‘Golden Bachelor’ appeared to be gentler TV. Then came the finale with Leslie

Leslie Fhima in a black dress, sits next to Gerry Turner on a couch with a studio audience behind them.

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.

Leslie Fhima and Gerry Turner reunited for the first time since their breakup on Thursday during the live portion of the finale of “The Golden Bachelor.”

(John Fleenor/Disney)

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.

“No offense, I can think whatever the f— I want right now,” she said, angry tears streaming down her cheeks. “My heart’s broken once again but now I have to do it in front of the world, and see once again how broken I am, how no one chooses me. You didn’t choose me once again. The other night you made it sound like you chose me. You said things to me that made me think this was going to be it. You led me down a path and then you took a turn and left me there and that’s how I feel.”

She said it was “mind-boggling” that he’d reiterated his love in the fantasy suite, then changed his mind less than a day later, during his date with Nist. “How much can a girl take, really?” she asked, speaking for every woman who has ever found herself unceremoniously jilted.

Fhima slammed Turner as a disingenuous player but, more memorably, she reminded viewers — who were perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the sweetness of “The Golden Bachelor” — of the unavoidable cruelty of a show where people only occasionally find true love but someone always gets dumped. And it often happens in spectacular fashion, while wearing a lavish gown and expecting a romantic proposal.

“The only good thing is now I don’t have to walk down in that $60,000 dress with the diamond earrings and get on that platform and be completely embarrassed,” said Fhima, who confronted Turner about his awkward demeanor during their final night together, prompting him to confess he’d made up his mind and sparing her the added humiliation of going through the final rose ceremony. It was a small mercy, but it may not be enough for many viewers to forgive Turner, who looked utterly shell-shocked by the entire exchange, or feel especially excited about his upcoming wedding to Nist, which is scheduled to air live on ABC on Jan. 4.

Gerry Tuner in blue suit kneels on a platform with an engagement ring before Theresa Nist in a silver dress.

Gerry Tuner, left, proposing to Theresa Nist in “The Golden Bachelor.”

(John Fleenor/The Walt Disney Company)

Never mind that Fhima, a former aerobics champion who once dated Prince and claims to have inspired his song “Sexy Dancer” (lyrics: “Sexy dancer, I want your body, I want your body, sexy dancer”) was objectively too cool for Turner, who lives in tiny Hudson, Ind., (population: 500) and has a sing-song voice many people have likened to Barney, the purple dinosaur who was all the rage with preschoolers in the 1990s, and dressed like he was perpetually ready for a night out at Margaritaville.

Or that Turner, like so many “Bachelor” stars before him, turned out to be not quite as perfect as producers led us all to believe. A day before the finale aired on ABC, the Hollywood Reporter published a story suggesting his reality TV portrayal was deceptively positive. Rather than mourning his wife and living as a monk since her death in 2017, the report alleged, he had dated and lived with another woman for more than a year. He also treated her shabbily, according to THR, criticizing her weight and making her split the check in advance on dates.

That “The Bachelor” put such a positive spin on Turner should be surprising to no one who is even remotely familiar with the show, which has a long tradition of propping up handsome if unremarkable (and occasionally downright awful) guys and portraying them as irresistible, impossibly perfect dreamboats. Nor is Turner exceptionally caddish for telling more than one woman he was in love with them — something that has become increasingly common in recent seasons of “The Bachelor.”

But there is something especially brutal about “The Golden Bachelor,” and it’s the very same thing that made the show so appealing to begin with — the fact that the contestants are so much older, have been through so much, and have so much more to lose. Having your heart broken on TV when you’re 25 and own little more than a few houseplants and can quickly move on with a few swipes on Tinder is one thing, and is probably worth it for the social media clout alone; it’s quite another when you have grandchildren, a lifetime of romantic disappointments behind you, and are facing the looming reality of your own mortality without a partner by your side.

As Fhima, standing alone on the balcony of her hotel room, put it: “Time is running out. Time is running out.”

In a live segment of the finale, Fhima sat with Turner for the first time since their breakup in Costa Rica and confronted him about what she saw as his duplicity. She laid out a damning case against him, saying he had said things behind closed doors that made her “100% certain that I was his girl.” When Turner offered a tepid explanation for his behavior — saying, basically, he got carried away in the moment — she said she understood, but would not accept, his apology. Though graceful and composed, Fhima refused to pretend she was OK with being misled — and it was exhilarating to watch her dispense with the humiliating conventions of reality TV.

#TeamLeslie members are already rooting for her to become the first “Golden Bachelorette,” and she would no doubt make an appealing lead (she could lead a group date/aerobics class — imagine the possibilities!). But ABC has yet to actually announce plans for a female-centered spinoff, and it’s far from clear that the casting directors at “The Bachelor” are any better at matchmaking than a dating app.

If Turner wasn’t so much a unicorn as a perfectly average horse in a convincing disguise, then who needs 22 more impostors?

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