By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Feb 14, 2023 at 6:01 PM

We open with two apologies. First, my apologies for being off schedule and out of sorts to start this season, therefore combining the last several episodes into this one mega-recap. I've just moved and managed to get through the entire process without trying to arson the belongings I was too tired to deal with anymore – so about 93 percent of my things. I've been more fried than our contestants' appearing/disappearing vocal fry – but I'm back to normal now (or as "normal" as the life of a semi-professional reality TV recapper can be) and now I'm all caught up. 

And all that catching up brings me to my second apology: to Zach and this season of "The Bachelor." I was pretty harsh in my analysis of the premiere, which was basically like watching a bunch of ChatGPT-generated humans interact. But three episodes later, I must say ... Zach might actually be good at this. Between actually engaging with his dates and seemingly rejecting attempts at cheap annoying drama, he's discovered a personality trait: actually decent "Bachelor"? Not only that, but this season might actually be doing some storytelling things right, turning away from its tired formulas and finding spicy tension without succumbing to vicious toxicity. 

We'll see how long that all lasts, though. The Unspoken One's season briefly seemed like it wasn't going to be the absolute worst, either, and WELP TO THAT! But let's get into my nine takeaways from this first month of Zach's nonstop search for love – and the producers' nonstop search for shirtless Zach showering shots. 

1. This is a season trying to be different

After several seasons of toxicity and tired formula turning "The Bachelor" from a guilty pleasure to just guilt-inducing, this round really seems to be putting forward a purposeful attempt at being different. Our lead has no interest in indulging anything resembling poor behavior or leading ladies on,  while the contestants spend more time being supportive and real with one another rather than snapping and retaliating at their rivals. 

In fact, the extinguishing of the franchise's toxicity torch was basically a plot point in the actual show with Tahzjuan's hijacking attempt. 

On the first group date of the season, Zach threw a bad b*tch energy dance party judged by "Big Energy" hitmaker Latto as well as three "iconic" franchise members: Victoria F., Tahzjuan and Courtney. (My apologies to the word "iconic": You no longer mean anything.) For the most part, the judges had nothing to do during the ladies' strutting performances, other than cringing at Genevie accidentally choking Zach with a streamer. Safe to say she will not be invited to try out for the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics ribbon dancing Olympic team.

But while Victoria F. and Courtney happily called it a day after the dance-off, paychecks dubiously earned, Tahzjuan decided to stick around and become a new cast member – by force, if necessary, interrupting an ACTUAL contestant's Zach time to talk to him and see if he was interested in keeping her around. While Zach took some time to ponder her offer, the rest of the ladies confronted Tahzjuan on her takeover while she used the time to sass at the other women for being so lame and painful with their flirtation attempts that she just HAD to save Zach from their un-bad-b*tchness. Tahz is DEFINITELY the kind of person who takes over the controller while you're playing a video game and then never gives it back until she's beaten the whole game and unlocked all the characters, whether you asked her to or not.

The situation seems like some classic "Bachelor" conflict – but this season, Tahz's somewhat bullying behavior and overt aggression feel totally out of place and against the pleasant vibes of the rest of the cast. And in the end, Zach ends up agreeing, telling Tahz that though she seems great, he wants to pursue his just-started connections with his actual cast and not cause needless concern that he had to bring in reinforcements for his love search. It's a brief speed bump in the season, but the sequence sure feels like a meta statement of purpose for this year: The old show's overheated cattiness and casual toxicity colliding with this new variation's more inviting and thoughtful approach, with this season letting the old version go and focusing on the new. Heck, the show even gave Tahz a final emotional moment, showing her crying about how her time for love never comes and how she shouldn't cry, only for a producer to bust out the silly but oddly sweet response: "Sometimes bad b*tches cry." 

