By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 16, 2020 at 4:16 AM

Maybe it's just the 2020 talking, but I ... actually liked the hometown dates episode this season?

Typically, hometowns sounds thrilling and dramatic on paper, but ends up repetitive and fairly drama-free, four pleasantly bland dates followed by four different families going, "Welp, best of luck; you do you." It's an episode that always plays like a deflating balloon. But this year's edition was ... well, yes, also repetitive and fairly drama-free, but the vibe seemed so much more natural and sincere. The dates were appealingly modest, the families seemed sweetly kind, and the remaining contestants are all charming and refreshingly human. Plus, for some odd reason, TOP CHEF ANTONIA LOFASO WAS THERE?! It felt like a true case of making the best of an bad situation, with the emphasis more on the best than the bad.

So about that bad situation: How exactly are you supposed to do hometown dates when you can't go down the street much less travel across the country? You bring the guys' hometowns to the La Quinta, shipping in elements of where they live – including select family members as well. IT'S HOTEL TOWNS WEEK! And I gotta admit: It's kinda cute. I'm really enjoying how much the pandemic is forcing "The Bachelorette" to go low-key for its dates, creating interactions that almost border on real between our couples.

Speaking of real, the guys are really feeling the fact that they'll be able to see their families and friends. You almost get the impression that a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic was keeping people apart in the real world even before they left for the "Bachelorette" bubble! Several of the dudes tear up, and at the end of Harrison's dispatch, one of the dudes says, "Yo, can I get some hugs?" AND THEN THEY ALL JUST HUG AND EMBRACE EACH OTHER! It was lovely, and all of these guys deserve confetti. 

Brendan is up first – my personal guess for the winner this season. He had those first few good dates with Tayshia before the show shelved him – almost as if they wanted you to forget he was around, HMMM!? I'VE SEEN THIS GAME BEFORE, SHOW! So yeah, now that I've given him my blessing, he's doomed and almost certainly gone by the end of this very episode. 

Brendan's from Milford, Massachusetts, known for its large quantities of pink granite, NFL Hall of Famer and Sketchers spokesman Howie Long, and 1990's "most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments!" So yeah, he brings some carnival games instead – a little generic but I'll let it slide. Plus, his little niece pops by to play all the classic carnival games – pop-a-shot, ring toss, milk bottle toss – which admittedly looks like a lot of fun, AND you don't have to awkwardly carry a giant stuffed animal around an entire park if you win!

The real prize for Tayshia, though, is seeing Brendan hang out with his niece, busting out their elaborate secret handshake as well as some dance moves. (Update on dance moves: Brendan may have rubber joints.) The most important part of the date, however, is yet to come as Brendan reveals that he also brought a bouncy house. MARRY THE MAN NOW, TAYSHIA! A man with respect for the power and majesty of a bouncy house is a man you shouldn't let go. 

As for Brendan's family, they're all thrilled to see him, and they seem pretty good around Tayshia – who also defends Brendan when it comes to his two uncertain lie detector results from earlier this season. Seems like a good sign if she's got his back on one of his few odd moments this season! The rest of the date goes well too, with Brendan getting teary-eyed talking about his brother's kids as well as discussing about how, as a divorcee, he's not interested in taking any of this lightly. That's why he's stressed that his reluctance to propose right away at the end of the show might be a dealbreaker – but if that's the case, Tayshia showed no sign of it Tuesday night.

We stay on the East Coast for Zac's hotel town date, bringing Tayshia to the Big Apple by first teaching her how to properly hail a cab. I was hoping he would then teach her how to yell, "I'M WALKIN' HERE!" but instead they pick up a cab – quite literally as it's a wooden cutout of a taxi – and head over to a makeshift bagel shop, a gorgeously painted view of NYC on the water and the water fountain. Not sure what the fountain has to do with New York City, but the two end up splish-splashing in the water. Considering how much everyone's sweating this episode, I can't blame them wanting to cool off. 

Speaking of sweat, now it's time to meet Zac's family, who sounds UNIMPRESSED by the concept of the show. I do love it when the normal people show up on this show and side-eye Chris Harrison's Beloved Process That Definitely Works. Zac's brother keeps the heat on, asking Tayshia how her feelings for Zac compares to the rest of the guys. Tayshia tries to answer the question nicely, but as the brother points out, she didn't answer the question, and while she and Zac may try not to focus on other people's relationships on the show, it's a factor no matter the case. Still, they like Tayshia, seem nice and, most importantly, seem happy to see Zac so happy. However, Zac at no point brought out a bouncy house, so he's definitely at risk.

