By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 08, 2021 at 7:26 AM

"The Bachelor" franchise is not one particularly troubled by high expectations. It's a silly reality show about a terrible dating system that is almost statistically guaranteed to result in tears, failure and sad Us Weekly covers.

But even by those standards, the bar for success is low for Katie's season of "The Bachelorette," which premiered Monday night – so low it's somewhere between the ocean floor and the Earth's mantle. All it needs to do to improve on last season is not actively be the worst thing on television. Did nobody have to apologize for being racist? Great job! Did a host not get removed for defending said racism? Success! Did no one get legally slandered on national television? WHAT AN IMPROVEMENT! All "The Bachelorette" needs to this season is put more than one (1) likable and engaging person on camera this year, and that'd already be more than Matt's season. 

So I'm happy to report that, one episode in, "The Bachelorette" has managed to pull off the possible and improve on the previous season. ABC appears to have gotten our notes and, at least in the first two hours, made some corrections. There's no Harrison, the atmosphere is loose and fun, the star has a personality, the "Days Without a Racist" counter thankfully sits at one, and there was a startling and thoroughly pleasant lack of petty drama, fighting and general assholery. Thus far, Katie's season is thankfully just good vibes – or good vibrations, in tribute to Katie's favorite prop.

We start our latest journey in Seattle, where we're greeted by a new voiceover man (goodbye Harrison, hello sultry disembodied voice that's like caramel for ear drums) and an old familiar face: Katie, one of the rare decent human beings from last season. She became a fan favorite last season by happily waving around a vibrator on night one and revealing herself to be the only person in the entire cast who considered bullying a bad thing. So while everyone else is too toxic to even be on "Paradise," Katie's now the star of the show. Karma is indeed real.  

My concern for Katie's season was that, like most of the show's stars, "The Bachelorette" would sand down her personality, humor and quirkiness – but nope, she's still delightfully goofy Katie, struggling to pose like a normal human against a wall and happily proclaiming "no dry bushes here" before trying and failing to kick a tumbleweed. Relatable. On that note, the season's love bubble has moved from the woods of Pennsylvania to ... "Mad Max: Fury Road"? The show's parked at a dusty, mountain-flanked desert oasis, where everything is decorated in tribal-pattern blankets and there doesn't seem to be any other sign of human life within five miles. Is it a hotel or an abandoned prison compound? Either way, there's a non-zero percent chance a horror movie is going to break out at some point. (Would still be an improvement on last season.)

While I'm wondering if we're stuck at the Bond villain's water-sucking desert lair from "Quantum of Solace," we learn more about Katie. Her parents got divorced when she was just a baby, grew up poor and struggling to make friends while bouncing from school to school. She also points out that she's never dated this many guys at once. I WOULD HOPE! If this wasn't somebody's first time dating 30 people at the same time, I would consider that a red flag of sorts. 

Before we meet all those men, though, some other new arrivals are pulling in, "Thelma & Louise" style – driving happily down a desert road, I mean, not driving off a cliff to their deaths. It's our new hosts, "Bachelorette" alumni Tayshia Adams and "Dancing with the Stars" champion Kaitlyn Bristowe. Things are admittedly a little clunky – the show's clearly trying to figure out what exactly their roles will be, landing somewhere between hosts, eagerly advice-filled confidantes and wine-sipping built-in commentary tracks. I'd love to see it lean into the latter; that's already how the audience watches the show – with rose and snark – so why not bring it into "The Bachelorette" all the way. We get a bit of that when the men start arriving, as Kaitlyn and Tayshia watch from a nearby window, providing little sassy analysis of the men and Katie's immediate reactions, and it's perfect.

I want more – but it's already a better vibe than before. Harrison struggled to find the right tone for the show in this new generation, and gone now is the "controlling dad who takes gun prom photo" energy, replaced by a less formal and more friendly and festive "ladies night" tone. We don't need to go back. 

Anyways, SUMMON THE MEN! It's finally time to meet a bunch of guys whose names I will not remember and will be looking up until at least fantasy suites week. We start with Connor B., a math teacher. A pleasant start – except he's from Nashville, and we know what that means. That's right: He's also a musician. I swear to God and Hattie B's hot chicken, if he turns out to be a Jed ... 

We also meet Karl the motivational speaker, a Canadian hockey player who's now training to become a firefighter, and Andrew S., an Austrian football player (American football, not everyone else's football) who seems like a good and funny guy ... but who also appeared to spend his pre-show COVID quarantine making a creepy mannequin person from a brown bag and pillows. So that's only mostly serial killer-esque. Meanwhile, there's Mike, a former baseball player and current gym owner – and also a virgin. Because the whole virgin subplot worked SOOOO well for the show last time. The good news is that he's a sex-positive virgin – he's saving himself, but he's fine with others choosing what they want for themselves – so it doesn't seem like we have a Luke P. situation on our hands, which means I don't have to mace my screen and launch it into the sun. 

