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Dating show ‘The Quarantined Bachelor’ is the best thing on the internet right now

What would happen if a season of “The Bachelor” had to happen under shelter in place? Would contestants go on Zoom dates in their pajamas instead of going skydiving and flirting in hot tubs? Would the bachelor present his chosen bachelorettes with a roll of toilet paper instead of a rose? Well, now you don’t have to wait to have a fever dream about it.

Jimmy Parenteau and Tyler Cohen, two San Francisco 20-somethings who met while working at Yelp, breathed existence into the “Quarantined Bachelor” just a few days after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order was announced. The dating show, which all takes place on Instagram, has quickly gained traction in the past two weeks — and they’ve almost finished the first season.

Cohen, a stand-up comic who had been on a dating show in New York City, already had something in the works with Parenteau, a self-professed connoisseur of dating shows, before coronavirus hit.

“We were gearing up to get a live dating show in San Francisco started up, and then this quarantine happened and threw a wrench in our plans,” said Cohen. “So Jimmy and I got on the phone, and the ‘Quarantined Bachelor’ came out of that conversation.”

It didn’t take long for them to find their first bachelor. Richard Shall, Parenteau’s former colleague, reached out when he saw them promoting their new project on Instagram.

“It seemed like an interesting thing to do,” said Shall, a 30-year-old manager at a San Francisco software company. “I just wanted to help my friend out and give it a shot, and make light of this tough situation we’re all in right now.”

And while a little skeptical that this could lead to a real relationship, as most of the contestants don’t live geographically near him, he remains open to the idea.

“There’s always the hope that it could happen,” said Shall. “And when we can, I’m down to travel and say hi and see how it would go in person.”

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While Parenteau and Cohen had already started accepting contestant applications via Google form, once they announced that Shall was their bachelor, more applications began pouring in.

“Now we have 150 applications, which means that more than 10 percent of people following are applying,” said Cohen.

They narrowed down this season’s contestants to five young women: Kenzie, a 23-year-old behavior technician who works with kids with autism and who is quarantined in Reno; Sara Grace, a 21-year-old education student quarantined in Chicago; Addison, a 23-year-old musician who wrote a “Quarantined Bachelor” theme song quarantined in San Diego; Katie, a 25-year-old graduate student whose horse is the “apple of her eye,” quarantined in Indianapolis; and Mary, a 27-year-old entrepreneur who created and built an “avocado experience,” quarantined in San Diego.

With a whole season of the “Quarantined Bachelor” unfolding over just a few weeks, the process goes pretty quickly. First, the QBachelor (or potentially QBachelorette in future seasons) is introduced with a few Q&A videos, answering questions from “What makes you a good quarantine buddy?” to “What’s your TP situation?”

Then, the five contestants are introduced in the same way. Next is a meet and greet: a Zoom group video chat with all of the contestants. After that, the contestants all do 10-minute virtual speed dates with the QBachelor.

And then, arguably the most entertaining part of the series: the Toilet Paper Ceremony. Instead of a rose, the QBachelor presents three of the five contestants a ceremonial toilet paper roll before moving to the next round.

Finally, there are three longer one-on-one dates with the remaining contestants, and then the final Toilet Paper Ceremony — in which the QBachelor picks one lucky girl to ask “after this quarantine is over, will you go out with me?” — wraps up the season.

If this seems like an incredibly strange way to date, Shall says it is — but less so because of the virtual aspect, and more so due to the reality TV show environment.

“It’s very public,” said Shall. “I’m put in the spotlight and I have to pick between five beautiful, lovely women and I have to whittle them down without hurting someone’s feelings. I think the faster pace of it is also challenging, because then you’re forced to make a decision much more quickly.”

However, he hasn’t felt that dating through a computer screen has prevented him from making real emotional connections with these women.

“I know it’s harder to build a connection this way, but from our perspective, all the dates that we’ve seen so far have gone incredibly smooth,” said Parenteau. “We were incredibly surprised  — everyone’s so open and honest and just having fun.”

RELATED: What it’s like to go on a video chat first date in SF during a pandemic

That’s another element that sets the “Quarantined Bachelor” apart from the famous reality TV series everyone loves to hate: It’s totally wholesome. The contestants don’t pick fights with one another, and they’ve even become friends and regularly message in their own group chat.

“We really did emphasize strongly that we wanted this to be a positive experience for everyone,” explained Cohen. “We’re not really egging on any of that bachelorette behavior. We want this to be for normal people, and we don’t want somebody to put themself out there for the first time and have all their friends watch them on this live Zoom date — which is already crazy — and then be insulted by other contestants.”

Despite its lesser degree of drama, viewers have quickly become very committed QBachelor fans. Some even take to the comments to take sides with hashtags such as #TeamMary.

“We’ve had people mentioning us in their stories saying, ‘This should be on Netflix!’ or ‘This is literally my favorite thing that exists right now,’” said Cohen. “We really like that support.”

And even if they don’t manage to spark a real love connection — which is a huge goal of theirs — it’s not a failure. For both the contestants and the creators (as well as the viewers), the Quarantined Bachelor has been a wonderful distraction from the state of the world at the moment.

“It’s been a great way to kind of get out of the day-to-day monotony,” explained Shall. “The absurdity of having to present the toilet rolls and dress up in a suit jacket while wearing pajama bottoms is definitely a great change of pace.”

The Season 1 finale of the “Quarantined Bachelor” will be posted tonight on Instagram @quarantinedbachelor.

Madeline Wells is an SFGATE associate digital reporter. Email: madeline.wells@sfgate.com | Twitter: @madwells22


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