Since then, the show's continued to pursue this new toxicity-depleted approach as opposed to the aggressively catty and irritatingly dragged-out dramas of the past, mostly letting the inherent tensions involved with two dozen people dating the same person and dealing with the wild emotional ebbs and flows play out. Sure, the show feels a little thirsty for drama as a result, but it's also finding new ways to entertain – whether it's with more charming interactions between the women (love that back-and-forth where one woman kindly tried to guess that maybe Tahz just had a normal question, followed by another contestant dubiously saying, "Oh, she has a QUESTION?") or more genuine interactions between our leads.

"The Bachelor" still has work to do to make a show on par with fresher newcomers like "Love is Blind" – but this specific move away from eye-rolling tedious toxicity is a step in the right direction. So congrats, Zach and comapny, because four episodes in, you've gotten over that most basic benchmark for a TV show: being able to tolerate spending time with the people on screen. 

2. But really, Zach might be really good at this

A good chunk of the reason why this season feels so pleasantly toxicity-free and irritant-devoid is that Zach has not got one second for drama. The man's like John Wick, except instead of surgically dispensing with henchmen he surgically dispenses with drama. (And also I don't believe anyone has ever harmed his dog.) 

Brianna comes to him with some vague, clearly overblown gossip about someone being mean? He says "that's nice" and moves along! He gets word that Christina Mandrell is making her fellow contestants uncomfortable in the house? He shows her the door! Tahz tries to hop on the show while making fun of the established contestants? THE DOOR! Anastasia might be there for the wrong reasons? Well here's a solution: DOOR! People forget that, as annoying and mean as Shanae was during The Unspoken One's season, the greater sin was Clayton keeping her around and essentially rewarding her behavior for episode upon episode. Zach's learned that lesson, putting out petty fires before they threaten to burn down the affable atmosphere of the cast, much to the audience's satisfaction. (Though probably to the producers' hair-pulling frustration.)

In addition to being a drama assassin, though, Zach also just ... seems like a good dude! He seems to make a concerted effort to spend time with all the women, rather than letting some feel disregarded by the wayside, and he seems actually engaged with the women during conversations on his one-on-one dates. I know, I know: That's a low damn bar. "Standing ovation for Zach on the remarkable feat of actually bothering to listen!" But one of the big complaints I've had in recent "Bachelor" seasons is how rote and borderline transactional the emotional conversations can seem. A contestant shares a painful and serious trauma or story, followed by the star saying some dead-eyed variation of "Wow, thank you for sharing that with me. That means a lot. You were vulnerable, so now I feel a connection. Let's make out in front of this unknown country singer-songwriter we're going to pretend to know."

This season, Zach actually sounds like he's processing and listening to these women's stories and not just cynically processing them as evidence of a connection. From Kaity discussing her past toxic on-off relationships to Brooklyn opening up about an abusive past and Christina Mandrell revealing she's a mother, Zach's seemed genuinely engaged with their lives and their stories, and responded to them charmingly and thoughtfully. Sure, he could've maybe handed Mandrell's news better, going from calm to clearly stressing out about the added responsibility their relationship would carry – but his response was also honest in its clumsiness, wanting to continue forward while also aware that a child's developing emotions are now at play too. 

Things weren't looking promising for Zach at the start, with the show having nothing to sell or promote beyond "he'll be shirtless a bunch." Turns out he's doing just fine, no beefcake shots necessary!

That being said ... 

3. He's really good at this ... for now  

Zach seems to be making a point this season of avoiding drama – but there's some clues scattered throughout this season that, despite his best efforts, he may end up creating some anyways. 

For starters, for his first date with Christina Mandrell, Zach brought her to a full-on family celebration where she met most of his whole family. First of all, she's now awkwardly in all of the photos from your mom's birthday, so now when you look back at this family moment, you'll have your ex in a bunch of the memories. Didn't think this one through, did we, Zach?

