By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jan 24, 2024 at 7:56 AM

"The Bachelor" is back – and all the pieces were in place for a fun season on Monday night's premiere: some charismatic contestants, a few spicy ones making casual drama, sisters making poor life decisions and the most dramatic letter since Hester Prynne.

There was just one element missing from the season debut: a Bachelor!

But seriously, I spent the whole two-hour finale wondering what this strangely attractive blank spot was doing on my screen – but it turned out to be a human man the whole time! Where were the quips? Where were the "relable" reactions? Where was even the baseline "oooh boy, I'm in trouble" when he meets a contestant who he immediately has the hots for? In fairness, the star of pretty much all of the "Bachelor" franchise is normally as generic as possible so there's none of that pesky personality or unique traits to turn off viewers, with maybe just one signifier to make it slightly possible to tell the Generic Handsome Stubblefaces apart. He played football! He's a pilot! He's an AARP card holder! In Joey's case, he's a tennis player! Hopefully he gets at least a little looser than a tennis racket at some point this season. 

At the very least, though, Joey seems nice and genuine. AND most important, above all else, he's somehow a Packers fan. GOD BLESS YOU, JOSEPH; I WISH YOU NOTHING BUT HAPPINESS!

Unfortunately, based on the opening shots of this season, it sure looks my wish for Joey's love journey is going to end as poorly as Jordan Love's playoff journey. (Too soon, I apologize.) The premiere starts by jumping ahead to the finale, showing Joey looking sad, teary and despondent on a beach. But how do you REALLY know that this is sad? They're playing Billie Eilish, the official soundtrack of 21st century bummerdom. AND they're letting you see the production crew – because this emotional moment is RAW and UNFILTERED! And also TOTALLY A FAKEOUT!

That's right: I'm calling it. Joey's season isn't ending with him heartbroken and alone on the beach, before cutting back to him on the live studio couch next to Jesse Palmer with a single manly tear rolling down his cheek. This is almost certainly the breakup BEFORE the woman he chooses to be his partner, the runner-up getting a sad and emotional goodbye. Or maybe it's just him really taking the Packers playoff loss really hard. It's gonna be one of those two, I'm betting all my money on it (*pushes a mostly used $10 Starbucks gift card and a Culver's Scoopy point to the middle of the table*). 

We'll see if I recoup that bet in a few months – in the meantime, we need to remind ourselves who this Joey guy was. For those who forgot, Joey was the runner-up in Charity's season, kindly rejected by the Bachelorette in the finale in favor of Dotun – a moment so devastating that he pulled an inverse "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and left Hawaii. Indeed, Joey has returned to his native Philadelphia to be closer to his family – a devastating development for any lady-testants mainly here for the handsome excuse to relocate to Hawaii.

The show quick shows Joey spending time with his family and chatting about how excited he is to find his person ... and then we're off! Cue the mansion and Joey meeting his marathon of potential partners! A+ WORK, NEW SEASON! Normally we'd get about ten minutes of walks on the beach and meaningful stares into the middle distance, maybe a three-minute convo with Sean Lowe that exists only to remind audiences of the 10 percent of the time this show ends happily. Then add another ten minutes of redundant contestant introductions, half shot with iPhones, half featuring people trying too hard to show they're QuIrKy and all featuring more meaningful walks through parks and beaches. But nope! This season we're jumping right in and weaving those more meaningfully into the episode – WE LOVE A SHOW WITH FORWARD MOMENTUM!

They really needed that forward momentum for this premiere, too, because as Jesse Palmer reports to Joey, this season marks the most contestants ever gathered. PEOPLE JUST LOVE TENNIS! Palmer seems excited by this reveal, but I am deeply stressed. "Bachelor" season premieres have never lacked for people to introduce – AND NOW THERE'S MORE THAN USUAL!? Was it not hard enough before to tell all these people apart and try to cover everything that happened?! Won't somethink of the poor television recapper?!

