The 2020 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, the Hollywood Reporter’s Inkoo Kang, and Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff.
My brilliant friends,
Please do not watch 90 Day Fiancé. It is what DARE taught our older-millennial cohort drugs would be: Once you get a taste, you’ll be in its sudden, unyielding grasp forever. Do not risk getting hooked, not even once. Just say no.
I’ve actually been telling myself lately I need to stop watching TLC’s colossal hydra franchise, but I fear I’ll never escape. That’s because the show gives me something I can’t get anywhere else: a hard, unstinting look at American decline, often accompanied by delusions of national grandeur. If you’re curious why this long-in-the-tooth reality series got even bigger in 2020, well, there’s at least part of your answer.
The 90 Day Fiancé production team is made up of evil geniuses with a knack for finding losers so desperate for a comparative advantage in the dating marketplace they’re willing to flaunt their citizenship to foreigners who want their own chance at the American dream. (The 90 days in the show’s title is the deadline set by the K-1 visa, which gives applicants three months after arriving in the U.S. to marry their American fiancé … or not.) 90 Day is certainly guilty of adding its own xenophobic spin to The Bachelor’s tropes (did they come to America for “the right reasons”?). But it’s also an example of how reality TV often offers scenarios and characterizations that you generally can’t find in scripted series, on which the stakes and characters feel increasingly homogenous no matter how racially, tonally, and narratively diverse TV gets. (My go-to example for this is Run, which started out as a spiky romance about two college sweethearts reuniting in the throes of a mutual midlife crisis and turned into a pointless murder mystery.) Likewise, the formulas for fiction demand that the kinds of ne’er-do-well protagonists you’d see on 90 Day—like 60-year-old computer programmer David, who has proudly sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to women on Ukrainian chat sites and audibly moans when he finally elicits a hug from his 27-year-old target Lana after tracking her down in Kyiv—be lovable or redeeming in some way. On 90 Day, they’re just creeps.
I’ve often thought about how my own family’s immigration to the U.S. might play a role in my perverse enjoyment of this rancid rat’s nest of a series. I’m on the 90 Day Reddit page a lot (too much), and it seems like there’s a fair number of immigrants and second-generation Americans like me who can’t turn away from the show. It sounds so mean and ungenerous to admit how my lizard brain lights up when the foreigners arrive in the U.S. and realize that instead of the blingy McMansion they’d been taught to expect from exported American pop culture, they’ll be moving into a dingy two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of Kentucky or Florida. But I think that disconnection between what America is supposed to be and what America is has been one of the constants of my family’s experiences, as well as the cold reality that greets the newcomers that my parents befriend every year at their church. It’s a twisted kind of representation for a phenomenon that’s been a backdrop of my entire life, but it’s all I’ve got for the moment.
Big, jarring, previously unthinkable life changes are also the stuff My Brilliant Friend is made of. I’m an absolute sucker for stories about which possibilities are available to girls and young women, when they’re contingent and to whom, and how they can dramatically fork the roads between sisters, neighbors, and friends. (And, if I’m being honest, how comparisons between different lifestyles lead to insecurity and judgment.) Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is totally my jam, and I’m a bit surprised by its absence from the Top 10 lists I’ve seen here and there, given that the entire season got very close to sensual, intellectual, emotional perfection.
Season 2 was a big step up from its predecessor, which I only enjoyed intermittently. It begins on the night of 17-year-old Lila’s marriage to the affluent Stefano, with the headstrong, resourceful teen convinced that she could outwit her way out of traditional patriarchal oppression. Pulled from school after the fifth grade or so (the show takes place in postwar Naples), Lila is determined to use her marriage to lift her family from poverty and her own standing in town, which quickly leads to resentment from her neighbors. Lila had chosen Stefano because he seemed weak-willed and easy to control, but she didn’t anticipate how often men make up for fragile egos with pummeling fists. The more she rebels, the more inhibitions Stefano sheds about violently putting his wife in her place.
While Lila is on her way to realize that her intelligence won’t save her, her childhood friend Elena goes on to academic success and romantic experiments in high school and college. Elena experiences subtler kinds of misogyny at the hands of “civilized” men who’d blanch at Stefano’s casual abuse, but she’s also encouraged to thrive in ways that are becoming rapidly out of reach for her once-prodigy friend. And in her new situation, Lila’s unflagging fearlessness—which got her thrown out of a second-story window as a young child by her father—feels increasingly like a suicide weapon.
I fear I’ve made the show sound like a sociological tragedy, which it absolutely is, but it’s also told so well. The scenes between Lila and Stefano are horror-suspenseful, but also astoundingly emotionally complex. The rapid modernization that Naples and the rest of Italy undergo are accompanied by meticulous production design, and if the show doesn’t make you yearn to visit the isle of Ischia on your first post-vaccine vacation, I’m not even sure you’re human. Composer Max Richter’s musical motifs—already so haunting on their own—keep bringing us back to who Lila and Elena used to be, and how their pasts bear on their present. There’s a sweep to how terrifyingly fast the consequences of Lila and Elena’s decisions arrive, as well as to the political and social currents that transport Elena to new heights, but never seem to reach Lila. And that creates an understandable bitterness in Lila against the friend whose life she could’ve had, and could never have had. (For one, Lila is too much her own person—and too much a slave to her whimsies—for the kind of patient, disciplined emulation that garners Elena her scholarly accolades.) My Brilliant Friend maximizes the passage of time and the expanse of history at least as well as The Crown, with sadly a fraction of the acclaim.
I meant to finally dive into Mrs. America in this post, but I guess I’ll pass the hot potato on to Emily. Is there a reason why we’ve all been so reluctant to sing the praises of the series, which might be the only show to appear on all four of our Top 10 lists (if Emily were to make one)?
Speaking of Top 10 lists, here’s mine, at last.
My Brilliant Friend
I May Destroy You
The Good Lord Bird
What We Do in the Shadows
On the Record (which is a “movie” and not a “TV show,” but can we please stop having this debate for our collective sanity’s sake, especially since maybe a few hundred people got the chance to see it in a theatrical venue before it landed on HBO Max?)
Dreaming of Amalfi,
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