It couldn’t have been more romantic. Amid lush New Zealand scenery, Jason Mesnick, star of ABC’s hit reality series The Bachelor, proposed to his chosen gal, Melissa Rycroft, in the March 2 finale. However, in a follow-up special, Mesnick — the first single-dad Bachelor and an unabashed fan favorite — shocked viewers by breaking up with Rycroft on national TV, just six weeks after the duo taped their hillside betrothal. ”Since this all ended, things have been different,” a teary Mesnick told host Chris Harrison. ”Over the past few weeks I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Molly.” That would be Molly Malaney, a retail buyer from Grand Rapids, Mich., who Mesnick dumped in New Zealand — and who, amazingly, agreed to take him back.
The drama capped off a resurgent 13th season of ABC’s dating franchise. The two-hour finale drew 15.5 million viewers, marking the show’s highest-rated finale since 2003, and the After the Final Rose special lured its biggest audience ever, with 17.5 million. ”There is no other prime-time reality romantic soap on right now,” says ABC alternative programming exec John Saade of the show’s bounce in numbers. ”People connect with Jason as a real guy.”
Still, Mesnick’s controversial switcheroo — and Rycroft’s subsequent televised humiliation — left some fans resolved to break up with the series for good. Compounding the backlash are Internet rumors that producers somehow manipulated the outcome for ratings. ”It’s completely untrue,” insists Bachelor exec producer Mike Fleiss. ”After the taping in New Zealand, I spent three weeks trying to talk Molly into being the new Bachelorette. Just when she was starting to turn around, [we learned Jason wanted to get back together with Molly]. So why was I on the phone with her trying to convince her to do The Bachelorette if my ‘plan’ all along was to have her be the chosen one?”
Season 2 Bachelor Aaron Buerge — who angered fans during a 2003 special by revealing that he had broken up with fiancée Helene Eksterowicz months earlier off camera — tells EW that he was never given marching orders by the producers. ”I was not a puppet on a string. [Jason’s] the victim of his own circumstances.” Does the veteran TV suitor have any advice for Mesnick? ”When I broke up with Helene and made her cry on national TV, I immediately PO’d 30 million people, overnight. And now he has gone out and done this with two women on national TV. So my advice to him… Oh, man, it’s too late to give the guy advice.”
Despite the debate — or perhaps because of it — ABC’s Bachelor franchise will no doubt be handing out roses for many seasons to come. Producers have already lined up Jillian Harris, the second runner-up, as their leading lady for The Bachelorette premiering May 18. (And if Rycroft, who previously appeared on the CMT reality series Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, decides to try on-air romance again, ABC alternative series exec Vicki Dummer says they’d ”absolutely” be open to having her as a Bachelorette.) Writes Harrison in his EW.com blog, ”I think it speaks volumes about our show when good people like Jillian decide to come back. It also helps that I showed her the script for next season,” he jokes, ”and although she’s not happy about having octuplets, she does like the guy we picked for her.”
Additional reporting by Lynette Rice