There’s no way to contextualize, for a nonviewer, why you might enjoy a show like TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé without sounding like a dick. Unlike shows like Vanderpump Rules or The Real Housewives franchise or The Bachelor, where at least there’s some attempt at showing someone succeed at something, 90 Day Fiancé reveals, in excruciating detail, people making terrible decisions that will have actual, real-life ramifications. The show features a few couples, each composed of one American and one foreigner, who have applied for the K-1 visa, which allows you to bring your partner to the US and gives you 90 days to either plan a wedding and get married, or realize you’ve made a huge mistake and the once-love-of-your-life must be deported. Every episode follows these couples through the 90 days and the trials and tribulations of trying to build a relationship (and possible marriage) with someone you don’t really know at all.
The show, a mere five years into its existence, has already spawned the spinoffs 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?, 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days, and 90 Day Fiancé: What Now? — which is great, assuming you need more than an hour and a half each week to comfort yourself with the knowledge that your life, at least, is not “this bad.” But the couples on 90 Day Fiancé, thus far, aren’t being primed for a second act where they might become C- or D-list famous — no Snookis or Situations to be wrung from this particular cloth — and no one is rich or enviable or presents even the lie of happiness. Instead, we, a sick and entertained public, are invited to laugh at people who are looking for love (and permanent resident status) and appear to be bound for total and complete failure.
It’s also increasingly difficult to laugh at the show, especially considering what’s been going on with Colt and Larissa at the end of this season. Larissa Dos Santos Lima, who is from Brazil, was allegedly arrested after her American husband Colt Johnson called the police on her. Larissa’s Instagram — now set to private — showed video of her with blood all over her face, claiming that Colt had hurt her, begging for an attorney to help her get out of jail, and saying that Colt wants to deport her. (This isn’t the first time Larissa has been arrested for alleged domestic violence.) A photo of Colt was subsequently published, showing him pulling down his lower lip, bloody and scratched up.
If you’ve enjoyed the show in seasons past, this conclusion is far darker than the ones you’re used to, where people merely scream at each other and break up. The latest news about Colt and Larissa serves as an uncomfortable reminder that these are real people, and at least one of them could face the real consequence of not just being arrested but of having to leave the country. The price you have to pay for watching 90 Day Fiancé, seemingly, is that you have to admit to yourself that you’re a bad person who likes bad things.
Technically — and purely technically — 90 Day is focused on the idea of love. The same questions arise in every episode: Can love conquer all? Are they actually in love? Will everyone accept their love? The answers are always No, No, and Absolutely Not. Love could not conquer the fact that Mohamed, in Season 2, thought his wife had an, ah, odor problem that he decided to recount during the reunion special. It’s tough to think that Season 4’s Anfisa loves Jorge when she keeps hitting him. Or that Nicole’s (white, boy are they white) family will ever accept her Moroccan fiancé, since according to her stepmother, Morocco is “right up there in top four of human trafficking.” Love couldn’t keep this season’s Fernanda and Jonathan together, even though they were the least deplorable of all the couples, a bar so low to the ground you could just hop right over it. And there’s literally nothing, at this point, that could justify whatever’s going on with the complete horror show that is Larissa and Colt’s marriage.
In reality and in practicality, the show is about expectations: one partner’s expectation that the United States — and one of its citizens — can provide them with the still sought-after American dream, and the other partner’s expectations of how an immigrant arriving in the country should behave. And in between all those hopes and wants they have for each other, resentment grows, destroying whatever chance they ever had to make a relationship work.
The show constructs an egregious kind of power play between two people: The Americans seem to expect perfect gratitude and near subservience from their foreign partners in return for financing their move or other expenses, creating a vortex of financial and emotional debt. The immigrants, on the other hand, often have unrealistic ideas about living in the US. Whether it’s because of what they think the US is like — prosperous, plentiful, and comfortable — or whatever shameless lies their fiancé has told them about their financial or living situation, they end up feeling burned.
