When you’re asked to picture a hero, I’m willing to make a significant wager that Nick Viall, star of ABC’s 21st season of The Bachelor, is not who comes to mind. After being a two-time runner up on The Bachelorette and coming close to a proposal on the franchise’s summer hit, Bachelor in Paradise, ABC’s surprising decision to cast Nick as the new bachelor was both smart and divisive—meant as much to spark conversation as to keep ratings high. Host Chris Harrison said that, for the decision makers, the guiding criteria were worthiness and sincerity, traits found most strongly in Nick. In addition to those criteria, as a viewer, part of what makes Nick a compelling choice for this season of The Bachelor is that he’s on a good, old-fashioned hero’s journey.
A generation ago, a writer named Joseph Campbell analyzed myths from different cultures and identified key characteristics common in stories about heroes and their adventures. For Campbell, the hero, while on his or her journey, encounters trials and tests, undergoes a transformation, offers atonement for his sins, and receives new life. If the hero is successful, he returns to ordinary life with new information he can share with his people.
It’s easy to interpret Nick’s journey through The Bachelor franchise with Campbell’s language of a hero’s journey. Nick set off from the everyday world to pursue love on reality television and suffered crushing trials on both his runner-up seasons of The Bachelorette, before undergoing a transformation, atoning for his sins from previous seasons, on Bachelor in Paradise—and now, as the bachelor, he’s received new life. The only question is whether he’ll return to ordinary life with the blessing of a loving relationship, and can testify that true love surpasses all things, even on reality TV.
Framing Nick’s journey this way, his heroic adventure began in 2014, when he entered the special world of reality television on Andi Dorfman’s season of The Bachelorette. After making it to the final two, Nick’s greatest trial came when Andi said she did not see a future for them beyond the show and sent Nick home. We learned on that season’s After the Final Rose (the live after show that allows the contestants to discuss their experiences) that Nick, crushed and disillusioned, had repeatedly attempted to contact Andi since the show’s taping to get answers. It wasn’t until After the Final Rose that Nick finally got to talk with Andi about how things ended. It’s that conversation, more than anything from the actual season, for which Nick is remembered. On live TV, he asked Andi why she slept with him in the fantasy suite if she didn’t actually love him. Many (rightly) viewed this as tactless and vindictive.
Nick’s trial from Andi’s season was to accept his fate and do the hard work of moving on. He ultimately passed this test, but not before he made himself look terrible and a bit obsessive.
While Nick’s trial was no different than the other contestants, his journey, unlike theirs, continued. The following year, Nick returned for a second season as a contestant on The Bachelorette, this time trying to find love with Kaitlyn Bristowe. He showed up weeks into taping and told her that, despite not being a regular contestant, he wanted a chance to win her heart. In his words, “I’m not here to waste your time. I’m not here to be the villain.” Many, the fellow men on The Bachelorette included, would be excused for wondering how truthful Nick’s comments were. Kaitlyn, though, took his intentions as pure when he told her, “If my option is being here or not following my heart, I’m following my heart.”
Nick’s trial on his second go-round of The Bachelorette was whether or not he would lose hope in his romantic journey. In a conversation with his mom at the end of the season, he was beaming about his relationship with Kaitlyn and told his mom he was confident that Kaitlyn loved him. Nick picked out a ring, professed his love to Kaitlyn, and pulled out the ring to propose. In a painful-to-watch moment, Kaitlyn reaches out and stops him. Nick had made himself vulnerable again, thought he had found the love of his life again, and his love was not reciprocated again. This time even more heartbreakingly than the first.
Nick could have given up his journey then and concluded that he wasn’t meant to have that kind of fairy-tale love (as much as a televised love story can be considered a fairy tale). Instead, in 2016, Nick joined Bachelor in Paradise, the summer extravaganza in which a couple dozen contestants show up at a beach house in Mexico with more or less the same goal—finding love. It was on this iteration of the show that Nick endeared himself to the audience.
When Nick showed up on Paradise, we watched as he offered counsel and comfort to others struggling with relationships and unrequited love, based on his own, very public experiences. Many viewers, myself included, perceived a shift in Nick’s behavior: He seemed to have grown from his experiences. We could now view him empathetically. While we didn’t witness it on screen, Nick’s transformation was evident in his behavior on Paradise. He had overcome his prior challenges and now seemed wiser, better for the experience.
Nick also atoned for his previous sins—his After the Final Rose revelation about he and Andi being the most egregious. Just prior to the taping of Bachelor in Paradise, Andi released a tell-all book about her life and time on the show. There were several unflattering details about Nick in the book (see “Day 13: The Fantasy Suite” if you’re interested in specifics). Nick could have denied Andi’s account (as others mentioned in the book did), but he owned up to the fact that she fairly accurately described his comments and actions.
We don’t yet know the end of Nick’s story. His selection as this season’s bachelor gives him new life, the last part of any hero’s journey. Looking at Nick Viall through Campbell’s language of heroes and their journeys helps us identify some of the reasons that Nick is such a fascinating and compelling presence on TV. But, as Joseph Campbell observed, not all heroes are successful.
Here’s hoping that The Bachelor’s newest hero completes his journey and finds the love he’s so earnestly pursued.
Jay Ford is a writer living in Houston, TX. He can be found on Twitter @thejayford.