That's just the previews for us, though; now it's time for Katie to meet these men ... or maybe to just be stuck alone in the desert. Katie takes her place in front of the "Mad Max" mansion and waits for her first arrivals. And waits. And waits. And at some point, she has to wonder if she was brought to the wrong place. But thankfully, someone finally shows up: her hosts, who give her a quick pep talk including the advice "don't rule out anyone on night one." Well, she's contractually obligated to eliminate a few guys by the end of the night, so she's gotta rule SOME people out on night one. But anyways, they're fun, naturally gabbing about what Katie's looking for and setting the right tone for the night.


The first one out of the limo is Thomas, who says a bunch of vague but pleasant platitudes and compliments. He's not particularly memorable, but he IS the first arrival and Katie thinks he's attractive, so maybe there's a chance for him. Hopefully at some point, he'll say something I remember. Actually, the whole first batch of bros is pretty bland – handsome, for sure, as Katie points out regularly, but not particularly interesting. There's an Aaron and an Andrew M. and a David. Finally, somebody arrives with something notable to say: Michael, who somehow isn't a grown-up Scotty McCreery. He arrives bearing gifts: a watch, an important family heirloom passed down through generations. Is he about to bust out Christopher Walken's "Pulp Fiction" speech? Thankfully, before he reveals that he shoved that watch in places watches were not meant to go, he reveals that it's just a trinket he bought at the airport, but that time's a precious gift – totally dweeby, but also a little cute. Certainly cuter than a watch up the wazoo. 

After Michael, the personalities finally begin to arrive. A contestant named Tre arrives in a mystery truck with a ball pit in the trunk, which makes him an early winner for me. Then there's Greg, a sweet little boy man who's adorably nervous as hell. Maybe he's nervous because he knows that, according to Katie, he looks like her ex-boyfriend. I'd rather that, though, than the next guy: Gabriel, an entrepreneur who teaches ... hugs? Hey, he made more of an impact than John, Garrett, Austin, Marty, Landon or even Karl, so that's something. And he's certainly better than Josh, who shows up and does some addition. How dare you bring math into "The Bachelorette." I AM NOT HERE TO THINK; I AM HERE TO DRINK! You are BANNED.

Things improve, though, with Andrew S., who arrives in an old-timey car complete with an old-timey buggy horn. And we do love an old-timey buggy horn. Then he pops out speaking in a British accent that's not convincing, but it is attractive. I'd maybe think twice about making my first impression with a lie, but in general, it's cute and fun, so we will allow it. Could be worse; COULD BE MATH! Brandon pulls up with a moped, a different Conor from our potential Jed pulls up with a Little League glove and Kyle pulls out his underwear, so there's a lot of choices being made tonight. A guy named Hunter brings a fish, which is just confusing. Should've brought a deer head. And then Jeff arrives in an RV – his actual RV, but that's somehow not the creepiest thing about him. No, that would be that his occupation is "surgical skin salesman," which ... I have questions. A man who sells skin from his RV is a little "Se7en"-esque for my taste.

Speaking of "WHAT'S IN THE BOX!?", Katie's next arrival is indeed a box – a giant present with apparently a man named James inside. And it must be cozy in there – maybe he's got a little TV with the NBA playoffs on – because he doesn't get out. Instead, Katie has to meet him inside and unwrap him there. Bold move to basically hide from your date all night; he better hope he's startlingly attractive – and that he doesn't overheat inside there and pop out literally dripping in sweat. Personally, I hope he turns out to be a jag so I can nickname him Dick in a Box. 

Somehow, RV Guy and Potential Dick in a Box could've done far worse, though. They could be Cody, a zipper sales manager – which manages to be both self-explanatory but also I have questions – who arrives talking about how somebody helped him get by the loneliness of quarantine. Please be a dog and not a sex doll, please be a dog and not a sex doll. Welp, it was a blow-up doll ... named Sandy. Lucky for him, Katie likes a good lewd joke and laughs it off, but I also bet she Purell-ed hardcore after shaking that doll's hand.

Apparently the blow-up doll opened the floodgates for sex jokes. Justin jokes about stroking, Christian jokes about rubbing one out, Quartney busts out a sex pun. How immature – but thankfully things are about to get much more adult as here comes a man dressed as a cat. Yes, Connor the Hopefully Not Jed arrives in a full catsuit – with drawn-on whiskers, paw gloves and everything – which Katie loves, but I'm sorry, we're still too close to the "Cats" movie for me to enjoy this. I had PTSD flashbacks to the words "digital fur technology" and seeing Rebel Wilson unzip her own cat fur skin. This may be worse than Jed – but again, Katie is a big fan as a cat mom and as a goofball. Which is also nice; normally the funny people are treated as sideshows and nothing more, but Katie seems to genuinely find them compelling and attractive – a good change-of-pace. 

