‘The Bachelor’ Goes International. Will Bachelor Nation Follow?

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WILMINGTON, Vt. — Just after sundown on a Thursday in early December, Chris Harrison — host of “The Bachelor” and its spinoffs — stood in a mountaintop lodge in this Vermont ski town. The cavernous room had been draped in the fashion typical to “Bachelor” cocktail parties; candles burned, sequined pillows beckoned, and a stocked bar stood at the ready. Mr. Harrison’s eyes scanned a cluster of sofas, all of them at that moment, empty.

“Who’s not here for the right reasons?” he said, invoking a “Bachelor” catchphrase as he looked out intensely at no one.

Mr. Harrison was rehearsing a scene for the ABC series, “The Bachelor Winter Games,” in which he would ask the cast to choose someone to send home that night. His script was familiar to any fan of the franchise, except for a tweak to the ending. Tonight, Mr. Harrison went on, the eliminated contestants would be “on a plane — back to whatever country you came from.”

“Winter Games” — which will debut Feb. 13, in direct opposition to NBC’s prime-time coverage of the Winter Olympics in South Korea — combines 26 alumni from both domestic and international versions of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” The twist is a first for the franchise, and a gamble. “Bachelor” shows tend to feature the same faces, with talent hopping from one of the flagship shows to the other, then surfacing again on a spinoff, like the bacchanalian “Bachelor in Paradise.” With “Winter Games,” the franchise is challenging a fan base not particularly open to change to embrace a cast filled with contestants from outside the United States (and some who don’t speak much English).

“I felt like the curiosity around our show was large enough that it could extend past our American cast,” Mike Fleiss, the creator and an executive producer of the “Bachelor” shows, said by phone after filming had wrapped. “We’re very big in Canada, where they have both the American and Canadian versions. They’re able to process both. I thought our American audience could, too.”

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Mr. Fleiss said the idea behind “Bachelor Winter Games” originated at a yearly gathering of “Bachelor” producers from all over the world. (There are versions of “The Bachelor” in 37 countries, while “The Bachelorette” airs in 13.) “There were producers from Japan, Romania, Germany,” Mr. Fleiss said in an earlier phone conversation. “I thought, how do I bring this to life?’”

The format he and his team settled on: four episodes of reality television that, like the Olympics, will include athletic events, among them a biathlon and ice dancing. (Unlike the Olympics, it will also feature filmed romantic interactions and crying jags unrelated to lifelong goals.) “Winter Games” will resemble “Bachelor in Paradise” in format, a sort of romantic free-for-all in which anyone is eligible to date anyone else, and elimination strategies vary. Eleven countries besides the United States are represented in the cast.

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Yuki Kimura (center), from Japan, is one of the more eager participants, saying she will keep appearing on various “Bachelor” offshoots until she meets the man she will marry. Credit Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC

Mr. Fleiss would have liked that number to be higher. But securing overseas talent proved difficult. News out of Washington strained the producers’ visa negotiations with other countries. “Our president didn’t make things any easier,” Mr. Fleiss said.

As for the American stars: Some of their first reactions to show’s global twist were hesitant. “I’ll be honest,” Ashley Iaconetti, who has also appeared on “The Bachelor” and “Bachelor in Paradise,” said by phone. “My first thought when I heard was, ‘Darn, I’m not going to be with all my friends.’”

Back on the mountaintop, Ms. Iaconetti did seem nervous — and she wasn’t the only one. The cast members filed in to fill the sofas Mr. Harrison had practiced in front of, loosely grouping themselves into Americans and not-so. They seemed uncharacteristically subdued (for “Bachelor” get-togethers), except for Yuki Kimura of Japan, who clasped champagne as she consulted with a producer who stood out of frame, translating something for her. After a moment, Ms. Kimura, 21, who speaks little English, turned and flashed a grin at an American contestant, Dean Unglert.

“Dean, please!” she cried out, breaking the near-silence. “Me, rose!”

In the control room, producers laughed approvingly. “I need a ringtone of her,” one said.

