By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 02, 2023 at 9:01 AM

You can change the name, change the age range and wrap it in as much cuddly feel-good friendliness to make even the Hallmark Channel get diabetes from all the sweetness ... but in the end, this was still "The Bachelor." And apparently even with an AARP card, it's gonna end with a person's heart exploded, our star stumbling over shortsighted decisions and poor word choices, and an audience full of people glaring at him out the side of their eyes while the show attempts to shoo all that out of mind and get everyone back on board for the new happy couple. Gerry Turner may have been the first "Golden Bachelor," but at the end, he was just another Bachelor whose sincerity turned into a switchblade at the last minute. 

Even if you're new to this all and this season was your Ellis Island into Bachelor Nation, you had to have the creeping sense that things were lining up for a not-so-golden ending for Gerry. (And even if you didn't read the recent Hollywood Reporter expose revealing that – shock, horror – reality shows sometimes lie for the sake of a good narrative.) We all fell for Gerry, even if his voice always sounds like he's talking through a yawn – but for several weeks now, Gerry failed to learn from his predecessors and got a little sloppy with the verbiage, throwing around the L-word along with lofty proclamations of commitment that could obviously only be true for one of the final women. Unfortunately, even with all those years and all that supposed wisdom of time, no one is safe from a case of the Claytons.

It's a real shame the finale had such an inevitable sour flavor – because, up until Thursday's wrap-up, I'd really taken a shine to "The Golden Bachelor." 

For several seasons now, I've been pestering for a change to the franchise's standard formulas – and this was exactly that! You had a cast of characters who seemed sincere and with a lived-in emotional intelligence, who you didn't have to tediously wonder if they were here For The Right Reasons. (Not a lot of septuagenarians looking to rack up Instagram clout or podcast listens.) As a result, you had a house full of people who you liked spending time with because they (minus Theresa and Kathy) liked spending time with each other. The interactions were fun and genuine, the topics ranged from flirty to thoughtful, and there were charming and playful characters without them feeling like ChArAcTeRsTM. And best of all, it was all only an hour long! (With things only feeling a little rushed! Easy fix? If the show returns in the same paired-up format with "Paradise," make 'em 90-minute episodes.)

Of course, it wasn't perfect. Since Gerry and company were so naturally charismatic and charming, the show's usual attempts to manufacture Grand Romantic Moments felt even more fake. (Looking at you, flashmob dance party at the burger shoppe!) And some of the "Bachelor" franchise's traditional elements didn't quite fit. Hometowns week and the dramatic tension of parental approval, for instance, make sense with 20-somethings ... less so with fully-grown adults who were almost alive for a World War and sure as heck don't need anyone to sign off on their life choices. A Women Tell All, too, doesn't mean much if all the women love one another, had no conflicts and therefore have no "All" to tell beyond debating whose food made gave them brutal farts. (Which, in fairness, worth it; would've watched an hour-long Women Toot All.)

And then, of course, the worst problem is that our cuddly main character turned into a full-scale emotional doofus during the finale episode, delivering a vicious pickleball spike to a poor woman's heart. The result was a pretty captivating reality show finale, no doubt – just not to the sweet, pleasant, happy and seemingly thoughtful journey we'd spent two months following. 

So about that finale: After we see some sneak preview footage of Gerry anxiously roaming his proposal stage with not a regular rose but a GOLDEN rose – of course they get fancy flowers while the younger generations just get normal ones; CLASSIC BOOMERS, GETTING ALL THE BENEFITS! – Jesse Palmer introduces us to the live studio. Everyone's there: Gerry's former contestants, the previous Bachelor whose name no one remembers anymore with his fiancee who everyone forgot, Petey the Pilot's parents ... for some reason. In between all the usual talk about an emotional finale that'll hyperbole your hyperbole, Palmer also notes that there will be an announcement at the very end of the night that'll leave Bachelor Nation stunned. Real unexpected turn of events here: It didn't. 

Anyways, we finally get into the finale itself, with Gerry talking with kids about his decision before introducing them to Theresa. The family wants to make sure that, whoever he proposes to, that they recipocate his proposal – and it seems like they get that vibe from Theresa. As for Theresa herself, she's a little concerned about the whole MY BOYFRIEND'S DATING ANOTHER WOMAN thing but that's to be expected. Otherwise it's all smooth sailing ... save for whichever producer decided that we needed awkward cutaways to a still-sad Faith watching in the picture-in-picture box in the bottom left corner. 

Then it's Leslie's turn with the family, and again it all goes great. She even swears in front of them all – saying that her favorite part of their relationship was when he said f*ck during the overnight, assuring her that she could relax and be herself and talk openly – to a bunch of laughs. Great! All we need now is for Gerry to stick the landing with the thoughtfulness and composure he's demonstrated for most of the show! Right, Gerry? All good, pal?

Oh no.

