Folks, we are truly alive in the golden age of television. Our cups overrun with traumatized robot pawns in a sadistic Wild West MMORPG and logically extremist parables about the singularity. But the strangest vision of virtual reality on TV right now is a glimpse inside a dystopia that already exists: The eerie world of post-Bachelor life where, depending how deeply you’ve entrenched your personal brand into the franchise, the reality show’s bizarre traditions and incestuous social circle remain a huge part of your identity. I’m not sure exactly what kind of show Ben & Lauren: Happily Ever After?, which airs on ABC’s Freeform channel (formerly ABC Family), was originally intended to be: Probably an attempt to milk wholesome Bachelor success story Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell’s relationship for all it’s worth — proof that the formula sometimes works! — in the off-season between Bachelor in Paradise and next year’s dramatic, Nick Viall–starring season of The Bachelor. So far, what Ben & Lauren shows us is ... not that!
There’s an old Hollywood superstition that considers titles with question marks to be bad luck. Me, I feel like there’s a time and a place. Sometimes a film can only be truly expressed by one essential question: Dude, Where’s My Car?, or my personal favorite, A Talking Cat!?!, an underwritten Netflix classic which features Eric Roberts as the voice of Duffy, a helpful talking cat (?!?). The narrative of a happy, normal, engaged couple does not, ideally, lend itself as well to this format. So it’s immediately clear from the show’s title that something went left here and the producers, instead of pretending otherwise, decided to chase the dragon.
After an introductory montage of clips from Ben and Lauren’s whirlwind romance, we meet the couple idling anxiously backstage. They are moments away from walking out onto the set of After the Final Rose — “AFR,” Ben repeatedly calls it, as though that was just an understood thing — where JoJo, the most recent Bachelorette and Ben’s first runner-up, will cap off her season by debuting her relationship with Jordan to the live studio audience. And that’s when you realize, in this year of realizing things, that at some point, Ben had to sit down with his bride-to-be and say, “Hey, uh, just FYI, concurrently to telling you I loved you for the first time, I also told another woman I loved her, who will become The Bachelorette, and shortly the whole thing will be available for you to watch at 8 p.m. MDT, which is the time zone in Denver, where you moved, after we met on TV, to live with me.”
It’s nearly a year after the end of Ben’s season of The Bachelor, and the engaged couple’s new, “normal” life involves getting asked about JoJo at the grocery store, getting asked about JoJo by fellow Bachelor alumni (who seem to be Ben and Lauren’s only friends), and getting asked to appear on command at Bachelor events as standard-bearers of the show’s traditional ideals, smiling and clapping for Ben’s ex-girlfriend and her new fiancé. Ben and Lauren had decided, earlier in the first episode, that it would be a chill idea to pre-game their “AFR” appearance with a lazy Saturday spent binge-watching JoJo’s entire Bachelorette season — surely, watching JoJo fall in love with other men would ease the residual tension of their highly public love triangle. Except that, well, yikes, JoJo brings up Ben approximately 12 times per episode. Ben’s preemptive declaration of love, in this universe, is part of her narrative; she isn’t over it because she’s not supposed to be over it. “Ehh, that’s what Ben said!” she replies when Jordan says he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. “Ben told me everything that I wanted to hear, and he broke my heart.”
Lauren and Ben take turns peripherally watching each other watch JoJo as they’re filmed by a camera crew in their living room. “Does that make you feel bad?” Lauren finally asks, measuredly. Days later, they have a fun date night at a Mexican restaurant with a mariachi band, where Ben says “jalapeenos” with a hard “n.” Ben’s phone rings, a custom, vaguely medieval ringtone — this is important, we’ll come back to this — and it’s JoJo, who invites them to a chill mutual-ex double-date lunch after “AFR,” which Ben thinks is a swell idea, so everyone can really just, ya know, move past things. Lauren eats a chip, truly miserable.
On the set of “AFR” Ben walks comfortably toward the light and it becomes obvious that he uncomplicatedly enjoys this weird, meta world; he doesn’t want to stop being that dude who Chris Harrison chummily placed on the “Mount Rushmore of Bachelors” at the end of his season. Ben used to be a software sales associate and now he has literal locker-room chats with his close friends on the Denver Broncos, whose practice he interrupts to ask if they, too, could relate to his wedding jitters and the gradual encroachment of his sink space with lady products. Lauren is in a highly controlled panic. “I just wish we were back in Denver,” she says, and Ben sputters, “Well, now I feel bad for coming here!” as though he had genuinely not considered this being weird.
Lauren and Ben take their seats near the front of the audience. They smile and clap as they watch the final scenes of JoJo’s season finale. “Ya know, when JoJo had her heart broken by Ben Higgins, it was extremely painful for her, because Ben had already professed his love to her,” Chris Harrison announces, as Ben shiftily slides his arm around Lauren’s shoulders. “Well, JoJo is about to make the same tragic mistake. Ben and Lauren, speaking of happy couples, are in the house tonight!” Clap clap clap! Ben shouts in the herbiest of voices to the happy couple across the room: “Congratulations, guys!” He gives a speech, advice from one happily engaged Bachelor couple to another. Clap, clap!
Under the applause, Ben whispers self-consciously, “Was that an all right answer?”
“Yeah,” Lauren says, trying to just keep it together, typing furiously on her phone.
There’s a moment of silence, then Ben continues: “Like, you don’t sound like it. Did I say something wrong?”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No. What do you mean?”
“You, like, wouldn’t even answer me. You were like, ‘Yeah.’”
“No, I said, ‘Yeah,’” Lauren whispers. “I said ‘yeah’ multiple times.”
“OK.” Ben stares passive-aggressively off at the stage at nothing, which makes Lauren apologize for nothing: “Did you not feel like it was good or something? I thought it was good ...”
“No, it’s like when I asked you, you were like, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’”
“I just said ‘yeah’ ...”
You could argue that, by agreeing to be on The Bachelor to begin with, this is exactly what Lauren signed up for, this whole thing. But a bigger part of me believes that no one actually signs up for this shit — they just want a life experience and a bunch of Instagram followers, they don’t think they’re actually going to win the thing, be stuck with this guy in this creepy world. Congratulations, you’ve “won” The Bachelor — welcome to the rest of your life, in Denver, with your husband who proposed to you on television and is now petrified to actually confirm a wedding date, who, BY THE WAY, Ben & Lauren’s second episode reveals, is a MASSIVE RENAISSANCE FAIRE ENTHUSIAST. Bachelor Nation, you read that correctly: Ben Higgins, America’s Bachelor, has a box downstairs of “swords and armor and helmets” and, yeah, sometimes he likes to put ’em on! Hence that medieval ringtone we heard earlier. How’s that for dystopian?