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'The Golden Bachelor' appeared to be gentler reality TV. Then came the devastating finale

Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"No offense, I can think whatever the f— I want right now."

When "The Golden Bachelor" debuted in September, featuring a 72-year-old widower named Gerry Turner on a quest to find the next great love of his life, it promised that a kinder, gentler version of reality TV was not only possible but that it could also be a hit with viewers looking for some uplift.

The show became the breakout show of the strike-depleted fall season, drawing the biggest "Bachelor" audience in years, and was — counterintuitively — especially popular with younger viewers who seemingly couldn't resist a show about frisky seniors who believed that romance was possible at any age. (It is the top show this season with women 18 to 34.)

It also became a cultural sensation, thanks to a groundbreaking portrayal of people over the age 60 who were attractive and adventurous with perspectives shaped by profound life events. Turner and the 22 women trying to win his heart were not exactly representative of the average American eligible for Social Security, but that was the point.

With a gloriously abundant head of hair, a passion for pickleball and a preternatural gift for making eye contact, Turner was framed as a unicorn: a kind, sensitive, emotionally evolved older man who'd experienced tremendous loss but only grown from it, and he seemed to contradict every eye-rolling "OK, Boomer" stereotype.

The accomplished, uniformly well-preserved women he dated were arguably an even bigger draw, particularly as they bonded in the "Bachelor" mansion by talking about farts and dancing the hora together in the pool. Despite its inherently contrived premise (one man dates nearly two dozen women at once in front of TV cameras), "The Golden Bachelor" felt life-affirming and strangely wholesome — a healing balm for a nation still reckoning with the destabilizing influence of reality TV.

 

Then came Thursday's finale — in which Turner proposed to Theresa Nist, a 70-year-old widow who, like him, had married her high school sweetheart — and the illusion was shattered like a champagne flute tossed against the terracotta tiles of the Costa Rican fantasy suite.

It all began when Turner told Leslie Fhima, a 64-year-old fitness instructor who had appeared to be his favorite for weeks, that he planned to move forward with Nist, a stock trader. It was an abrupt turnaround from days earlier, when Turner professed his love for Fhima and referred to her, adoringly, as "my girl" — giving every indication she was going to be his pick for the final rose.

"So everything you told me the other night was a lie?" said Fhima, who proceeded to launch into one of of the most gut-wrenching, bracingly honest reality TV monologues in recent memory.

As Turner tried to console Fhima, who had opened up to him about the lingering pain of two divorces and being cheated on by multiple partners, she lashed out.

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