Ivan's up next, and while he's from the Big D, his date of choice is very modest: a day cooking in the kitchen. But first, a virtual visit from one of the best Filipino chefs in the country. ANOTHER RANDOM CELEBRITY CHEF SIGHTING!? False alert: It's just his niece adorably making lumpia, their dish for the day. The rolls don't quite turn out – they look profoundly burned – but the date does. Yet again, Ivan's date feels like a real-world date as opposed to some reality show concoction – and therefore the two feel like a real-world couple too. The only problem: No bouncy house. He should probably have his things packed. 

But first, we meet his family – a big deal for Ivan as he's only ever brought one other person to meet his clan. Unfortunately his brother isn't there – something Ivan brings up A LOT, to the point of almost being rude to the family members who WERE able to make it – but his mom and dad are pleasant, with the latter asking Tayshia a really good question about what she learned about herself from her divorce. In the end, they approve of their situation – and, most importantly, Ivan's brother surprises everyone with an appearance and gets to pass along his approval of Tayshia as well. 

That leaves Ben, who takes Tayshia on a rollerblading tour of Venice Beach – complete with a stop for some juice. I believe one of the flavors is charcoal juice – which is confusing to me because charcoal is mostly wood, a substance that's not exactly known for its juicability especially after torching it to death. Apparently this is a real thing, though, so shows what I know about health trends. 

They close out the date with Ben's sister and ANTONIA LOFASO?! Renowned chef and "Top Chef" celeb ANTONIA LOFASO!? I'm so stunned and confused I literally can't stop caps-locking her name. No one on the show brings any of this up – she's just treated like any other random family member – and I feel like I'm losing my mind. Apparently she's a family friend, but I just needed somebody, anybody, to step in and say, "Hold on, you're ANTONIA LOFASO! What are you doing here?!" 

Craziest of all, she's a key part of the most dramatically charged part of the episode as she sits down with Ben and leads him to realize that he is indeed in love with Tayshia. It takes him a while to grasp it, but ANTONIA LOFASO(?!) eventually helps him embrace this emotional development – and nudge him toward actually telling Tayshia his feelings, still a notable roadblock for their relationship.  

So after the family and friends clear out, Tayshia and Ben sit down together, chat about how great the night was and then ... nothing from Ben. It's like the "I lesbians you" scene from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" except somehow slightly more painful as Ben just can't push himself to say what he desperately wants to say. So they go their separate ways, both sadly unsatisfied. If only he had taken that moment to utilize the true universal language of love: bouncy houses. 

And so it's time for the rose ceremony – one that's legitimately kind of dramatic since I like all four fellas. The first roses go to Ivan and Zac, leaving the final carnation for either Brendan or Ben. On the plus side for Brendan, he's charming, and the show's been seemingly strategizing around him; however, he's on the fence about proposing, and I gave him the death curse of picking him as the winner. As for Ben, he's connecting with Tayshia, but he's still struggling to fully open up emotionally. 

And so, the final rose goes ... to Brendan. BOUNCY HOUSE BEATS DEATH CURSE!

There's no time to celebrate, though, as Tayshia walks Ben out and sits him down to chat – if only to hopefully get some expression of emotion out of him. She wants to hear him say what she knows he feels – maybe that's not fair considering she just broke up with him – but you can see the gears in his brain grinding and crushing to a halt despite what his heart wants; he's just so locked up, not to mention dealing with all sorts of conflicting feelings and reactions. Should he say he loves her now that it's over? Is that the right and good thing to do? What does his love mean now? What did the past two months mean? Would things have turned out differently if he said what he wanted to say the previous night? You can see it all – hurt, confusion, regret, love – battling for space in his mind, but none of the words or emotions are coming out other than practiced sturdiness. It's maybe the most painful thing I've seen on the show: just a guy brutally unable to allow himself to express his emotions or feelings. Hopefully this was the start of something for Ben, though. The dam was cracking. 

This, however, is pretty much the end, with three guys left – all of them good options. There's just two episodes left and one question remaining: Who will bust out the bouncy house next? Who will Tayshia pick?

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.