NOEL KING, HOST:
It has been 24 seasons, and there is at last a Black leading man on ABC's "The Bachelor." Twenty-nine-year-old real estate broker Matt James made history. But why did it take so long? NPR TV critic Eric Deggans watched James' "Bachelor" debut. Good morning, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right. So a new face, a new bachelor. Is it a new type of season?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, it was filmed in a quarantine bubble at a resort in Pennsylvania last year, so that was kind of different. You know, last night's episode seemed familiar in a lot of ways, but it was different in some important ways, too. For people who don't know that much about "The Bachelor," it's this competition in which a guy goes on a series of dates with a group of women and whittles them down and, eventually, he chooses one of them to be his fiancee. Last night, Matt James - tall, attractive guy - was shown facing this group of 32 women. They looked like a much more racially diverse group than we've seen on past editions of "The Bachelor." I would say about half of them seem to be nonwhite. But as things were getting started, James sat down with the show's host, Chris Harrison, to talk about the pressures that he felt as the son of a Black father and white mother who identifies as Black. And we've got a clip. Let's listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELOR")
MATT JAMES: And you've got people who are cheering for you to end up with a specific person, a specific person of a specific race. That's something that kept me up at night. It's like, I don't want to piss off Black people. I don't want to piss off white people. But I'm both of those, you know what I mean? It's like, how do I please everybody?
DEGGANS: Now, that moment allowed James to acknowledge the elephant in the room that some viewers were going to judge him based on the race of whatever woman he chooses. But they didn't really explore the idea much, which is often how "The Bachelor" handles difficult discussions. They just kind of acknowledge the idea and then move on.
KING: (Laughter) And then get past it. All right. So this show has been on the air since 2002. How on Earth did it take so long to cast a Black man as the leading man?
DEGGANS: You know, that's a great question. And I don't think ABC or the producers of "The Bachelor" have really answered it well. The show had its first Hispanic lead in 2014 and the female version of the show, "The Bachelorette," has had two Black women as stars. I've always felt that these shows present an idealized, white-centered vision of the ultimate romance. And the contestants and stars, they all look like they came out of the same Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. So often the bachelor is selected from men who did well on "The Bachelorette," which can also make it tough to diversify. But Matt James hasn't been on any of those shows. ABC named him the bachelor this summer just as TV shows started to get some criticism over the summer during the reckoning over civil rights and days after a petition surfaced on change.org demanding that the show finally cast a Black man as a lead.
KING: Tell me about the episode and about Matt James. Do you get a sense of whether he'll do well by "Bachelor" standards?
DEGGANS: He did pretty well. You know, last night's episode featured women trying goofy stunts to get his attention. One woman walked up to him in lingerie and asked him to pick the dress that she should wear that night.
DEGGANS: (Laughter) And in the end, James seemed pretty levelheaded, a little nervous, and he was pretty savvy about handling all the attention. But I'm concerned that the show doesn't repeat some of its past mistakes regarding race, including having a contestant with a history of racist comments pop up to add tension. There's a lot of stereotypes about Black men and their sexuality. We're hoping the show doesn't evoke those in a negative way. These are all issues that have to be handled carefully. And I'm eager to see how a show that has avoided racial issues for so long will handle depicting them now.
KING: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.
DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL LOVE SONGS' "THE FIRST TIME I EVER SAW YOUR FACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.