ABC's "The Bachelor" has always been full of surprises, from who will get the final rose to what romantic hopeful will bawl the loudest after being rejected.
But this season's finale and the selection of the next "Bachelorette" was more than suspenseful — it reawakened the lingering controversy over the franchise's lack of cultural diversity, an issue that top network execs had hinted would be reversed in the upcoming installment.
In Monday's "Bachelor" climax, Ben Higgins, the title character in the reality dating show's 20th season, chose Lauren Bushnell as his mate. It was also disclosed that the next "Bachelorette" will be this season's runner-up, Joelle "JoJo" Fletcher.
But the maybe-happily-ever-after coupling of Higgins and Bushnell was largely overshadowed by JoJo's new title as "The Bachelorette." The Dallas-based real estate developer is not exactly the culturally diverse candidate some fans had been hoping for — and were led to believe they would get.
Reports had surfaced that Caila Quinn, a "Bachelor" contestant who is half-Filipino, was seen filming segments for "The Bachelorette's" new season. But the producers decided to move in a different direction.
Former ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee, who had made improving diversity a priority during his years at the network, earlier this year promised change for "The Bachelorette." "I'd be very surprised if 'The Bachelorette' in the summer [of 2016] isn't diverse," Lee told reporters at the TV press tour in Pasadena in January. "I think that's likely."
Lee was recently ousted and replaced by Channing Dungey, who is the first black entertainment president at a major American broadcast TV network.
ABC, which declined comment on Tuesday when asked about the show, may claim Fletcher is indeed a different kind of "Bachelorette." Although the network in a release called her a "Southern sweetheart," and she seems to identify as white, she has said that her mother is Persian and escaped from revolutionary Iran, which may give her more claim to diversity than the typical "Bachelorette."
Still, her selection is unlikely to quell the criticism surrounding the franchise and its mostly white version of soft-focus romantic fantasy. Since the launch of "The Bachelor" in 2002, that show and its companion series, "The Bachelorette," have been repeatedly slammed for assembling all- or nearly all-white casts and with a white lead for its mostly white viewers to relate to. Observers complain that the franchise stands alone, like a 1950s relic, among dating/relationship shows on TV.
A class-action lawsuit argued that "The Bachelor" intentionally excluded people of color; the case was dismissed in 2012 on 1st Amendment grounds.
The lone exception so far to the franchise's diversity record — Latino "Bachelor" Juan Pablo Galavis in 2014 — promptly stirred a scandal of his own by dubbing gays "perverts."
Mike Fleiss, the show's creator and executive producer, has in the past said minorities have not been proactive about trying out.
"We always want to cast for ethnic diversity," Fleiss said in 2011. "It's just that for whatever reason, they don't come forward. I wish they would."
The network's overall diversity commitment has so far failed to make a dent at "The Bachelor." On the other hand, the absence of multiculturalism has not affected the popularity of both shows, which are among ABC's most popular offerings with women.
For a few moments this season, it seemed that change was about to happen. Jubilee Sharpe, a 24-year-old war veteran who is Haitian American, became a fan favorite and appeared to be a major contender when Higgins seemed smitten with her. But Sharpe had her own difficulties — she was involved in racially charged exchanges with two other mixed-race contestants over who was more black. She was eventually eliminated.
It remains to be seen what sort of prospective mates Fletcher might be paired with. "The Bachelorette" has flirted with mixed-race matches before, although nothing much has come of them. Black and Latino contestants have appeared on the show but have been sent packing quickly.
The controversy is likely to be revisited before "The Bachelorette" premieres on May 23.