Since its debut in 2014, TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé franchise has launched five spinoffs and aired 17 seasons of television. Those jaw-dropping numbers attest to the massive popularity of this underexamined reality Hydra (as soon as one season wraps up, another seems to take its place), as well as to its slippery but provocative notions of immigration and romance. Most seasons follow several couples, one partner American, the other not, as they contemplate marriage. In the original series, each couple has three months—the length of a K-1 visa, which is reserved for foreign nationals engaged to Americans—to decide whether or not to wed. In some cases, the couple, having gotten to know each other online, meet for the first time on camera. In most cases, the foreigners are cast as gold diggers, often younger than the Americans and seen photographed in various states of undress.
That xenophobic suspense, combined with the stark power imbalance between the generally wealthier Americans and the poorer foreigners, can sometimes make 90 Day Fiancé a nauseating watch. In the most recent season, a new father named Steven flirts with the idea of kidnapping his weeks-old baby, leaving the mother stuck in Russia without the visa that would allow her access to her infant. But there’s one variation within the franchise that renders it the guilty-but-not-grimy pleasure it should be, where American biases are frequently turned back on their holders and First Worlders are made to question whether love—or some version of it—really is worth the loss of the enormous privileges they’ve always taken for granted.
Heavily formulaic, 90 Day Fiancé tends to categorize its Americans into broad types: goony, sometimes openly misogynistic men of all ages who essentially want a mail-order bride; older women who want a hot young thing too, and who may or may not be going through a midlife crisis; and the foolhardy men and women who hope to turn a vacation fling into a lifetime commitment, not infrequently because of an unplanned pregnancy. The series only ever tiptoes around its primary mystery, which has fueled my dawn-to-dusk binges: What kind of person seeks marriage with a virtual stranger in a different country, one whom in some cases they can only communicate with via a translation app?
BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul has argued that the show illustrates the severity of the K-1 visa process, which turns adults into dependents and gives couples who may well be meeting for the first time a pressure cooker of a timeline to decide whether to get married. Koul also believes that the built-in stakes of the show are too high to enjoy without shame, especially when accusations, if not evidence, of physical abuse are involved, as they were in the most recent season of the original series. But spinoffs like 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days and 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, which mostly trail Americans who visit or move to other countries to be with their would-be spouses, are relatively muck-free oases. There’s something inherently depressing about watching someone on 90 Day Fiancé being forced to act as a desirable mate lest they be ejected from the country. (By law and circumstance, the foreigners are generally isolated, without friends, family, or a job to provide them with support or a sense of purpose outside the relationship.) But Before the 90 Days and The Other Way focus on Americans willingly hurling themselves into culture clashes—and often getting sunk by their own cluelessness or greed—and that makes for prime-grade trash television.
The 90 Day Fiancé empire tends to take the side of its American “characters,” but like many successful reality shows, it’s adept at accommodating multiple perspectives. Some viewers might regard all the foreigners with suspicion, and Before the 90 Days and The Other Way certainly aren’t exempt from fostering xenophobic distrust. But we’re also more likely to meet the foreigners’ friends and relatives in these versions, which go a long way toward humanizing them. Meanwhile, the mix of raw loneliness, tech-assisted delusion, and stubborn entitlement that leads so many male participants into relationships with frequently younger and far more conventionally attractive women tends to transform their stories into satisfying tales of just deserts. Many of the American men on the show freely admit that they looked abroad for a wife because they were more likely to land a “10”—and one with “family values” to boot (seemingly the show’s code for a woman who won’t demand equal treatment). Franchise fixture Paul, who has appeared on Before the 90 Days and The Other Way after falling for Brazilian Karine (12 years his junior), is a textbook example of a man who sought to mitigate his failings as a partner with his First World advantages. An ex-con with an arson rap who once had a restraining order taken out against him by an ex (he had one against her too), Paul is much easier to accept as a hapless American overwhelmed by his move to Karine’s rural Amazonian hometown, hilariously paranoid about parasitic fish swimming up his urethra, than he would have been as a frequently unreasonable mama’s boy whom pregnant Karine would’ve had to keep happy in Kentucky.
The storylines involving older American women moving abroad—like The Other Way’s 60-year-old India-bound Jenny or 51-year-old Qatar-bound Laura, both of whom fall for 30ish guys—tend to be sadder and more interesting. Implicit in their journeys is the perceived lack of sexual viability that older women face in their native cultures—but abroad, their blond hair, blue eyes, light skin, and American nationality seem to override the ageism that might otherwise work against them. But the prospect of being desirable seems to overwhelm their ability to prepare for the much more restrictive cultures they consider settling in. Without work or even an internet connection, Jenny is cooped up in a small apartment with little to do, and when she leaves the house at night in an apparently unsafe neighborhood to video-chat with her adult daughters in an internet café, her horrified boyfriend Sumit repeatedly asks her where she got the courage to do so. Laura married the handsome Aladin, a personal trainer, nine days after meeting him in the flesh (they had an existing relationship online), apparently so they wouldn’t risk the legal ramifications of premarital sex, which is illegal in Qatar. But Aladin won’t accept that his sexual technique could use improvement, and when Laura brings over a sex toy from the U.S. to enhance her pleasure during their lovemaking, he takes offense and sulks for the rest of the night.
The spinoffs inevitably reinforce some viewers’ preconceptions about other countries’ “backwardness.” But there’s also something gratifying, too, about watching sheltered Americans bite off more than they can chew, and seeing the ones hoping to exploit the international exchange rate for attractiveness take offense when the person on the other side decides they want a fair shake too. Even if some storylines seem borrowed from The Bachelor and other dating reality shows—ensuring that a potential partner is there for the “right reasons,” asking a father for permission to propose, always eyeing an engagement or marriage as the goal—the storylines also take their cues from the idiosyncrasies of their participants. Before the 90 Days and The Other Way may not be immune from the franchise’s exploitative elements, but they also deliver on two irresistible promises: adventure and comeuppance.