Like this season's Super Bowl aspirations for the New York Jets, things start falling apart quickly for Gerry – like, even before he finishes off the family hangout with Leslie. The two walk out, and the conversation just kinda ... fades out? Like somebody trying to get out of a post-church convo they're not interested in, Gerry pulls a " ... weeeelp, I gotta go" in between awkward silences and the first of too many uncomfortable hugs throughout the finale. It's definitely a bit odd – but almost to a degree that you could convince yourself it was the show trying to juke out the audience, that the producers were throwing in some artificial tension to get viewers off the final result's scent. 

Nope! As we find out VERY quickly moving onto their final date together, that wasn't the production; that was just 100 percent organic, farm-to-table human awkwardness! They try to rebound from that weird interaction at the start of the date, with Leslie calling him out on being walled up at the end and Gerry admitting that the stress of the decision caught up with him. They talk it out and, sure, seems all good now; she even gives him a photo album of all their memories together. It's really thick – but each page is just one single photo, so it gives off real "change the margins of my college paper to hit the page minimum" vibes.

Still, it's a nice gesture, one Gerry returns with an extended hug and some nice words about how it's all been so much fun and thanks to her for all that she's done and HOLD ON A SECOND, IS THIS A BREAKUP SPEECH!? We sure are talking in a lot of definitive past tense, sir! Leslie cuts him off eventually to say that she can't imagine being without him now, and he DOES. NOT. RETURN. THE SENTIMENT. Instead, he gives her a pleased "hmm!" and then cannot wait to bail off that couch. She tries again to get the effusive Gerry from the past eight episodes and says that she loves him – and again, instead of returning the favor, he basically says that's nice gotta go. Nice of you to realize you shouldn't be throwing that word around ... BUT A LITTLE LATE NOW, MY GUY! Should've realized that BEFORE YOU TOLD HER YOU LOVED HER APPROXIMATELY 714 TIMES BEFORE THIS MOMENT. 

Well, I guess we know who he's NOT picking a little early tonight – Leslie certainly knows, and with all these awkward silences and stares off to anywhere but here, Gerry knows that Leslie knows. So he gives her another excessively long hug, a knowing nod and the note of "be happy." What Leslie or the audience is supposed to do with THAT, I do not know – but I certainly know that it doesn't work. Leslie's crying and sad, Gerry's awkward, the picture-in-picture people are either tearing up or making alarmed faces, and Joey's taking notes on how NOT to handle things during his season. Leslie gives him one last chance at the door to actually say what he's VERY CLEARLY refusing to say, but Gerry just trundles away for everyone to have some private cry sessions. 

At least he does come back to Leslie to put this relationship out of its misery – a small mercy, to avoid the embarassment of the big proposal speech and the fancy dress and feined hope, all for a rejection she and everyone else knows is coming. So he does exactly that, bluntly telling Leslie that he's fallen in love with Theresa and that's the direction he's going to take. And with that, Leslie pulls out a Solo Stove and a few campfire sticks, and takes Gerry to roast town, letting him now that everything he'd told her before this was a lie and that it wasn't the two of them who were off – it was him. He tries to say his proclamations of love and commitment were all the truth at the time, but considering those happened barely a day ago, it holds no water. Gerry has no real words for Leslie's righteous rage, about how he made her feel chosen just to totally bail on her; all he has is hugs. Poorly considered hugs.

After about five uncomforting and uncomfortable embraces and no real answer for Leslie's question of "when did it go wrong," Gerry eventually finishes the breakup off and walks away for a pep talk with Palmer where he hates himself and feels real bad, while Leslie's off alone upstairs feeling significantly worse. 

Back at the live studio, Leslie's taken the stage with Palmer to relitigate the moment she – and most people watching – fell out of love with Gerry and remembered this was a reality show literally designed to dole out significantly more heartbreak than heartwarmth. She explains that she fell in love with him and his family – and thought he'd returned the favor, even when he was acting weird in the immediate aftermath. After all, he said he was just spent from a long day. Obviously that was not the case. 

Gerry eventually comes out to chat with Leslie himself, while Palmer politely "gives them the space to have a conversation" aka grabs himself a cup of coffee, maybe a bagel, because he is not necessary now. Leslie does NOT particularly seem eager to see Gerry, not standing until the very last minute to greet him and yet another damned hug. (Amazing how charming the whole "Gerry's a hugger" thing was until it really wasn't!) Leslie explains that she fell in love with Gerry's integrity and honest words – which made it all the worst when those weren't the case. That's especially the case with some statements made during the overnight that Leslie doesn't SAY for the sake of their privacy but that clearly meant a lot to her and even further cemented the sense that she was someone he was committed to as opposed to preparing to cut off. 

