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The Bachelor's 20th season is the show's best one in years, because the women are finally in on the joke

The Bachelor
The Bachelor
ABC

Like an AI program gone sentient, The Bachelor's ruthlessness is only equaled by its perpetually adapting sense of innovation.

ABC's hit show barged into its 20th season more self-aware than ever, featuring bone-broth-scented lunk Ben Higgins and 28 women — including twins and a "chicken enthusiast" — vying to be the woman he's supposed to propose to. I say "supposed to" because it's no secret, to either the show or its fans, that after 20 seasons, 18 of the final pairings have ended in broken relationships, not marriages.

We're only three episodes into season 20, but we've already seen: two women quit; one woman get picked apart for having aesthetically unpleasing toes; a pair of twins with an uncanny resemblance to Taylor Swift have their current occupation listed as "twin"; one woman talk about how her whole family has died; and one woman attempt to comfort Ben, who at the time was grieving the death of someone close to him, by talking about the insecurities she feels due to having ankles that segue into her calves — cankles.

Here's what you need to know heading into tonight's episode.

What is The Bachelor?

The Bachelor began as something entirely different from what it is today. When it first premiered in 2002, the show was a controversial — but also intriguing — social experiment: Could Alex Michel meet a woman he could potentially marry through a television show? The Bachelor drafted behind the momentum of Fox's then-recent Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and benefited from the disaster — an annulment and a restraining order — that followed its final episode. Mike Fleiss, an executive producer for Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, went on to found the Bachelor franchise.

With each new season, a new bachelor was named, new girls were introduced, and new relationships burned out. Eventually, in its offseason, The Bachelor became a self-sustaining, sexist ouroboros of sorts, parlaying some of its rejected women into The Bachelorette, a show where the roles were reversed and one woman was pursued by several men. Ultimately a new pattern emerged, with a rejected man from The Bachelorette becoming the next Bachelor, then a rejected woman from The Bachelor becoming the next Bachelorette, and so on.

Through it all, both because of the ridiculousness of the show's casting tendencies and its lack of "success" (read: healthy, lasting relationships), The Bachelor became a recurring joke in pop culture:

Usually, on reality competition shows the winner actually wins something. Think of Survivor or American Idol (both of which were created around the same of time as The Bachelor, in 2000 and 2002, respectively): Whether it's Survivor's $1 million cash prize or American Idol's recording contract, there's a reward for being the best.

But with The Bachelor, no one really wins.

The Bachelor is the only reality competition show whose main purpose — to play matchmaker and create a happy romantic couple — goes against the grain of its title. The show has spawned numerous relationships and engagements that have fizzled (The Bachelorette has done a little bit better) — something that must be frustrating to anyone who's watching it earnestly.

But for more cynical viewers, there was always something lost in the show's lack of self-awareness; how could there possibly be contestants who didn't see the show for what it was?

How has The Bachelor changed over the years?

In the past few seasons, The Bachelor has begun to lean into its ridiculousness. The contestants have become more outrageous (this season briefly featured a woman who identified herself as a chicken enthusiast) and clichéd, the editing is egregious (see: the character they've created for Olivia), the dates have become overly sentimental (one of this season's outings involved an infinity pool in the mountains and talk of a "normal" life), and the show is more self-referential than it used to be (the girls know how the system works).

"If earlier seasons could still tease the facade of an authentic romantic experience, at this point, everyone knows how weird it is that they’re looking for love on 'The Bachelor,' and have to justify their involvement with constant comments to that effect," Salon's Anna Silman wrote last year. "As instant [season 19] front-runner Britt says self-effacingly about her chemistry with Chris: 'Something real is going on amidst all this chaos … I actually really like you.'"

Silman had tuned in to and out of the show over the years and was shocked to see how meta it had become. The contestants have gotten wise to the game. If the first season of The Bachelor was like a horror movie, then these past few incarnations have become more like Scream — a self-aware satire.

The Bachelor, more than ever, is a naked plea for your hate-watch.

Who's going to win this season?