Over the next hour, Ms. Kimura, who wore a white tutu skirt for the occasion, proved to be a ringtone-worthy breakout. She got creative as she chatted with each male contestant, making heart shapes out of her fingers or giving a thumbs-up to express her enthusiasm. She entreated one man to teach her the English words for her nose and eyes, gamely pointing a long, copper-polished nail at each of her facial features. And she discussed music with another, chirping, “Chainsmokers, No. 1!” when he inquired about her favorite band.

Across the room, Jenny Helenius, a contestant from Finland, took in the scene. “I am normally the loud one,” she murmured.

Ms. Kimura’s performance was exactly the kind Mr. Fleiss hoped “Winter Games” would uncover. “The international cast members are more unfiltered than the Americans tend to be now,” he said. “They’re a little less careful about their potential Instagram values.” In Mr. Fleiss’s perfect world, “Winter Games” would spawn a few non-American sensations he could recast on other shows in the “Bachelor” universe. “I’d like to bring Yuki back for ‘Paradise,’” he said.

Tentatively, Ms. Kimura is in. “I want to marry a man I meet on ‘The Bachelor,’” she said by email. “Until that day comes, I will keep being on ‘The Bachelor’ [shows].”

Photo

Chris Harrison, the ringmaster on all the variations of “The Bachelor” franchise, had to wear warmer clothes than usual to host the reality show’s visit to Wilmington, Vt., for “Winter Games.” Credit Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC

But whether American audiences will fall in love with newcomers like her remains to be seen. “Bachelor Nation,” as the franchise’s fan base is called, has balked at departures from tradition before. In 2017, the first “Bachelorette” chapter to star an African-American woman — Rachel Lindsay, a lawyer from Dallas — drew precipitously fewer viewers than the season before it.

“I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way,” Mr. Fleiss said. “How else are you going to explain the fact that she’s down in the ratings, when — black or white — she was an unbelievable bachelorette? It revealed something about our fans.”

Is he worried that a “Winter Games” audience might react the same way to foreign stars? “I really don’t know,” Mr. Fleiss said, after a pause. He acknowledged that he is concerned about “Winter Games” scenes that exclude American talent altogether. “The scenes that feature two international cast members talking to each other are tricky,” he said. “I don’t know how we get around that, but I can feel that it won’t play as well on American television.” (“Winter Games” will air only in the United States)

But Mr. Fleiss, who first brought “The Bachelor” to television 16 years ago, still isn’t feeling risk averse. Of casting a nonwhite lead, he said, “I’m raring to try it again. I think it’s important.” And he and his team chose Arie Luyendyk Jr., a Realtor and racecar driver who was on “The Bachelorette” in 2012, for the current season of “The Bachelor,” despite the fact that new leads usually come from the immediately preceding season of the opposite-gender show. (A “Bachelor” runner-up might become the next “Bachelorette” lead, and so on.) Mr. Luyendyk’s casting led to a social-media outcry and the lowest-rated “Bachelor” premiere in the series’ history, but the season’s ratings have since recovered, climbing by 30 percent in its third episode. (The numbers still rank lower than those of his predecessor Bachelor, Nick Viall.)

But maybe viewers will buck the likely outcome, the way the nervous cast at the cocktail party did. As the night wore on and the drinks set in, the American and international talent began mingling more warmly. Before long, the room took on the air of a diplomatic summit. Some contestants clapped each other on the back and made promises about “staying friends.” Others negotiated at length over roses without ever promising anything. When Mr. Harrison broke the news that an elimination was nigh, an American contestant named Jamey suggested the cast act multilaterally to resist, invoking a scene from the football movie “Rudy” in which the team refuses to play without the titular character. (The international cast blinked blankly at the reference.)

The night’s sudden bonhomie continued for the rest of the shoot, with the cast members tiptoeing around talk of real-world international relations. “I thought we were going to be a little cliquier,” Ms. Iaconetti said. “But we all had something in common: being on these shows. We had something to bond over.”

Mr. Unglert, the object of Ms. Kimura’s plea for a rose, agreed. “Everyone got along so well,” he said. “After a couple of days, we were looking around, saying, ‘Man, I wonder who the villain’s supposed to be.’”

Ms. Kimura was incredulous, too, that drama didn’t break out among the contestants. “But it wasn’t like that at all,” she said. “Everyone was nice and cheerful.”

And that state of affairs — if it turns out to be true — may be the “Winter Games” element that Bachelor Nation finds most foreign.

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