The most recent season of 90 Day, which ends this Sunday, focuses on six train wreck couples. In addition to the truly dark situation of Colt and Larissa, which was pretty bleak even before the latest postshow updates, there’s 31-year-old Ashley, a woman with perpetual sad dog eyes, who’s on her way to marrying Jay, a 20-year-old from Jamaica who relishes in the fact that his father’s nickname is “Pussy Skinz,” which is a reference to how much vaginal skin he comes in contact with (PARDON ME??). Then there’s Jonathan, a 32-year-old adult-ass man who whispers the word “boobies” when explaining he financed his 19-year-old Mexican fiancé Fernanda’s new implants. (Based on his own timeline, he may have started courting her when she was underage, but this goes uninterrogated by the show’s producers.) There’s Kalani, 29, engaged to 23-year-old Asuelu, whom she met while on vacation in Samoa — he was the activities host at a resort she was staying at. At one point, Asuelu says condoms are for “slut people,” which explains why Kalani loses her virginity to him and instantly gets pregnant. (He later continues to refuse to use them, which results in Kalani getting pregnant for a second time, and that’s all you need to know about them.)
There’s Eric, a 40-year-old divorced father of three and military veteran who eerily states in the first episode that he was either going to find a wife through a personal ad on an international matchmaking site or go fight ISIS. He’s engaged to 29-year-old Leida, an Indonesian woman who inexplicably left her posh life behind to live with Eric in a trash-strewn two-bedroom apartment in Baraboo, Wisconsin (the town now famous for the teens who took a prom picture doing the Nazi salute). And finally, there’s Steven and Olga, two dysfunctional 20-year-old cuties who met one carefree summer and got pregnant. Their beautiful relationship is marred only by the fact that Olga lives in Russia, and Steven, jealous of how much attention Olga gives their newborn, is intent on perhaps kidnapping him and bringing him back to the US without his mother. (Their big reveal is that Steven delayed applying for her K-1 visa, essentially stranding her in Russia, though he has acquiesced to not take their still-breastfeeding newborn to the other side of the world without her.)
This Sunday is the final reunion episode for these couples, and some of them are — incredibly — still together, though they’re still struggling with the very issues that plagued them from the first episode: financial troubles, emotional blackmail, crippling loneliness for the immigrants, impossible expectations for the Americans, and continued attempts to erase the full history of whoever their partner was before they became tied to each other through intricate immigration paperwork.
If 90 Day Fiancé doesn’t speak to love, then maybe it speaks to the continued pull of the American dream. The show suggests that immigrants should be thankful to be permitted inside a country with no universal health care, a shrunken middle class, and a surprisingly high infant mortality rate. The K-1 visa makes it impossible for newcomers to work, so they either need to have significant independent wealth to survive, or effectively become a dependent that their new partner has to support. There are a few newcomers who seem less than enthusiastic about moving to a brand-new country — Fernanda is still very young and clearly misses her mother terribly — but overwhelmingly, throughout the show’s many seasons, the immigrants seem to buy into the idea that the United States is still a country where opportunity is plentiful, and they’ll have more chances to thrive than they would at home.
That appears to be true even for those with perfectly livable — and sometimes downright luxurious — circumstances. Leida is rich in Indonesia, and seemingly at least part of the reason she wants to be in the US is because she’d like to go to medical school. Olga seems rightfully suspicious of Steven, but still wants to come to America to give her and her son a better life. That hope is still so potent that it drives the entire show, even if the reality has soured. Maybe this is why the show is so intoxicating for an American audience — it’s holding a No. 1 spot for Sunday cable — almost as if it’s saying, “See? You still have cultural dominance. Trump may be holding the country hostage, but everyone else still thinks you’re #1! Here, have a hot dog.” An even less charitable version would suggest we like the show because we get to watch immigrants squirm through a punishing, near-impossible visa process that forces them to pay massive emotional fees on top of all the literal fees they owe.
Imagine their shock when they show up and realize that being in the US doesn’t guarantee any sort of prosperity, or any kind of quality of life at all. The disappointment on their faces is palpable the moment they see their partners on American soil. Larissa is disappointed to discover that Colt doesn’t buy her flowers at the airport because they’re a waste of money (fair), and he balks at getting a car with working air conditioning even though they live in the fucking desert (come on). Her disappointment is even more severe when she discovers that Coltie, as she calls him, lives with his mother in a modest house in the suburbs of Las Vegas, nowhere near the strip. Meanwhile, Leida is horrified, out loud, to find that Eric lives in a very small apartment with his messy adult daughter, and that they have no maids and no treasure trove of disposable income for their impending wedding.
