Television

A Reality Dating Show’s Visit to Ukraine Tests the Limits of the Form

The empathy for their wartime struggles makes you wonder: where was it before?

A woman holds a baby among people carrying signs calling for peace in Ukraine
90 Day Diaries: Ukraine. TLC

Like every reality show about dating and marriage, 90 Day Fiancé feeds on interpersonal conflict. Screaming fights and bouts of tears are frequent occurrences. But the show—about American citizens and the foreigners they plan to marry—thrives because its underlying stakes are higher than who wins the prize or most successfully burnishes their personal brand. Because of its focus on international long-distance relationships, geopolitics inevitably intrudes on the familiar tension of will-they-or-won’t-they romance. Recent seasons have confronted the increased difficulty of immigration under the Trump administration, as well as couples’ long periods of separation due to COVID. But while the show has always maintained a tricky balance of trashy fun with moments of empathy, it faces its biggest challenge in addressing the war in Ukraine, where many of its potential brides have hailed from.

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The 90 Day shows are a hit because you can see what you want to see in them. Context, editing, even zoom-ins on facial expressions can confirm suspicions that the foreigners are only “in it” for a green card. At the same time, they can evoke profound sympathy for them as they try to communicate with American partners who run the gamut from clueless and entitled to creepy and domineering. When confronting this devastating war, the show’s empathetic instincts really stand out, as do the weakness and cynicism of its desire to please all audiences.

90 Day Diaries: Ukraine, a one-off special that aired last week on TLC, follows three Ukrainian women who have previously appeared on the show or one of its spinoffs. Characters who have already won over the audience or proved their star power have space to show aspects of their lives beyond their romantic relationships. Yara, who, like many of the franchise’s Ukrainian women, was originally depicted as a bossy princess, gets involved in relief aid and activism. Yara won the audience over with frank speaking and her refusal to tolerate her husband Jovi’s drinking and partying. She was also delightfully unimpressed with much of America (like the regular smell of vomit on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street) and talked of eventually returning to Ukraine to raise her daughter, Mylah. In 90 Day Diaries: Ukraine, Yara is raising her daughter with her husband in New Orleans (far from Bourbon Street). She was about to receive her green card and be able to travel home when the war broke out.

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Because of 90 Day’s dual logic, love of one’s home country is often a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a kind of “proof” that the foreigner is not looking to marry an American just as an easy way to come to the States. On the other, dwelling too much on America’s problems can be parsed as a sign of ingratitude. But the war makes Yara’s patriotism, and even her bluntness, indisputably admirable. The footage of her in 90 Day Diaries: Ukraine has an almost beatific feel. She looks a bit like a Madonna as she holds Mylah in her lap, fastening yellow and blue ribbons to her hair on the way to a peace rally. Mylah toddles around as Yara packs baby blankets into aid packages, sewing little Ukrainian flags onto each one. When, in her talking head interviews, Yara speaks forcefully of her hometown pride for Kyiv and her desire to return and make it “better than ever,” it emphasizes that patriotism and activism are not incompatible within the prescribed roles the show has already created for her.

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With some of its other stories, the show has to backtrack a bit more. The war makes personality quirks that were once presented as laughable seem more justified. Natalie (a seasoned 90 Day veteran) is undeniably great television: high-strung, with big, expressive blue eyes and emotive gestures. This all made for dark comedy in 90 Day’s depiction of the grim breakdown of her relationship with an uncommunicative lump named Mike. But now, her melodramatic tendencies seem proportionate to the horrors of the war, and are played more sympathetically. In 90 Day Diaries: Ukraine, Natalie is separated from Mike and living in Miami. Where her previous appearances seemed edited to amp up her histrionics, the special tracks her trauma in long scenes that the show serves uncharacteristically straight. Natalie’s grief has caused her to isolate, and she has a long talk with the one person who can understand: her Polish friend, Jolanta. Natalie is grateful to Poland for welcoming Ukrainian refugees, and the two women share fears that Putin could invade Poland next. The most heartbreaking scene in the special is Natalie’s video call with her mother, who left Kyiv to stay with friends in Poland. It reveals the strange dynamics of exile; Natalie sobs while her mother tries to reassure her that she is OK. “Forgive me, Mommy,” Natalie cries, feeling guilty for having left her mother alone in Ukraine. It’s a forceful example of a message that the shows usually indicate more subtly: Their decision to leave home is often a wrenching and painful one.

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The special’s dual logic, however, becomes untenable as it follows Maria, still currently in Ukraine. On Before the 90 Days, Maria had an American boyfriend, Cesar, who regularly sent her money. She begged off meeting him in person; Cesar finally arranged for them to meet on a trip to Mexico, and Maria never showed up. Viewers were not even sure that Maria was real until the reunion, where she showed up via video link, coolly unrepentant. When pressed about how much money Cesar gave her, she uttered one of the series’s most famous lines: “I am not accountant.” Maria’s story was so infamous that it inspired a Saturday Night Live sketch.

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The 90 Day franchise loves a redemption story, but this is a bridge too far. It can’t neatly square that depiction of an unabashed gold digger with present-day Maria, stuck alone in an apartment in Kyiv. So the special glosses over the past: Title cards elliptically explain that Maria was dating Cesar and “ended the relationship” two years later. The special quickly moves on to harrowing footage from the streets of Kyiv, and a look at the narrow and terrifying scope of Maria’s life. She pads around alone in her tiny apartment; the only social contact she has is stoic phone calls with friends, where they swap tales of hearing explosions. The camera follows Maria, who’s running out of food, as she risks a nighttime trip to the market. She cuts the trip short once she sees rocket fire in the sky. The shaky, handheld footage cuts out abruptly, and we see text messages between Maria and the crew as Kyiv is under lockdown. “Please stay safe. We are all thinking about you,” the producers respond. It’s a blatant but odd little mea culpa for Maria’s previous portrayal, and perhaps permission for regular viewers of the franchise to view Maria with more depth.

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While 90 Day Diaries: Ukraine allows the franchise to expand on its most empathetic instincts, it can’t stray too far from the tried-and-true formula. A clueless American is de rigueur, a role filled by a Before the 90 Days alumnus, an eccentric millionaire (and camera-loving buffoon) who calls Ukraine his “second home”—apparently because he’s spent years traveling there in search of girlfriends. Yara’s, Natalie’s, and Maria’s stories are intercut with scenes where David, 63, prepares to volunteer as a foreign fighter in Ukraine, preening in his bulletproof vest and showing off at a shooting range. True, the American is the butt of the joke here, but his egotistical antics still pull focus from the women’s stories. Apart from a brief cameo by Yara’s husband, no other American speaks or acts in defense of Ukraine, making David’s presence tough to parse. Is this a particularly dark jab at Americans’ view of the world, or just reality TV reaching the limits of its own complexity?

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Portrayals of women in the 90 Day universe, however compelling they may be, are generally confined to the familiar roles of wife and mother. (Because foreign spouses need to wait for work permits, it’s rare to see them at a job.) 90 Day Diaries: Ukraine allows us to see these three women as international citizens and activists—ones whose social media profiles, boosted by their previous appearances, have allowed them to raise funds for charities and foster public awareness for a fan base not necessarily up-to-date on the details of the war. The franchise’s exploitative and reductive elements don’t exactly disappear, but the result is surprisingly moving, and something that might even make a difference.

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