Chris Harrison on ‘Bachelor’ Peter Weber’s Emotional Reunion With Hannah Brown

The new “Bachelor” season kicked off this week — but it disrupted the usual parade of limos, as well as the season-specific aviation innuendo (titular Bachelor Peter Weber is a pilot) to bring back an old flame. In a surprise move, ex-Bachelorette Hannah Brown returned not once, but twice for the season premiere to throw and emotional wrench into Weber’s first few days of filming.

Will Pilot Pete get the happy ending Bachelor Nation thinks he richly deserves?

Here, Variety talks to host Chris Harrison about the return of Brown, but also the status of behemoth of a franchise, the recent decisions to be more inclusive and include the LGBTQ couple Demi Burnett and Kristian Haggerty (who have since split), and the sex positive spin the last season spurred.

Did it take much convincing to get Peter back? 

No, he had the normal amount of skepticism and being leery of jumping back in and doing it. I think for him, a lot of it had to do with the fact that he still had feelings for Hannah and could he move on? Was this guy really ready? Because if you’re not, then it’s going to be a disaster.

How has this franchise changed from when it first started 18 years ago?

Oh God, it’s like saying how much has technology changed? When we started the show there was no such thing as a smartphone, much less social media, blogs, Twitter, Instagram — none of that stuff existed. Life was different, life was simpler. There was only the written word as far as magazines coming out and talking about the show. And then you would do the basic press: “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” “Access,” that kind of stuff. And it’s taken on this whole new life, but so has dating.

It’s been fascinating to watch it evolve. I love the fact that no matter what changes, the premise doesn’t. And really the last 10 minutes of our show, I don’t know if we’ll ever change. You still have just these two people that are hopeful and falling in love and they’re scared and they’re nervous and they’re excited. That part hasn’t changed.

Today you could perceivably have a career as a “Bachelor” contestant; that was not possible years ago. 

Look at Hannah. Her claim to fame was being a part of a beauty pageant. Outside of her house and around Alabama, you wouldn’t have known the name Hannah Brown. That is now a household name. She’s been on “Dancing With The Stars” and she’s a brand ambassador and has millions of followers that equates to money. Kudos to them for taking those steps in monetizing it and taking advantage of it. It essentially has become a career. Peter’s life will never be the same.

But does that make it harder to find contestants in 2020, versus when people didn’t really know what it was? Or do you think it makes it easier?

Really, pun intended, the bloom was off the rose pretty early on. The first three to five seasons there was a sense of innocence and naiveté. But once the show had 33 million viewers, maybe it wasn’t to this extreme because social media wasn’t around, but there was still that bit of can I trust this person? Are they here for fame? Are they here for fortune, or are they here for love? In dating, that’s kind of the same pitfalls you have to cross: Does this person want me because I’m famous? Does he want my money? Is it just superficial? The great thing is our show’s never been predicated on the fact that it’s guaranteed to work. You still have to make the right choice.

Going back to Hannah, kind of a classic case of you had an awesome guy and Peter who had a great family and a great job, and she decided to pass on that for a guy with a guitar and seemingly no future. That was a really bad decision.

Yet you got through that whole thing without saying “here for the right reasons.”

I was trying not to.

On that note, you now have a Bachelor who’s not big about social media. Does that change this season?

It’s not a bad thing. And this is not to say that Hannah or Colton [Underwood] or whatever — it’s not an indictment on them at all. This might come back to bite me on the backside but Peter loves flying. That is his life. He’s not going to leave the aviation world and flying for the airlines. I’ve been up flying with him recently and I can tell it’s in his blood. It’s in his family’s blood. He loves a little Instagram moment, dancing and being goofy or whether, but I can’t see this changing his life in that regard. Whereas Colton, Hannah, some of the last couple of few Bachelors and Bachelorettes, they’ve really leaned into social media, and you can tell that Stagecoach and Coachella and selling stuff on Instagram, that is their life now.

Stagecoach will never be the same.

You know, I was looking at the Coachella lineup and I made the joke, I didn’t want it tweeted cause I would’ve blasted him. I said the Coachella lineup is so bad. I don’t even think Blake [Horstmann] is going go this year.

THE BACHELOR - "2401" - Handsome airline pilot Peter Weber is ready to take off on an international journey filled with romance, high drama and love! He grabbed Hannah B.'s attention with his boyish charm and one storied night in a windmill, but Bachelor Nation was shocked when she ended their relationship. Now, their heartthrob is back to hand out the roses and search for his happily ever after as he stars in the 24th edition of ABC's hit romance reality series "The Bachelor," premiering with a big three-hour special, MONDAY, JAN. 6 (8:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on ABC.(ABC/John Fleenor) KELLEY, PETER WEBER

When did you know that Hannah wanted to come back on Peter’s season?