Though Ashley and Jay do eventually get married, they initially have to call off their dream wedding in a barn after their wedding page is bombarded with violently racist posts — which Ashley helpfully reads out loud to him. Unfortunately, mere days after their shotgun Vegas wedding, Ashley catches Jay Tindering and FaceTiming with another woman, which is terrible because it’s terrible, but also because Ashley has spent the entire show talking about how she’s called off two engagements because of cheating and how she trusts Jay, even as cheating rumors swirl around the wedding planning. When Ashley finds out, Jay seems much more preoccupied with the possibility of being deported than with anything she’s feeling — and, honestly, with good reason.
In normal relationships, when you fight or when you teeter on the brink of breaking up, you normally just hash it out, call each other names you’ll never be able to take back, grind whatever was good about the relationship down until it resembles nothing more than a husk of what initially brought you together. In 90 Day Fiancé, however, the American half of the couple (or more often than not, their terrible, terrible families) threaten deportation, annulment, or accuse their brother’s/daughter’s/parent’s new partner of committing fraud rather than coming over for “the right reasons.”
In every coupling, the show looks for a way to position one person as the rube — and it’s usually the American, foolishly falling for a venomous abuser who’s trying to creep their way into a country through emotional fraud. And it may be true that Jay is unfaithful, that Leida is selfish, that Larissa is rude, that Fernanda is immature. But painting them that way suggests that the people they’re in relationships with bear no responsibility at all, and that these monsters from foreign lands just showed up and figured out a way to live in their homes for eternity. There are exceptions to that rule, of course — namely Steven, a young man so evil that even the show’s editing couldn’t make him out to look merely stupid. It’s unclear if Larissa or Colt is the abuser in their relationship, but it is clear that Larissa is afraid of her husband, completely dependent on him because of the K-1 visa rules, and at a complete disadvantage.
No couple from 90 Day Fiancé, except maybe Russ and Paola from Season 1, who just had a baby, has had much of a success story. Even couples from The Bachelor tend to do better. The failure rate could be because of the significant age differences between most of the couples, or the complicated cultural differences, or the language barriers (Jay, it is revealed in part one of the reunion, does not actually know what the word “monogamous” means, which explains a lot), or the arbitrary and short 90-day period that forces them to make a life-changing decision. What kind of relationship could withstand the dual pressures of having to be the good immigrant, thankful for being “allowed” in a country, and the pressure of having to provide a lifelong dream for someone else when you, yourself, are barely living it?
Maybe the couples in 90 Day Fiancé are simply being more honest about what they expect from a partner. Maybe living the life you’ve always coveted in another country in exchange for playing the good wife (or husband) is a fair trade. But that kind of honesty rarely leads to smooth sailing — which is exactly how the producers, and presumably viewers, like it.
I’m skeptical that anyone watches reality shows like this for the hope or the promise of something better for the people involved — I think most people find it fun to watch conflict play out in excruciating detail. And for 90 Day to be fun, you really have to squint and try your hardest to ignore the ugly parts, which as each season progresses, become more and more of the show. Eric becomes all but estranged from his daughters when he picks his new wife over them, time and time again. They in turn say she doesn’t belong in this country anyway. Ashley’s friend tells her that Jay is cheating on her, which turns out to be true, but Ashley still calls her a cunt on national television. Colt and Larissa become isolated from the other couples on the show, from their families, their friends, and eventually, each other.
Reality television is too old, as a genre, for participants to pretend they didn’t know what they were signing up for — at best a modicum of stardom, at worst, abject public humiliation. But 90 Day is so rooted in real-world consequences and the real lives of these people that it often feels too tender to touch. The politics of immigration and class and race and gender are so present in every episode, you sometimes have to watch through the cracks of your eyelids.
It’s fine to enjoy reality programming for what it often is — a display of people’s worst instincts, in the name of attempting to become famous. But the stakes on this particular show are far greater than when Vanderpump Rules’ Stassi slaps Kristen across the face for sleeping with her boyfriend, or when Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice fights with her sister-in-law over loyalty. Those shows, and shows like them, are usually fluffed with fake drama, producers gassing it up for ratings and fights. 90 Day Fiancé, initially, was so enticing because it didn’t seem to be manufactured in the same way; these were real people living real lives and making real choices. But the level of desperation here has, maybe, become too raw. The thing that made the show so fun to watch at first is the same thing that makes it such an inhumane drag: getting just a little too close to reality. ●