Chris Soules and Kelsey in the season premiere. (Rick Rowell/ABC)

Seasoned television viewers know the drill: Exploiting a personal tragedy for attention is a time-honored tradition on reality TV. You see it everywhere from dating shows to competition series. If someone has a deeply tragic backstory, they’re far more likely to get more time on camera. It’s sick, but producers know it drives ratings when viewers get personally invested.

This has always been a key component on “The Bachelor” franchise, but the show took things to an astonishingly creepy level this season — one that should make any future reality contestant think twice about sharing a personal anecdote. This year, the producers not only zeroed in on a young widow (28-year-old Kelsey, a contestant whose husband suddenly died at age 42), but turned her into the unapologetic villain of the season. Specifically, they made it appear that she was callously using her tragedy to get ahead in the game.

On the surface, if you don’t think about how “The Bachelor” producers manipulate footage and contestants, Kelsey’s behavior seemed pretty appalling. It started last week when Kelsey realized that the competition with her fellow contestants was getting tough, and “bachelor” Chris Soules still didn’t know her secret: Her husband died of congestive heart failure about a year ago. So Kelsey marched up to Chris’s hotel room to steal him for some one-on-one time and share her story.

[“The Bachelor" chooses next star: Chris Soules, farmer and small-town millionaire]

“This is the turning point week where you really have to, like, just get down to brass tacks,” Kelsey told the camera. “So I know what I need to do.”

Thus began one of the most disturbing sequences in “Bachelor” memory, as we cut back and forth between two scenes. One, of a teary-eyed Kelsey telling Chris about the day her husband suddenly dropped dead on his way to work. And the other, which showed a happy, grinning Kelsey doing an on-camera interview where she shared her thoughts with producers.


Kelsey on “The Bachelor” in an on-camera interview. (ABC)

“Isn’t my story amazing?” Kelsey said dreamily as the camera cut back to footage of her and Chris, who was visibly emotional and scooping her up in a big hug. “It’s tragic. But it’s amazing.” Her chilling voiceover continued: “I know this is a show about Chris, but this is my love story, too. This is the unfolding of somebody who’s been through something so tragic. And you get to watch her pick up the pieces and grow into another person and into another relationship.”

“Stay tuned Monday nights at 8:00,” Kelsey continued with the knowledge of someone who’s watched a lot of reality TV. “The love story unveiled.”

So, yeah — you could see why the average viewer would be creeped out. Was this woman seriously using her dead husband as an anecdote to get ahead on show? The footage seemed so eerie and contrived that some viewers started doubting that her husband ever existed. (For the record, here is his obituary.)

While this is indeed odd, it was also clearly the work of a very deliberate editing job by producers, who carefully swapped back and forth between the two scenes — which probably felt very different when they were filmed separately. Like any good drama, producers also established the story earlier in the episode when Kelsey explained to her fellow contestants about what happened to her husband. She told the story with little emotion, and some of the other women were instantly suspicious. “I feel like it’s weird the way she was so nonchalant about it,” Ashley, Kelsey’s nemesis, told the camera.

[Can you still enjoy ‘The Bachelor’ when you know how sordid it is?]

As a result, the storyline was set. Things spiraled further out of control when Chris, shaken by the conversation with Kelsey, wound up cancelling the traditional cocktail party before the rose ceremony (where he decides which women he’s going to send home), saying he had already made up his mind. Somehow, Kelsey worked herself into a panic attack and fell to the floor.

That’s where this week’s episode picked up, with Kelsey on the floor, saying she couldn’t breathe, as a medic rushed over with an oxygen mask. Were the other contestants concerned? No, they dubbed Kelsey’s “panic attack” a bid for attention  — especially once she was seen laughing with the medic about how she was definitely going to get a rose this week, and got extra time with Chris when he rushed over to see if she was okay. Sure enough, Chris gave Kelsey a rose (sending home Sam and Mackenzie) and the other women were furious that a deceased spouse could increase someone’s chances in the competition.

“Sam, she’s had terrible things happen to her too that have shaped her into the person she is. But she didn’t use it as, like, a level up,” complained Jade.

“It’s not about your sad story anymore, it’s about you being a [terrible] human being,” ranted Kaitlyn.

“Kelsey is a black widow,” declared Carly.

With that (suspiciously scripted-sounding) line that was in beyond bad taste, it became clear that the producers had clearly pounced on a storyline they could use. Soon, they were using spooky “watch out for this one!” background music for all of Kelsey’s on-camera interviews, signaling to viewers that she was officially the villain.

“I am the woman that he’s going to fall in love and marry. And today is the day that signifies the start of it all,” Kelsey boasted after she got her rose.

Actually, Kelsey was sent home later in the episode; though only after getting in several fights with the other women, who all despised her. After Chris told Kelsey he just wasn’t feeling the chemistry and sent her packing, the contestants were so thrilled that she was gone that they popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Really, the whole situation revealed an uncomfortable truth about how far reality producers are willing to go to get a good storyline. Grief can make people act in unusual ways; and while Kelsey made the choice to go on the show, reality TV producers are generally eager for contestants to milk their tragic pasts.

Kelsey’s calculating personality made it an easy decision to cast her as the villain. But it’s an important reminder that no matter how you act on TV, no matter how sad your circumstances, producers can edit you any way they please — and the results can be horrifying.