She comes back a couple of times [in the first episode]. One is a very sweet, sincere: He gave Hannah his wings and that’s something that’s been a lot to him and it was a very important part of his life and so she came back at first just to wish him well and to hand back his wings, which was a very kind gesture that meant a lot to him. But then she’s also involved in a date, and so that conversation, it’s the most heartfelt emotional, gut wrenching. You’re not exactly sure how it ends or where this ends, but that was an unbelievably awkward, incredible TV moment when she came back. You can feel that there’s still something there between them. If you ever questioned the show and its sincerity, you won’t after that; there’s no way you can doubt that there is something unbelievably real with those two and they’re still fighting it and trying to figure it out.

At the time were you rooting for Peter and Hannah to get back together? Or did you want Peter to find someone new?

I don’t know if I truly realized and appreciated how much Peter loved Hannah. Maybe that’s a bad sign that I didn’t know. I knew he loved her — I knew he wanted to be with her at the end — but I guess I didn’t know depth of it until this conversation. It really was gutting and turned the light on in this whole situation. When you see the mascara running down her face, when you see not knowing what to do or where to turn, it’s just riveting. I think we were all taken aback. This really was serious. But there was also this selfish side of me that really wanted him to be the Bachelor.

Hannah’s season had an interesting conversation about sex positivity for women in “The Bachelor” series. Talk about how that’s changed in really in the last five years on this franchise.

I think a better word is it’s evolved. We’ve done a really good job of embracing whatever social issue has come up. I don’t know if that would’ve been the case 10, 15 years ago. Not that we were against it, it just wouldn’t have been part of the story. It wasn’t really what we were into at the time. It was more about just this sweet little love story. Social issues are now just as much a part of our show as anything else. I love that we’ve embraced that. When you look back, when you look back at Kaitlyn’s [Bristowe] season, you look back at “Paradise” and what we did with Demi, you look back at this last season, it’s an evolution. Organically things have changed and we’ve embraced it.

It’s wild to think about how Kaitlyn was dragged across the coals online and now people embrace Hannah. What had to change?

I think with anything that first person through the wall, it’s bloody. Unfortunately that’s the way it is for any social cause. You saw on the Golden Globes Kate McKinnon talking so eloquently and humorously about Ellen [DeGeneres]. Everyone thought, “Oh great.” Well, Ellen lost her sitcom because of that, and she said she lost a lot of friends and people she thought were her friends. The first person through the wall, you take some bumps and bruises. But look at it now, look how things are changed. It takes the conversation starter it takes that first step. And look, I’m not here to say “The Bachelor” changes the world or whatever. We are more of a microcosm of what’s going on in society. Things that are evolving and changing. I’m proud to say that we change with it and we don’t shy away from that stuff anymore.

How do you balance having a conversation about sex that is sex positive and keeping everyone comfortable but then also building a windmill in the middle of the Grove in California ?

Well, first of all, I was not a part of the windmill building in the Grove and did not show up for that. [Laughs] There always is a fine line on a show, though. There’s always is a fine line of, it is entertainment — it’s comedic, it’s tongue-in-cheek. I always have to explain to reporters who really want to dive deep into the social stuff that it is something I’m proud of and it’s great that it’s part of the show, but that can’t be all of the show. At the end of the day, we are still on ABC, we have three hours, we have to draw eyeballs — or no matter what we’re here to say and stand for, we’re not going to be on the air next week. And it really is that tenuous. We’ve been on 18 years, but tomorrow is promised to nobody in this business. We still fight every day to produce a great television show and we still want to just tell great stories.

And the cool thing is now that does involve social issues that we can lean into, but it’s something you don’t have to create. When it comes up then that’s part of the story. Someone had asked me, “Will you guys do more of that, when you do more of this type of story?” You don’t do it, it’s just something that happens and it’s organic and if it’s anything but that, it really will come off false and it will come off fake.

How did the whole of Bachelor Nation respond to Kristian and Demi?

Mixed. I would love to tell you that there’s this great change in this great movement and that it’s all positive and everybody’s, “Hooray for progressing!” — but it’s not that way. I got a lot of horrible direct messages and stuff said, but I also got a lot of positives. You have to be strong enough and have thick enough skin to take the good with the bad. You realize that there’s an education process and things take time. In America we have these really strong reactions to things; we have this knee-jerk reaction where we want things changed instantaneously. We can pick up our phones and push a button and change a social issue. That’s not the way the world works. It’s not the way our country works. It takes a long time to turn around a big ship. People need to give it time, and we’ve come a long way. Does it need to go further? Yeah. Do people need to be more educated? Of course we do. But we’re getting there.

I told the producers, and I told Demi and Kristian when we did this, this is not going to be all positive and we all need to be prepared for the negative. I told them I would stand right there next to him and take the bullets with them. We all made the decision that we were willing to take that step.

So then how far would you say “The Bachelor” franchise is away from having an LGBTQ Bachelor, Bachelorette?

I don’t know, is the honest answer. I’m not far enough up the food chain to make that call. There’s much smarter, wiser, higher-paid people than I that are going to make that decision. Do you veer away from what “The Bachelor” or “Bachelorette” has always been, and how it has been successful for two decades? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.

“The Bachelor” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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