That's fairly standard "Bachelor" misstepping, though. Things get a little more uniquely concerning with Kaity's one-on-one date – which was otherwise perfect! The two went on a charming little "Night at the Museum"-like adventure, wandering around dinosaur skeletons and dioramas with their little lanterns, then had a very honest and cute dinner conversation. But then, Zach took things a surprise step further by inviting Kaity to stay the night with him in a tent at the museum. A cute idea – but this woman JUST opened up about how one of the most important things she's looking for and needs in a relationship right now is safety and security. And now you're initiating this very quick, fairly unpredecented (for the show) emotional step on your first date? I am concerned for Kaity's heart if this doesn't work out. (Then again, if I was looking for a stable and safe relationship situation, I'm not sure I'd go on the very public dating show with the multiple girlfriends, history of toxicity, low success rate and built-in power imbalance.)

More concerning, though, is: For a guy very aware of avoiding drama and keeping things positive, does Zach REALLY have no idea what Kaity coming home in her PJs this early in the season could do to the stability of the house and the contestants? Even if the night at the museum was totally chaste and innocent, he's gotta know he's setting Kaity up for a bunch of stink-eye from her fellow contestants – and maybe some stink-eye for himself too. Thus far, the sleepover hasn't blown up in his face – but there are seeds of this positive season imploding into chaos. Oh no what a shame ... (*grabs popcorn*)

4. Why is Palmer getting lower thirds?

The lower third graphics are a "Bachelor" franchise staple, essential to keeping the various Victorias, Brandons, Kendalls and Devins apart during the first several weeks as well as often an oasis of rare subtle comedy. But why is Jesse Palmer getting one every episode? He's a former "Bachelor" star and a staple in and around the show for a long time now. I KNOW WHO HE IS! I'M NOT NEW HERE! Is this some sort of passive aggressive jab from the show's new editor, Hris Carrison? Cut it out! Save the lower thirds for helping me figure out the difference between Cat, Katherine (who's now Kat), Kaity, Christina and whatever we ended up calling Bailen. 

5. America's First Impression Rose turned out to be a curse

Brianna seemed to be an easy contender to make it to hometowns week with her first chemistry-filled interaction with Zach in last season's finale and with receiving America's blessing as its first impression rose winner. But that special rose turned out to be more thorny than expected as it clearly went to Brianna's head – not in the egomaniacal way, rather the opposite. 

Things got off to a rocky start quite quickly as Brianna took umbrage at Christina Mandrell saying that she hated her on opening night. Wow, that sounds pretty bad ... until you actually watch the tape and see that Christina was clearly saying it in a playful, overtly joking that only somebody dealing with real confidence issues might mistake as a genuine jab. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the case with Brianna, who tried to take her concerns to Zach – but that tea was so weak and so clearly insubstantial that even drama-killer Zach didn't bother pursuing it, with Brianna asking if he wanted to know the identity of The Meanest Person In The House and him responding, "No, I'm fine, thanks." So that died off.

But while that attempt at drama was smothered, Brianna's clear self-confidence struggles kept burning away at her – and understandably so. As she understandably pointed out early on, Zach didn't give her that rose; a random audience poll did. So by the second week, when her chemistry with Zach wasn't clicking and she wasn't getting special solo dates, it's fair that the high of the prestigious first rose started wearing off and she started wondering if she ever really had much of a connection with Zach – and therefore a reason to stay on the show. And what few interactions they had came off stiff, so much so Zach even pointed it out. So, even despite the seeming head start, just three episodes in, Brianna called it quits and left. 

The lesson to be learned? Don't get America's rose, clearly. In Brianna's case, the rose and what it did NOT actually symbolize obviously messed with her head, making her self-conscious about her relationship with Zach. It's all the pressure and feeling of front-runner status but without any of the actual confirmation of a connection – who wouldn't get lost in their own head trying to process all that, while also dealing with the other contestants' perceptions or just perceived perceptions? It's a messy minefield disguised as a flower.