Somehow, we're far from over; I always forget how exhausting the premiere episodes are, just launching anonymous handsomes at the screen and introducing the lead and establishing romances and rivalries, and flirtily  ... showing off rock collections? Dammit, is that you again, Josh?! NO MATH AND NO SCIENCE! But anyways, the guys seem exhausted too – drip-sweating from the desert heat and from the nerves. Everyone's real anxious – especially our sweet little baby boy Greg, who adorably stumbles over his cute gag gift of a colorful pasta necklace made by his young cousin. He's making Hugh Grant look composed and articulate – but somehow it works, coming off relatable instead of just awkward. It helps that he complained about how everyone's having babies around him – I FEEL YOU, GREG!

That's kind of the whole vibe of the night: natural and nice. After last year's bullying that made the atmosphere on Venus seem comparatively less toxic, this season is just about pleasant interactions. Katie just hangs out in the truck ball pit and gives Justin the stroking painter the first kiss of the night and looks at nifty art and enjoys the company of seemingly good guys. Even when drama does break out – Aaron and Cody have a strange tiff about ... Cody existing, I think? – the show seems to have no interest in it, briefly cutting in only to immediately move on without a second thought, more just emphasizing the nerves of the night as opposed to setting up any actual tension. It plays extremely strange, like the producers couldn't break their drama addiction completely and had to put SOMETHING in, regardless of logic. Even sweet little Greg is confused. But it just emphasizes how humane and pleasant the rest of the episode was. 

Well, maybe not all pleasant, as Surgical Skin Salesman Jeff brings Katie into his RV. Now, if I were to choose to show my date – as well as the entire nation – my RV home, I would perhaps CLEAN THE THING UP BEFOREHAND! But apparently Jeff was too busy selling surgery skin to tidy up, because the thing looks dirty – from the boxers on the couch to the overall unkempt vibe. Don't worry, though, because at least Jeff doesn't loudly chomp on celery like Bugs Bunny and OH NO HE VERY MUCH DOES THAT. It's fun to know that I wouldn't be the worst "Bachelorette" contestant ever. 

Katie thankfully moves on to another guy with an odd housing situation: James aka Dick in a Box. Amazingly, when he finally pops out of the present, he doesn't come out all sweaty and hot. No, he just comes out ... hot. Like sexy hot. If you're gonna spend an entire episode unseen, trapped in a small container and not flirting with your date, the reveal better be worth it – and incredibly, James' gambit worked. Now to see if it's just a one-episode trick or if he's a gift that keeps on giving – and if the rest of the guys will get along with him now that they can see he's competition.

Their toughest competition, however, may somehow be the "Cats" reject, Connor the Not Jed. (I swear to God, if he ends up being a Jed, he should be punishing with having to do a one-man "Cats" traveling show for the rest of his life.) After playing foot – or paw – piano with Katie like they're in "Big," the two flirt and even make out. She must really be into him because she doesn't even seem bothered by his weird humanoid furry paw glomming onto her face during their makeout session. I would maybe need a timeout from that – but Katie seems into it, and obviously Connor is too. You could even say that he's one smitten kitten. (In fact, Connor COULD'VE said that but avoided the pun instead. I demand three "Cats" performances as penance.)

So clearly the man with the intense lip-lock session and the cat suit would earn the first impression rose, right? The guy CERTAINLY made an impression, and Katie seems like the first "Bachelor" franchise star who would actually and truly embrace the goofy cast members instead of just keeping them around for quirky comic relief. But instead, the rose goes to Sweet Baby Greg – a solid choice, though I had to feel for Connor, sadly rubbing his man paws together in nervous disappointment. I was not prepared to get emotional about a heart-broken cat man tonight.

Thankfully, he gets a carnation at the season's first rose ceremony – which we cannot say about our messy RV man with the surgical skin. Huh, who would've guessed bringing your messy bedroom on wheels would be an unattractive play? I'm learning a lot here tonight. He's one of seven guys given the first-night axe – including the moped guy, a dancer from Reno, Austin, Landon, the hug-teacher man and some guy who looks like Jared Leto but somehow even more emo.

But overall it's a good start for a show that REALLY needed a good start, to remind everyone why "The Bachelorette" is fun and to get the taste of Matt James' season out of our mouths. (The wine helps with that too.) Monday's debut served as an awesome course correction, leading with charming personalities as well as good, kind and drama-free positive energy. Surely that'll last! (*sees Blake from Tayshia's season pull a Heather from last year in the previews and a lot of crying*) Oh no ... 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.