The birthday girl won the “Golden Bachelor” — if getting engaged on a reality dating show can be considered a win.
Theresa Nist, who celebrated her 70th birthday on the premiere episode, was the last woman standing on Thursday’s live finale. This was the first season of the “Bachelor” franchise to showcase baby boomers, and it ended with widower Gerry Turner, 72, proposing to the financial adviser after a whirlwind four-week romance. Unlike most of the couples on the show, these two will probably make it to the altar — ABC announced their wedding will be broadcast on Jan. 4, just five weeks away.
Even a gimlet-eyed cynic can hope that this is one of the few “Bachelor” love stories with a happy ending. But fans of the show — and the millions who tuned in just to see senior citizens vying for a second chance at romance — know that real love and reality love are seldom the same thing. It’s fair to say this season was a big win for its playful and nuanced portrayal of older women and another loss for the notion that a television dating show is a safe place to fall in love.
“So everything you told me the other night was a complete and utter lie,” a devastated Leslie Fhima told Gerry on the finale. Leslie was the other woman in the final love triangle when he awkwardly attempted to explain that he meant all his professions of love, until he didn’t.
When the “Golden Bachelor” was announced earlier this year, there was curiosity primarily because women older than 60 are seldom featured on popular television shows, much less as romantic and sexual partners. The show became a pop-culture hit as the 22 women — ages 60 to 75 — competed for the heart of Gerry. Most were widowed or divorced and brought their life histories and experience to what is always a fraught process, adding a complexity and richness to the reality format.
The premiere was fun — a showcase for the humor, savvy and glamour of these older women. Each woman tried to make a memorable first impression; Theresa, turning 70 that day, showed up in a robe: “Why not come in my birthday suit?” she said, and flashed what turned out to be a nude bodysuit.
But the tone quickly became more serious, the stakes higher. For many of the women, this was the first serious chance for romance in years. Gerry seemed like a great catch — handsome, attentive, romantic, empathetic. As the season progressed and the women were eliminated, the heartbreak hit harder. Faith Martin, one of the last three women, was crushed that he could declare his love for her and then poof — the relationship was just over.
It’s one thing to watch 20-somethings fall in and out of love; broken hearts seem par for the course when you’re young. It’s another thing to see older women fall in love and then find themselves cast aside overnight. “I’m tired of putting myself out there,” an exhausted Leslie said. “Time’s running out.”
It’s easy to blame the women — it’s a reality television show, after all, and they should have known better — but that underestimates how easy it was for contestants to get swept away in the fantasy world of the “Bachelor,” and their own romantic longing. The normal conventions of dating were packed into a tiny window of time; there was no chance for a measured, easy process of discovery.
Then there are the issues of age, last chances and the relentlessness of time. The contestants were full of hope; one reoccurring mantra among the women was that going on the show opened their hearts to the possibility of love again.
New York Times writer Michelle Cottle watched the show and saw a broader cultural disconnect: the massive political and cultural power of aging baby boomers and their refusal to call themselves “old.” The “Golden Bachelor,” she writes, “holds up this kind of funhouse mirror to how Americans and baby boomers, in particular, are approaching aging in all of its weird glory, where you deny certain things and cling to the idea that you’re always going to be young, even as this is creeping up on you.”
Thursday’s finale featured a mix of pretaped footage and live interviews. A number of the eliminated women were in the audience, watching along as Theresa and Leslie went through the final elimination process at a luxury resort in Costa Rica.
Leslie was the front-runner going into the last day; Theresa was “a safe choice,” as Gerry put it. Both women spent a private night with him behind closed doors; both bonded with his daughters and granddaughters, both said they would accept a proposal if offered. Leslie was so confident that she bought a dress and wrote wedding vows.
Then things took a weird turn. Leslie sensed something was “off” with Gerry. He denied it, but it set off alarm bells. “Most of the time things don’t go exactly my way when it comes to relationships,” she said earlier, in what should have been a sign. Their date that night was a slow-motion train wreck, with declarations of love and then his deadly, “Be happy.” He told her what she already knew: He was in love with Theresa. A day earlier, he told Leslie she was the “one.” Gerry’s defense? He meant it at the time and “got caught up in moments. … I wish there was a better way of doing it.” (There is, but it’s not on a reality show.)
The following day, he proposed to a genuinely thrilled Theresa, who had fallen fast and hard for Gerry and told anyone who was willing to listen.
One of the more curious aspects of the finale: The Golden Bachelor lost some of his luster. Some fans saw the Hollywood Reporter’s story this week that revealed the grieving widower was not quite so alone as he claimed: A longtime girlfriend emerged, sharing less-than-flattering stories about their not-so-romantic relationship. Others found Gerry suddenly distant and defensive when he delivered the sad news to Leslie.
Some on social media hailed Leslie’s reaction — blindsided, angry, demanding answers — as the most honest in “Bachelor” history. Slate named her the real winner this season. Her live interview and reaction to Gerry (their first interaction in three months) made her an instant front-runner if ABC decides to air a season of the “Golden Bachelorette.” (Would she take another bite of the poisoned apple?) No details yet, but the network has already put out a casting call for another “Golden” series.
The big announcement at the end of the show? A “Golden” wedding in January, when the two lovebirds will begin the rest of their life together. “We’re going to do it as quickly as we can because, at our age, we don’t have a lot of time to waste.” said Gerry.
The message of the “Golden Bachelor,” said Theresa, is that love can happen at any age. “I think it’s given hope to so many people … It was like a cultural movement. It wasn’t just a show.” For her sake, we can only hope it’s real.