What follows is a collection of ill-considered Gerry statements followed by VERY entertaining audience reactions – bad for the humanity cultivated over the past eight episodes, but good for the sake of reality show scintillation. Gerry explains his L-word usage by saying that he was committed to each individual person he was dating at the end, which meant that he got lost in the feelings of each single relationship – the great enigma of "The Bachelor" franchise. How do you commit to someone while also having a foot out the door for everyone's sake – because if you forget about the other people in this messy equation, well, you end up like Gerry here, having his exes all shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at him. 

The pièce de réaction comes a little later, with arguably Gerry's biggest gaffe of the night. Everything else was rough, for sure, but can be excused with "welp that's just the mess these shows create." But on the couch, you're having just a human conversation; you've had time to think about your words and emotions, and consider the best way to present them to the world. And when he's asked again what went wrong with Leslie, he decided the best way to respond was that "it didn't go wrong; it was just better with someone else." Kat from "Paradise": Take it away. 

The whole audience joined Kat in recoiling from that response, which ... it's just not how you say that to somebody. No one wants to hear that it was better with someone else; that's already implied, man. There's not a lot of good ways to breakup with somebody – there's just too much emotion involved for it not to be painful – but if you're using the phrase "it's just better with someone else," you're probably doing it one of the wrong ways. At the end, Leslie basically tells Gerry that she's not mad, she's just disappointed, while Gerry continues to think talking more is the solution when it is VERY MUCH THE OPPOSITE. 

A fun side note during all this very un-fun conversation: Everyone's COMPLETELY forgotten about the concept of spoilers, because everyone's just talking openly about Gerry and Theresa being together. Oh, which on that note: THE REST OF THE FINALE! As is usual for the final episode, "The Golden Bachelor" spends a lot of time on the devastation, then quickly tries to pivot and get everyone all pepped up and happy again for the love story they showed up for. It's always awkward.

Not as awkward as, during Gerry's proposal to Theresa, when he pulls one of those damn verbal juke moves the show seems to find charming. During his big speech, he declares, "You're not the right person for me to live with," followed by the world's longest pause. You could paint an entire house in the time it takes Gerry to finally end this ellipsis and end Theresa's sudden heartbreak. But he does, finally, with "You're the person I can't live without," which ... yay, but the wordplay doesn't entirely work there, my guy. The "right" in the first part throws off the rhythm. CLEARLY NO ONE HERE TOOK ANY POETRY CLASSES! Anyways, maybe it's not the time to pull emotional pranks on your significant other after you've just finished imploding a different woman's heart and the ghost of her still haunts the show. It's fine, though, as Theresa says yes to the proposal and gets a golden rose plus a gigantic Neil Lane diamond ring. 

Back in the studio, the two are happily talking about their new life together, which sounds like a lot of long-distance phone calls. Then Palmer's ready to finally get to his big surprise reveal that's GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING IN EVERYONE'S LIVES FOREVER: They're going to Italy. OK ... good for them? But actually, the big surprise is that – can you believe it? – the people who got engaged and talked about getting married at the end of this reality show are actually getting married. Yes, Gerry cumbersomely says that they can use Italy as a honeymoon because they're getting married real soon – and Palmer quickly chimes in that we're all invited because it's going to be broadcast on ABC.

Oh. Great. ABC, I think you've misjudged why we like this show – because the reason we've enjoyed "The Golden Bachelor" is that everyone seems like the EXACT OPPOSITE of the kind of people who want their wedding blasted all over TV and social media. But because this turned out to be a hit – and, more pressingly, because the writers and actors strikes delayed all scripted stuff and there's no new TV shows and episodes yet – ABC has airtime to fill. And they've got just the misguided event to do it! Can't wait to be depressed that, on their special day, Gerry and Theresa have "Bachelor" alumni like Ashley and Jared in the front row rather than, you know, their actual friends and family. 

As much as the finale was a mess, though, this inaugural season of "The Golden Bachelor" was a total success. When it all began, I asked two questions: Could the "Bachelor" franchise be mature – and would audiences even want maturity from it? Could this be a show about emotionally mature grown-ups – and would you even want it to be, putting pressure on the process to ACTUALLY work while risking losing the ridiculousness and petty dramas that make the show an entertaining guilty pleasure? The answers to those questions turned out to be a massive yes. The show ditched all the crying and backstabbing and rivalries ... but replaced them with cuddly interactions, true relationships and genuine laughs. The "Ted Lasso"-ification of "The Bachelor" worked, with audiences wanting more kindness and humanity rather than more reality show mess – and you can even see it bleeding into Joey's season, with the ads going all in on romance and sweetness rather than tears and villainy. 

Now, we'll see if "The Golden Bachelor" can maintain those good vibes in season two. After all, now producers and wannabe contestants will know the archetypes and "roles," and they'll want to push the drama and the feels further. The excitement of the unknown in this first season could turn into the tedious formulas of a second season ... and a third, and a fourth, and so on.

But until then, we'll have this charming first run. Well, at least for most of it. 

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.