Then again, it's not like the rest of Zach's first five did much better. Of those first several contestants from last year's finale sneak preview, only Brooklyn remains just a month into the season. So clearly: First to make an impression, first to leave.

6. This season's hottest trend is desperately reaching for conflict

Brianna was far from the only one choosing to take a mundane sentence and turn it into a self-destructive battleground. Indeed, if there is a villain this season, it's verbal context clues – something that wrecked Brianna and then destroyed Anastasia this most recent episode.

In fairness to Brianna, "I hate you" out of context is a bad sentence – and time would actually prove her correct about Christina Mandrell in the end. Anastasia, on the other hand ... what happened, girl? Perhaps self-confidence issues struck again, as Anastasia spent the first part of the latest episode stressed about not getting another one-on-one date and worried that Zach's already begun locking in on his favorites. So she decides to start making some drastic moves at the Bahamas beach party group date, breaking the peace treaty with the other ladies by asking Zach for a pre-limbo "kiss for courage" that he basically rejects ("on the cheek?" OUCH!) before stealing him away from the rest of the gals.

Their alone time comes to an end when Kylee awkwardly steals him back from Anastasia – though not without a fight. Or should I say a "fight" – because during their awkward little negotiation, Kylee says that she doesn't want to fight with her about this – a seemingly normal and undertandable phrase that Anastasia turns into WORLD WAR FLIPPIN' III! She goes around the entire beach, telling all the women that Kylee was threatening to physically fight her over Zach ... much to every woman's massive eye-roll, because they have the ability to understand context clues.

To make matters worse for Anastasia, Kylee later tells Zach that she heard that Anastasia was very excited about the Instagram followers she was going to gain at the end of this all – and while everyone KNOWS the clout and place in the BCU (Bachelor Cinematic Universe) is the real prize, you don't actually SAY anything about that during the show. That's breaking the code, the unwritten rules. And so, distrusting Anastasia and once again having no taste for anything annoyingly dramatic, Zach eventually lets her go. In a crazy twist – and one that speaks to this season's genial nature – Kylee actually takes Anastasia's departure pretty rough, crying because she doesn't want to be the toxic person sending people home (and also maybe because she knows that people who get attached to drama don't tend to stick around much longer). 

In conclusion: Context is important, and the producers need to come up with better drama than people ignoring it. And maybe most important: If their name is Anastasia pronounced with all soft-vowel sounds, they're gonna be a problem. Between this, all WB/CW soaps and Hallmark mysteries, Ahnastahsiahs are not to be trusted!

7. What happened to Genevie's arm?!

As has been made clear, this season's been a little desperate for drama – so why did the producers flatout ignore the injured woman wandering around the show!?

You're telling me there was no drama or intrigue about the wounded woman!? No backstory there!? We're just going to awkwardly not talk about it?! OK THEN!

Maybe that's because the backstory seems pretty obvious: the Bachelor Bowl. Yes, because this reality dating show insists on competing with the NFL for most concussions in primetime television, Zach and company decided to play a football game for the group date in episode three – a decision that's never NOT gone horribly wrong. Somebody always gets hurt emotionally – because either the losing team gripes about getting no afterparty, or the winning team gripes about the losers eventually getting invited to the afterparty out of guilt, or everyone gripes because giving a bunch of emotionally heightened competitors an excuse to hit one another is a bad idea. And if it's not enough to get hurt emotionally, somebody tends to get hurt literally too. 

You might remember this year's Bachelor Bowl did its best impression of the XFL and had an injury on the first play of the damn game – but that was actually Anastasia, not Genevie, getting shaken up on the opening kickoff. (Hmm, perhaps an undiagnosed concussion would also help explain her desperate "fight" misunderstanding with Kylee?) Rewatching the game, Genevie does take a number of hard hits – but if the injury happened on the field, she played through it impressively, so much so the viewers and the editors never seemed to notice until SURPRISE! we're at the rose ceremony and there she is, rocking a sling.

