with his runner up, for instance, and Luke is comforting him – but they’ve played it very well as a hook. Nice work, Bachie.

(Also, if you want to read about why shooting from far away is an extremely effective reality TV technique? Read Not Here To Make Friends. My producer man Murray O’Connell will tell you all about it.)

Last season, the show did away with the traditional red carpet introductions to send the Bachies on dates around the country with women they could then bring back to the mansion. While I liked this on a character development level, it came with some key disadvantages – the biggest one being that all the women were effectively pre-assigned to a Bachelor, and it took a lot of the air out of the potential competition that I suspect production were looking for (only one of them ended up swapping, after all).

Having the free-for-all space of the ball, by contrast, works really well. Balls were one of the most important events in what Lord Byron called the “Marriage Mart” – and what is Bachie if not the modern equivalent of the same thing?

(Although, interestingly, without the marriage. The mandatory engagement thing from last season seems to have been ditched completely – even hyper-religious Wesley says that what he wants is a girlfriend. The marital emphasis of last season clearly did not go over well with audiences at all: especially given one of the two Bachies who proposed was rejected and the other broke up with his fiancée after about five minutes.)

Osher introduces our three blokes to the be-ballgowned women gathered. We meet a lot of them gradually over the course of the episode, so let me see if I can combine a plot recap with a dramatis personae:

Mckenna: she catches the eye of all three Bachies straight away, and she is the first girl Luke immediately falls in love with (although when Ben cuts in on his chat with her, he seems to gloomily accept that he’s been beaten by his hotter older brother). Interestingly, given the Bridgerton of all of this, she looks quite a bit like Marina, the come-from-behind Diamond of the First Water in the first season (a completely un-historical position which effectively seems to be a prom queen).

Ellie: the second girl Luke immediately falls in love with, even harder than the first time (my goodness, this boy has a love at first sight problem). He hates it when Mr Steal Your Girl Ben has a chat with her, so he steals her back straight away, takes her out on the balcony – one of the private spaces in that public ritual of the ball that I was talking about earlier – and he does something that is quite scandalous by Australian Bachie standards when he gives her a little smooch. Later, when the Bachies have to pick someone for their first dance (kind of this season’s version of the first impression rose?), Luke picks Ellie.

Angela: like Ben, Angela is 36 and from Melbourne, and when she whisks him outside to chat, he’s simply delighted. He picks her for the first dance ritual (NB: the knockoff Vitamin String Quartet playing this ball is also very Bridgerton), and she’s a pretty clear wifey.

Holly: Holly’s also a clear wifey – but I’m not sure for which Bachie. She’s a vivacious bubbly environmental scientist, and she makes a real connection with Wesley initially, who picks her for the first dance, but when later, she and Mr Steal Your Girl Ben bond over their mutual love of the environment and have a little private dance in a corner (also surveilled), her head turns…

Yasemin: decides this whole reality TV thing is not for her after the whole weird first dance situation, and, despite a speech from Wesley, walks off into the night.

Aarthi: wins Luke’s approval when she tells him she supports the Maroons, never the Blues.

Mel: the hype girl of the house, immediately beloved by all of the other women – except for Anastasia, who she accidentally offends when Anastasia is like “guess my job” and sex-work-positive Mel guesses stripper. I don’t think Mel is going to win, but she’s definitely going to be a) a great narrator and b) a fan favourite.

Anastasia: I’m assuming she’s going to be a second-tier villain, on account of being positioned in opposition to Mel and calling the other women “twenty idiots”.

Lisa: the top-tier villain. Words like “confident”, “intense” and “outspoken” are used – and the very first words she utters are the villain classics: “not here to make friends”. (She’s not NOT giving Lily Fireball energy, in other words, although I’ll venture that Lily’s reasons for courting villainy are a little more complicated.) She does a lot of standing back and coldly assessing, and also a lot of surveilling of the private spaces – she’s going to be a gossip engineer for sure. After hearing that Luke kissed Ellie, she immediately decides she’s a Wesley girl, and they’re going to be hilariously mismatched.

Lana: Lisa’s sidekick.

Brea: like Luke, Brea is going to get the “authentic”, “genuine” edit on account of being a country girl (she wants beer instead of champagne, she snorts when she laughs, she wears a flanno in her ITMs, she couldn’t walk in her high heels so she got some flats, the works). She’s a bit of a wallflower until she’s noticed by Wesley. She tells him she’s clumsy – and he, it turns out, loves a clumsy girl…

It’s a bit hard to get excited about a rose ceremony in the first episode – there are so many people and the connections are so newly formed, so the stakes aren’t especially high. I can’t tell you much about the three women who get eliminated (except that one of them walks out with the silverware)…

…but what I can tell you is that I really am genuinely excited by some of the narrative choices they made in this premiere, and if they keep it up for the rest of the season, we might be onto something here.

That said, they still should have called me to consult. You filmed in Melbourne, Bachie! Where I live! In addition to my various other consultancy qualifications – eg. my PhD and ongoing academic expertise in romance, all that scholarly work I’ve done on The Bachelor, my reality TV romance novels – I’ve also written a lot about Bridgerton! Truly, while I’m proud of you for turning this around from the clusterfuck of last season, I COULD HAVE HELPED YOU SO MUCH.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this recap – thank you! I assume that means you enjoy my writing, so don’t forget that I’m the author of three reality TV rom-coms. Here For The Right Reasons (Bachelor + the first contestant he eliminates) and Can I Steal You For A Second? (contestant + contestant) are out now; while Not Here To Make Friends (villain + producer) will be out in January and is available for pre-order.

You can also catch me on my website: jodimcalister.com.au

Jodi is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. Her research focuses on the history of love, sex, women, and popular culture, so reading romance novels is technically work for her. Shed a tear for Jodi. Jodi is also an author, and her series about smart girls and murder fairies is published by Penguin Teen Australia. One time, the first book, Valentine, was featured on Neighbours, and she nearly fainted with joy.

What do you think?

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