OK, let's try to speed round everybody dropping by the mansion tonight: First out of the limo is Lexi, a digital strategist who may not be able to have kids – so look forward to that conversation on a one-on-one date coming soon. Then comes Rachel, an ICU nurse who gives Joey a lei because she too has a Hawaii connection. Alright, now we get to our first character of the night: yeah, sure, Maria – but mainly Maria's weird cigar-chomping, clearly former '80s rock star dad from her B-roll clip. She better make it to hometowns because I must learn more about this man. Anyways, she's from Canada, eh, so she gifts Joey with a Canadian flag ... or at least we have to assume it's a Canadian flag because, for some reason, it gets blurred out.

Did the Canadian flag get altered from a maple leaf to a swimsuit-wearing butt or something without me knowing? 

Anyways, we meet some more people – including ANOTHER Canadian – before we move to Autumn, who introduces herself with an overly verbose pun about how Joey may be a spring or summer guy but he'll learn to fall in love with Autumn. We gotta tighten up that joke, Autumn – but I do appreciate a pun, so you can stay. She's followed by Kelsey A., who gifts Joey with a voodoo doll stuffed animal friend because she's from New Orleans. Here's to Voodoo Vince getting a recurring role this season. Kelsey and Vince are followed by Chrissa, ANOTHER CANADIAN!? What's the deal with Canada this season? Did the producers get lost on the way to Stagecoach and end up in the land of poutine instead? Do Canadians just LOVE tennis or something? Anyways, that's all there is to say about Chrissa. Bodes poorly.

After Chandler – who makes a solid "Friends" joke –Marlena, Starr, Sandra and a few others who all blended together and all probably hail from Ontario, we get to Allison, a realtor from Philly who seems to really hit it off with Joey. For one, Joey just noted that he wanted to get to know the women – cut to him actually asking follow-up questions and seeming interested in Allison beyond just a greeting. Plus, she's from Philly, which means they don't have to have that awkward conversation about who's gonna have to leave their part of the country. (Or leave their country in general, in the case of the Canadians.)

There's just one problem: She has a sister Lauren ... who's next out of the limo. That's right: These sisters decided that it'd be fun and not at all awkward to date the same guy at the same time, on purpose. Well that's a situation that's never ended well for anyone ever! And to make matters worse, the sibs decide to also keep this factoid from Joey and the rest of the women – because EVERYONE KNOWS THE BEST FOUNDATION TO A RELATIONSHIP IS LIGHT DECEIT! Anyways, she brings some beers for her and Joey to shotgun, resulting in Joey burping and being a human being with a personality for a whole two seconds. I nominate her as the superior sibling.

She's still no contest, though, for my early favorite of the night: Katelyn, who shows up in this gorgeous flowy pink gown situation, with a chemistry kit "to see if we have any chemistry." I LOVE A PUN! After putting on their safety goggles (somebody's high school chemistry teacher is proud!) Joey pours what appears to be liquid Mentos into some pink Coke and it gets all excited and overflowing and definitely not sexual at all. The two have some more charming banter before she brings her science fair project inside, and I mark her down as one of the rare people who pops in this cavalcade of contestants. 

We now arrive at the KoOkY contestant introductions, starting with Jenn who speeds up in a go-kart (though, honestly, the video game music accompanying her really steals the show). This leads to one of my underrated favorite "Bachelor" cliches: the arrival who shows up with a modestly weird shtick and assumes that'll be as wacky as things get, only to be immediately outdone. And indeed, as soon as Jenn notes that she thinks her go-kart will be the most remarkable arrival of the night, Jess comes up the driveway on a whole-ass boat. And unfortunately for Jenn, we do not work on "Speed" franchise logic, and therefore boat beats motor vehicle. (Though Jess does keep referring to Joey already as her husband, so I don't love that – and I can't imagine the rest of the contestants do either.)

Elsewhere, newcomers Lanie and Edwina bring various foods – the latter of which is apparently spicy. WHERE ARE LAUREN'S BEERS WHEN YOU NEED THEM!? Scoville scale aside, I'm always a proponent of contestants who bring food and drink. It's a long night! Sustenance is key! Next up is Samantha, who also brings Joey food ... albeit uncooked pizza dough because "she's the one that he kneads." OK, but now Joey's probably just thinking about how much he wants an actual pizza. Taylor also goes too big on a pun – literally, showing up with a giant bra because she's there for the "massive support." I revoke all my previous positive statements about puns; we've punned too far now. 