To add insult to literal injury, Genevie got the boot in the most recent episode. So Genevie got hurt and didn't get the guy AND didn't even get bonus airtime as the show didn't even bother with that dangling subplot. Call the producers the Super Bowl LVII refs – because they dropped the ball on this one.

8. Two names but no chance for Christina Mandrell

Even before the season technically started, Christina Mandrell didn't particularly seem like a fan favorite. For one, she strangely got full-name privileges, seemingly for reasons possibly related to point two: She's a professional "content creator" who happens to come from country music royalty. Again, we know everyone's basically here for the social media clout – but this all seemed to add up into an obvious brand expansion. 

Well, if that was the case, it didn't last long – because three episodes in, the two-named contestant was given one ticket back home to reality. And while short, her stay certainly made her presence known – for better and for worse. Folks were generally on her side at first during the nonexistent spat with Brianna and the "I hate you" that wasn't actually an "I hate you"; that seemed like someone reading into things too far with her rather than any actual spite on her part. Then there was the one-on-one date with Zach, where the two seemed to actual spark and her reveal that she was a mom seemed honest and open, with the two having an earnest conversation about how they felt and how they could best move forward. Maybe I misjudged this social media star! Maybe I'm showing my age grumping at the younger generation's social media ways!

Then she kept talking. 

Yeah, maybe Brianna was onto something – because after the one-on-one date, Christina Mandrell's attempts at sweetness with her fellow contestants sure felt more like honey served with a barbed wire spoon. Suddenly, she turned into a "I'm not here to make friends" person happy to misread a room and talk to much about HER connection with Zach was SOOOOO much better than anyone elses and how she's SOOO confident about her relationship with Zach and no one else even really matters. By the standards of "Bachelor" villainy, she's no icon (the actual definition this time) but compared to the positive vibe of the rest of the cast, her humblebrags stuck out as perhaps a little sinister.  

Brianna certainly thought so – and that's why, on her way out with nothing really to gain, she tossed Zach the grenade that Christina was the girl making her uncomfortable before and that she's doing it to others too. And after talking with some other cast members and verifying that she was needling others, Zach – much to the dismay of the prodcuers – sent Christina Mandrell home ... though not before she cried in front of all the most scenic and Instagram-ready settings at the mansion and also tried out every possible cutaway facial reaction during the final rose ceremony. Can't say the woman didn't make the most out of her time on the show; she gave sympathetic hero, grumbly villain and capable production designer in just three episodes time. No wonder people are wondering if this is truly the last we see of her – especially considering one of Palmer's audition ads noted they were looking for single dads. A second chance for Christina Two-Names coming up this next "Bachelorette"!?

9. Gabi is Charli D'Amelio

I'm sorry, you can't not convince me this isn't some insidious Disney viral marketing trying to get me to watch Hulu's "The D'Amelio Show."

Have we seen Gabi and the famous TikTokker in the same room together? We have not? I REST MY CASE! And if they were in the same room, we'd probably have one of those clone dilemmas where they're like, "I'm Charli D'Amelio the 'Dancing with the Stars' champion." "No, I'M Charli D'Amelio the 'Dancing with the Stars' champion; don't believe her!"

Thankfully, Gabi accidentally gave us a method to do some "The Thing"-like identity testing in the most recent episode: She's majorly allergic to shellfish. Off on the beach party group date, Gabi lamented to the camera that all the activities were Red Lobster-approved so while all the other women were having fun and getting to show off their personality with Zach, she was stuck keeping her distance. She couldn't even kiss Zach if she wanted because he'd been snacking on seafood throughout the date, and just that small contact could turn her into an unintentional "Hitch" homage. The good news? At least she didn't get shellfish bounced off her face like some of the women trying to apparently play Seafood 500 with Zach. 

In the end, while some things have changed in "Bachelor" Land, at least one thing has stayed consistent: You want drama? Serve some shrimp.

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.