They filed in, one by one: Men who warmly hugged Rachel Lindsay, The Bachelorette’s latest star; men who politely kissed her; men who were awkward; men who were charming; men who were in possession of jaws that were shockingly square. One of them, a singer-songwriter, strode across the perma-wet driveway of the Bachelor mansion playing a guitar and balladeering. Another came armed with a megaphone and a catchphrase (“Whaboom!”). Another came playing drums, accompanied by a full marching band. Another came dressed as a penguin (since, he explained, they “mate for life”). And one of the men, Adam, came with a dummy—a literal one, to be clear: a stuffed doll, about three feet tall, his facial features drawn on, his wig brown, his suit blue. His name? Adam Junior.
“AJ,” as the doll would soon be nicknamed by the show, its contestants, and its viewers, was meant to resemble Adam, a 27-year-old real-estate agent from Dallas and a guy who, in his pre-show questionnaire, described his favorite actor as Jennifer Lawrence (“because she is every girl’s goal”) and the most romantic gift he’d ever received as a threesome (“it was my birthday”).
While Adam, for the most part, blended in with the other square-jaws vying for Rachel’s heart, Adam Junior quickly became the Bachelorette premiere’s guest star—and, in that, he made a show that is known largely for its tongue-in-cheek take on “reality” more directly surreal than it has ever been before. The frozen-faced dummy got more air time than Adam, and indeed more than any of the human guys Rachel met. He got his own theme music (Gothic organs mixed with bomchikawahwah synths). And he got his own plot line, too: AJ, silently pining for Rachel. AJ, whose love is deep and pure and impossible. AJ, the Montague to Rachel’s Capulet, his feelings destined to remain unrequited on account of him being made of upholstery.
And: AJ, the doll destined to become a meme.
On Monday, the show’s roving camera panned across the Bachelor patio as AJ, silent, watched Rachel flirt with the guy in the penguin suit. The camera cut back to AJ, in a “talking” head interview, his smile ambiguously Mona Lisan, his heart unambiguously full. “Je n’ai jamais vu une telle beauté,” the doll murmured, via voiceover, as “I have never seen such beauty” flashed in subtitles on the screen below him. And then: “She ignites a fire in my soul.” And then: “I am awakened.” And then: “I pray she feels the same.”
Later, the show’s cameras would catch AJ third-wheeling a conversation between Rachel and a suitor, the humans sitting on a couch, the doll stretched languorously before a roaring fire. They’d catch him sitting on the couch with his “fellow” contestants. They’d catch him staring blankly into the middle distance, lovelorn and sad.
It was all supremely bizarre—even by the standards of The Bachelorette, a show that belongs to a franchise whose editors once superimposed the glowing face of a contestant’s dead dog atop an image of a Mexican beach.
But AJ’s party-crashing also, of course, made so much sense. AJ, you will be unsurprised to learn, was a hit online, in the backchannel discussion that is so much a part of the Bachelor franchise’s appeal.
Aj the doll on the bachelorette has me DYINGGGGG— Noelle Osenga (@NoelleOsenga) May 23, 2017
Any one watching the Bachelorette? I'm rooting for AJ, gotta love an underdog.— Miranda (@miiirandahardy) May 23, 2017
I hope AJ the doll gets the first impression rose. He's bilingual and has nice hair. #TheBachelorette— Sarah Wainschel (@Swainsch) May 23, 2017
The Bachelorette’s producers provided ample opportunity for that kind of conversation: AJ appeared again and again during the show’s premiere, the subject of sympathy, conversation, and decided confusion among the show’s contestants—some of whom were in on the joke, others of whom seemed as surprised as viewers to see San Fernando temporarily transformed into the Valley of the Doll.
“That’s like, low-key creepy,” one of the men said, marveling at the dummy who slumped on a couch in the Bachelor mansion, as AJ’s signature, organ-laced music played. Someone had put a glass of champagne in AJ’s limp hand, where the glass of liquid remained, unmoved, even its bubbles still.
“Oh, it’s beyond low-key,” another replied.
Josiah, an early front-runner, was more magnanimous. “I really think that everybody’s here for love,” he said in a talking-head interview, “including AJ. He doesn’t have to say much for you to know what he’s thinking. And I can tell he’s getting a little jealous. He wants to get some time with Rachel.”
Kenny, a professional wrestler from Las Vegas, was more ambivalent: “AJ’s dressed fresh,” he admitted. “He’s got actually a pretty dope fade ... but I would say if he turns into Annabelle and, like, moves into different rooms, I’m gonna burn it myself.”
Most striking, though, was Rachel’s reaction to the floppy prop who took over her season premiere. “Can we talk about Adam Junior for two seconds?” Rachel asked Adam, his owner and her suitor. “He scares me.”
“No, he’s okay,” Adam replied.
“He makes me nervous,” Rachel insisted. “I have a thing with dolls.”
“No, don’t be nervous,” came Adam’s answer.
With that, Rachel, in the clearest terms possible, told Adam that his schtick scared her, and made her nervous. And with that, too, in the clearest terms possible, Rachel was ignored—not just by Adam, but by the show that is supposed to be hers.
It was not a good way to begin, especially given Rachel’s status as the first woman of color to be the show’s star. But it was also an unsurprising way to begin. The Bachelor franchise has long been concerned with extending its reach beyond the televised show itself—via ABC.com-sponsored fantasy leagues, via contestants’ presence on social media, and most readily via episodes that lend themselves to emoji-laced conversations. AJ, the doll who dares you not to meme him, is simply one more extension of that impulse.
Here’s one more thing you’ll be unsurprised to learn: AJ, the doll, has a Twitter account. Its handle is @adamjrthedoll. It was live-tweeting throughout the show. One of its messages serves as a caption of the picture of AJ stretched before a fire. The tweet reads, “I’m just a doll looking for love, here for the right reasons, and excited about my journey.”