This was the year I fell in love with 90 Day Fiancé. There’s something so strangely soothing about stepping into this reality-TV hellhole for an hour or two every week, then turning it off. It was one of those imaginary Americas that stole my heart. Didn’t we all spend 2018 looking for imaginary Americas to believe in, then feel wildly betrayed by, then keep clinging to even as we fall messily out of love, knowing all along it’s a cynical fraud? That was our America in 2018, and nobody got to the core of it as brutally as 90 Day Fiancé. It’s more than just a perfect reality show — it’s also a bizarrely accurate state-of-the-union address.
You can’t really call this show a Dumpster fire, because those rarely go on for four years, while 90 Day Fiancé has been raging since 2014, and it’s already up to Season Six. TLC has built the reality-trash juggernaut into a Game of Thrones-size franchise, with a labyrinth of spin-offs like Before the 90 Days and Happily Ever After. Like anybody else who wanders into 90DF, I thought it would be so simple — a cheap laugh or two. I wasn’t planning to get involved. But then I found myself in over my head, with no escape. Getting hooked on 90DF is like falling for a stranger you found online, then leaving your homeland to meet your new soul mate, then the next thing you know, you’re stuck in Baraboo, Wisconsin, surrounded by hostile folks arguing in a language you barely understand, while planning your quickie wedding at the local Dunkin Donuts. Who among us, right?
The premise: It’s about couples with the K-1 visa, which allows a U.S. citizen to bring over a future spouse from another country. But once the fiancé acquires the visa and arrives in the U.S., the clock is ticking. The couple has 90 days to get married, or else the visa expires and the fiancé must go back to their home country, sadder but wiser. So there’s pressure on these lovebirds to get hitched fast, even though they usually barely know each other. The foreigners come from all over — Jamaica, Jakarta, Mexico, Russia. They rush through all the rituals of courtship, like meeting the family. There’s culture shock. Language barriers. And, needless to say, lots of screaming and crying — all while being followed around by a camera crew.
The show requires that the American partner believes, or at least semi-believes, the foreign spouse might sincerely fall in love with them. You may well ask, who could be capable of such delusional self-deception? Rest assured: TLC has no problem finding these people. These are couples who met abroad, often during a vacation, or online. There’s always family drama, because the in-laws can be surprisingly judgy when you announce you’re marrying a total stranger. The foreigners get a crash course in American life, whether that means Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, or Lumberton, North Carolina. They grew up watching glamorous depictions of America on TV, so they’re confused. It doesn’t look like they imagined. As one bride said this season, “It’s not my American dream. My expectation was like a movie.”
This season’s stars include Larissa, a Brazilian loudmouth who makes the perfectly sane decision to move to Las Vegas and marry a computer programmer named Colt. At 33, Colt still lives with his mom Debbie and their three cats: Baby Girl, Sugar and everybody’s favorite, Cookie Dough. