“Love After Lockup” Has Become A Viral Hit

The ratings for the WE TV reality show — which follows couples who’ve met online after one of them is released from prison — grow nearly every week.

The morning after his wedding to Tracie Wagaman — who in the days before had been released from prison — Clint Brady called his mother as he cried. “Why are you crying, darling?” his mother asked him. “I’m not!” he answered, sobbing on his hotel room couch. She implored him to tell her what’s wrong, and he slowly started to tell her. Tracie had taken his phone and rental car, Clint said through tears. Then he walked into the bathroom, away from the cameras. “Mom, she has a problem,” Clint said. “What is her problem,” his mother said flatly, her voice full of dread. “Motherfucking crack!” Clint yelled.

Clint’s announcement, which caused at least one viewer to gasp, occurred during Friday night’s episode of Love After Lockup on WE TV. Clint and Tracie are among six couples featured on the show’s second season, the ratings of which have grown nearly every week in both total viewers and WE’s core demographic, 25- to 54-year-old women. After three days of viewing, according to Nielsen, the show’s audience for its last four episodes has averaged more than a million viewers. With little marketing, Love After Lockup has become a word-of-mouth hit, inspiring Facebook and Reddit discussion groups, and trending on Twitter each week. Its seven-episode first season, which aired early in 2018, was the fastest-growing new reality series on cable last year.

“Probably by the third week in the first season, we were like, ‘Wow, this has grown every single week!’” WE TV’s president, Marc Juris, told BuzzFeed News. “The fan engagement here was pretty remarkable. You know when something is working.”

Love After Lockup — which is by Sharp Entertainment, the producers of TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé — follows couples who have met through prison dating websites. The couples’ stories start when the convicted person is about to get out of jail to begin life with the “non-con,” to use the production term for the civilian cast members. Love After Lockup is a hybrid of prison reality shows (like A&E’s popular 60 Days In) and shows like 90 Day Fiancé and Married at First Sight, which chronicle relationships that are — no offense — doomed. It also neatly fits into the canon of reality shows that find amusement at the plights of the working class and people who might not have a formal education — like Teen Mom.

The stories in Love After Lockup are simultaneously bleak, entertaining, instructive about the human condition, and worrying — and the show is utterly addictive.

The second season of Love After Lockup was originally to be 14 episodes — seven have aired already — but given its ratings success, WE has ordered a 10-episode continuation of Season 2. The new episodes will air in the spring, with an almost-new cast (two couples will return, including Andrea and Lamar from Season 1).

Love After Lockup specializes in “motherfucking crack”–like moments. In one instance, non-con Scott, who is dating Lizzie, told her daughter that he had sent Lizzie $90,000 while she was in prison — and yes, he knew Lizzie was using the money for drugs. In another story, the recently incarcerated Brittany secretly brought her prison girlfriend to the hotel where she was staying with her non-con fiancé, Marcelino — and did not tell him. In a story that’s still unfolding, non-con Megan, a virgin, is engaged to Michael, and has no idea that while in prison, Michael married non-con Sarah, with whom he has a child. (Sarah is also on the show.) And poor Clint, earlier in Season 2, said to Alice, his mother, that Tracie could confess to him that “she’s a masked serial murderer” but “there’s nothing she could tell me that would make me run away.” (Clearly: After the crack catastrophe, during which Clint had to borrow a producer’s phone to call his mother, all he wanted was to find Tracie to reconcile with her.)

There’s also something prurient about watching Love After Lockup, especially when the cast members unite postprison, sometimes meeting in person for the first time. They often can’t wait to have sex, despite the presence of cameras. (This season, one couple — Matt and Caitlin — parked on the side of the road and had sex in a forest.)

The idea for Love After Lockup came out of WE’s annual companywide “pitchfest” event in 2016, during which WE staffers — “from administrative assistants all the way up to VPs,” Juris said — divide into teams to brainstorm ideas for series. Several viable ideas generally emerge from pitchfest, Juris said, which are then handed over to the development team. In the case of Love After Lockup, he remembered thinking, How on earth are we going to cast this? How many people really do this?

“And we were surprised to see it’s really quite a lot!” Juris said.

That did not mean that Love After Lockup was — or is — easy to cast. Sharp Entertainment has to deal with the complicated prison system, which is different in every state, for one thing. “It’s not like Housewives, where we can gather them all up and say, ‘OK, we’re shooting again,’” Juris said. They also run extensive background checks on the cast “to make sure these people have nothing they’re concealing,” Juris said.

There’s also the question of what crimes are palatable to viewers: robbery (even armed robbery) is OK, as are financial and drug crimes — rape, murder, and even assault are not (though one man in Season 1 was in prison for a bar fight). “It’s more about people who’ve made a mistake, like with drug trafficking,” Juris said. “Crimes you can actually be redeemed for — you’re not a career criminal.” The ex-convicts are not paid to be on the show; non-cons receive small per diems to cover expenses they incur to be available for filming.

Love After Lockup has to cast more couples than would possibly fit on the show because “we have quite a few people who are great stories, but they break up before the person is out of prison,” Juris said. “We over-cast — and then real life takes over. From when we start casting to when we start shooting, at least two couples are different.”

Of the couples who do make it onto the show, one or the other of them often seems either unstable or to be making terrible life decisions, which raises the issue: Is it ethical to watch Love After Lockup? When asked that question, Juris said: “I believe we are capturing something that happens whether or not there are cameras. We’re not having these people do this — it’s happening.”

“I really look at it more as documenting something that’s happening, told in as entertaining a format as possible,” he said. “But we don’t manufacture anything that you’re seeing.”

That philosophy of noninterference even includes not suggesting to a Season 1 cast member, James, that his girlfriend, Alla, who had been in prison for heroin trafficking, had relapsed. Juris said the producers “suspected it, as did viewers,” but didn’t know for sure. While being filmed, Alla pulled over in front of a convenience store and threw up into a trash can. She then wondered to James if she was pregnant and took a pregnancy test. Later, she overdosed. The cameras filmed James trying to get into the bathroom to help her. “It’s not our place to tell him. It’s our place to capture him discovering it or realizing it,” Juris said. “I’m not even sure he realized it then!”

As for whether Love After Lockup could become embroiled in a controversy like 90 Day Fiancé’s recent domestic violence horror — because sometimes the couples do fight viciously — Juris thinks a fail-safe against that possibility is built into the show. “One of those people is on probation,” he said. “There is a definite consequence if things get a little out of hand.” He pointed to an example in Season 1, when Andrea and Lamar fought in a Los Angeles parking lot, and he got physically close to her — but the presence of a nearby police car quickly brought the fight to an end. “Probation is a powerful tool. And it’s a unique element to this show,” Juris said.

Love After Lockup has become the third-most-watched show on WE (behind Mama June: From Not to Hot and Braxton Family Values) in total viewers, and it’s the second-most-watched among 25- to 54-year-olds. But Juris said he does not have plans to franchise it, as TLC has done with 90 Day Fiancé which has three spinoffs. “I wouldn’t want to mitigate the intensity of the story we’re telling just for the sake of a franchise. I’m very pure like that,” Juris said. “And while we have a lot of people, this is not an infinite supply of stories and casting.”

It’s possible, though, that the supply might be expanding soon — because of Love After Lockup.

“Someone wrote to us to say they were single, and they happened to watch the show, and said, ‘Hey, that’s an interesting way to meet a guy,' went onto a website, and is now engaged to somebody in prison,” Juris said.

Oh my god. So WE is now causing this to happen?

Juris laughed. “I wouldn’t say causing! I would say we’re helping people find love.”