OK, we're almost at the end, I swear. There's a woman named Kyra who yells at Joey, which ... is a choice! Not as much of a choice as Zoe asking him to describe the size of his, um, man racket with various sized banana slices. But just make a sex joke when you can combine that sex joke WITH A TENNIS REFERENCE!? So Kayla shows up making sexual grunts from the limo, which just seems to make Joey uncomfortable, while Madine shows up with a limo full of balls for the obvious joke that you know is coming. Joey seems more excited about getting to juggle some of the tennis balls, honestly.

And last, there's Daisy, who arrives straight out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. No, really: She pulls up in a retro red pickup truck dragging a fully decked-out Christmas tree because her family runs a tree farm. IS SHE A SMALL TOWN GIRL LOOKING FOR HER BIG-CITY MAN?! Will his company want to expand into her family's tree farm, only for him to discover the magic of Christmas and choose not to pursue the sale? WILL THERE BE A GAZEBO AND HOT COCOA AT SOME POINT!? "Will You Accept This Christmas Tree?," coming to Hallmark Channel next holiday season. In the meantime, though, we have Daisy and Joey, who seem to spark things up a little bit. I see her going far. 

Pardon me, I lied: There's one more contestant to arrive ... though we've already met her. If you remember at the After The Final Rose, Joey got to meet his first contestant: Lea. But not only did Lea get to flirt with Joey early, she got a special surprise letter holding some sort of secret advantage. Is it immunity? Is it the ability to eliminate someone herself? The mansion is aflutter with rumors and gossip – while Joey is aflutter because he seems into Lea. I'll guess she goes just short of hometowns. 

Alright, so now that we've finally gotten everyone introduced and inside the mansion, WE CAN ACTUALLY START DATING! Autumn gets the first one-on-one time with Joey – but it's Jess, her boat and her big sassy goofball Hannah Brown energy that makes the first impact and nabs the first kiss of the night. But then she screws it up like a full doofus by going into the mansion all happy and blushing AND TELLING ALL THE WOMEN THAT SHE KISSED JOEY. Girl, they don't want to hear about it. You just told everyone that you made out with their boyfriend; there's no way they're not going to take that as bragging and hostile. I knew her whole "he's already my husband" vibe was gonna be trouble; I think we've got our first villain of the season in waiting ... 

And in case that wasn't clear, she causes an even bigger stink later on in the night. After Joey goes a few sets with Jenn and Madina, and steals another kiss from Hallmark Daisy (told you she was gonna be around a while), Taylor's enjoying some time with our Bachelor when LO AND BEHOLD JESS BUSTS OUT THE SEASON'S FIRST "CAN I STEAL HIM QUICK." Poor form, going for the steal when you've already had your quality time for the night (and told everyone in the mansion about it). To make matters worse – because Jess rhymes with mess – she doesn't particularly take no for an answer, and after giving Taylor a minute to wrap things up, she spends those 60 seconds awkwardly loitering nearby. It's all shady – but in fairness, the two quickly go to talk it out alone like adults. Not that it settles everything, but it's nice to see that they have an actual conversation about it. PROGRESS!

Meanwhile – shocker of all shockers – it appears that dating the same boy at the same time is causing a rift between our sisters. After dropping the act and revealing to the rest of the women that they're sisters – greeted with a resounding "... huh, OK then" – Lauren gets some solo time with Joey ... only for some sister-on-sister crime to break out as Allison busts out the "can I steal him" on her own sibling. IS THERE NO DECENCY!? HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING FROM DOMINIC TORETTO ABOUT FAMILY!? And to make matters worse, Allison beats her sister to getting a kiss from Joey – who also figures out that the two are sisters because they have all the same stories and background information. Yet another reason why joining the show with your sister is a bad idea: All your fun banter and back-home stories are SOMEONE ELSE'S TOO, making you significantly less special and interesting. 

But speaking of something significantly more interesting: Lea's mystery letter! After Kelsey and Joey get some flirting time – complete with Joey asking her if she'd be OK leaving NOLA and her saying yes, all positive signs – Lea and Joey chat about what's awaiting in the mystery envelope. The secret message? Palmer has granted Lea the ability to steal someone's one-on-one date with Joey ... which is quite the swindle! I personally was hoping that the card would grant her the power to sic Joey's awkward uncle on an unassuming one-on-one date like he did during Charity's season – but this is good too!