Based on the way The Bachelor works and the formula it has created for itself, you can almost always predict who will end up getting a rose at the weekly ceremony, who will be eliminated, and who will make it to the gory conclusion (there is no way it'll be the twins or perennial Bachelor contestant Amber, who's currently on the show for the third time). Here are my top picks from the current crop:

Olivia: the third-place finisher

(ABC)

Olivia is a wonderful creature, the result of a magic spell involving eye shadow, a shot of bourbon, a piece of corn, and a strand of Cameron Diaz's hair. One of the best things about Olivia is that she lives with a perpetual smoky eye because time is just an illusion for her.

In real life, Olivia is probably a fine human. She probably has a best friend and a pet. She probably liked The Martian.

But on The Bachelor, she constantly talks about how the other girls are intimidated by her, and in episode three she took Ben aside and told him how she feels like her lower half — literally everything below her waist — is one of her greatest weaknesses. This was after Ben had revealed to the women that someone close to him had died. The conversation went something like this:

Ben: "Some people [he explained them as friends of his family] close to me/I know have died."

Ben's voiceover: "I am looking for comfort." (or something just as silly)

Olivia: "Can I steal you for a second? … I hate myself from the waist down. People say I have cankles."

::: shaky cam zoom in on Olivia's alleged cankles :::

Olivia is this season's villain.

The women know it. Ben knows it. Olivia knows it. Hell, even the person running the show's Twitter feed knows it:

Olivia will still be around for a while, but she won't be the season's winner or the runner-up. She's too villainous to be with Ben and not nice enough to be a future Bachelorette (a role that usually goes to the runner-up). But the fact that she'll likely make it pretty far is a good thing, because she's currently the reason The Bachelor is worth watching.

Jubilee: the weird, feel-good sob story

(ABC)

Jubilee is a war veteran who has said that she has rejection issues because her entire family died. Jubilee is also afraid of helicopter rides. One might think that helicopter rides and a reality television show are silly compared with being deployed to Afghanistan and being the last surviving member of your family. But Jubilee herself has said that she's weird and has dark humor, so I will just trust her on that.

Jubilee is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a Rorschach test. And she's currently The Bachelor's most endearing contestant.

There's an earnestness to her (she says that she's obsessed with hot dogs) that makes her participation in the show cringe-inducing. That cringe isn't from the embarrassment we feel for her, but rather due to her belief that she'll somehow win this thing, and that Ben is even worth winning in the first place (Jubilee is too sweet for this whole thing). It's like she can't see that she and Ben are painfully awkward around each other.

In the third episode, Jubilee made a comment about Ben being a white boy and how she was glad that he laughed.

"I ain’t that white, I've got some…" he said, before performing this strange shrug:

(ABC)

Which ethnicity is Ben pantomiming? Is the shoulder shrug a reference to his manhood or his dance ability? This was just really alarming to watch.

Jubilee will probably make it to the top 10, thanks to her willingness to lean into her sad story about her dead family — something The Bachelor's producers love.

Lauren B.: we'll probably meet her family, and she'll probably win

(ABC)

During Lauren B.'s one-on-one date with Ben, she talked about her dad and how he's obsessed with his lawn but left out the part where seeing his daughter participate in polyamory on national television made his heart hurt. We will probably see said lawn during Lauren B.'s hometown date — a tradition for the final four women.

Caila: the next Bachelorette

(ABC)

Caila likes "coffeehouse music," "fall weather," and Game of Thrones. Caila is basically a character designed in The Bachelor's lab, perfectly calibrated to 1) become a fan favorite, 2) eventually become Ben's runner-up, and 3) ultimately become the next Bachelorette. She's the woman everyone will root for, and she'll make it to the final two or three, but then she'll "lose" to someone like the living box of hair known as Lauren B. before getting the opportunity to turn the tables and become the next Bachelorette.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that none of this really matters. The contestants (save for Jubilee) seem to be well aware of the show they're appearing on. Season 20 of The Bachelor is in on its own joke. That makes it somewhat easier to stomach and more enjoyable to watch.

Instead of a reality TV show, The Bachelor is now an exercise in editing and strange fiction. And dare I say it's become something that might actually be worth watching. I mean, the producers haven't even shown us Olivia's messed-up toes ... yet.


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