Lea, however, doesn't see it as such as positive. For one, she knows if she uses it in the household, she'll be public enemy number one – even more so than Jess. And second, she knows that it could just end up hindering Joey's journey and causing more resentment than connection. After all, how annoyed would he be if he chose someone else for a date ... only for Lea to swoop in and steal his choice in the matter. Lea cries about what to do ... and then cries some more ... and cries one more time before deciding to chuck the letter and its date-stealing powers into the fire, to cheers of the rest of the women because obviously. But really, Lea comes off great during this whole ordeal and as someone who genuinely doesn't want to pull that kind of shenanigans on Joey's journey toward love – and Joey agrees because, jumping ahead a bit, he gives her the first impression rose on the night. A positive sign, obviously, but then again, the first impression rose winner hasn't made it to hometowns since Petey the Pilot's season ...

You know who comes off a little less great? Maria, who despite being Canadian comes off like a real quality weirdo during her one-on-one time with Joey. Going into their solo session, unlike apparently everyone else in the premiere, she makes it her goal to NOT kiss Joey and leave him wanting more. So what's her flirtatious tactic of choice? Movie nerd-ing out on him, so much so it's uncomfortable – and I, a man who saw the live-action "Dragonball" movie and "Hannah Montana: The Movie" AND the Nicolas Cage time capsule movie all in the same day, am saying that! 

Indeed, she first peppers him with her horror movie thoughts, then – like a Letterboxd social media supervisor with a tiny mic on the red carpet – she inquires about all his Joey's favorite movies. Joey responds with "Remember the Titans" – though judging from Maria's repulsed reaction, you'd think he said "the bathtub scene in 'Saltburn' on repeat." I guess she believes that Denzel Washington and Will Patton and baby Ryan Gosling can't compete with the cinematic achievement that is "The Wedding Singer." The best part, though? ABC shamelessly popping up an ad in the lower left corner reminding audiences that "Remember the Titans" is currently streaming on Disney+. That's the first decent Disney+-related thing since season two of "The Mandalorian."

And the punchline to the whole segment: Maria ends up kissing Joey anyways. I have no idea what to make of this interaction; maybe this is all some Canadian cultural behavior I don't understand. 

No matter the case, it gets rewarded with a rose during the season's first rose ceremony, taking place the next morning because this show is secretly a "Saw" trap for these poor people. I'm happy to report Katelyn the chemistry expert from New Mexico makes it through, along with Sister #1 of the "Sister Sister" duo who gets rose number one of the ceremony. Lauren, the other sister, meanwhile has to wait until the final rose of the night. I actually wasn't sure who was going to get the final rose ... until the camera cut to her still waiting and it became obvious. The show didn't cast sisters for that subplot to end one episode in. They've got at least one more episode of sister-nanigans to dole out. 

Unfortunately, though, that means others have to leave – including Chandler and her great "Friends" joke, marking the second time a solid "Friends" reference has been wasted in the past pop cultural month after "Leave the World Behind." Sandra, who technically existed during the premiere, also gets shown the door. She's a cyber security consultant, so if Joey suddenly gets hacked, we'll know why. 

Other than the looming threat of cyber revenge, though, pretty good premiere! When Joey learns to loosen up a little bit, we'll really be cooking with gas – but the contestants are charming and kooky in engaging and entertaining ways, and we've got golden nuggets of drama already forming. And I'll be interested to see how much "Golden Bachelor"-ization happens this season – by that, I mean how much the show avoids drama and cattiness in the name of pleasant vibes. The franchise's greatest recent success was avoiding the shrill nonsense that's been the brand and instead filling the mansion with genuine people acting sensible and mature – but do we want standard mature and sensible from the regular "Bachelor" and their podcast-desiring 20-somethings?

No, we really do not, I imagine – and considering a pair of siblings showed up to date the same guy, another person showed up with a gigantic bra and one person's already getting folks grumpy, I'm thinking we won't get it either. No, my bet's on things quickly devolving into quite a racket (*collects my Pulitzer Prize*).

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.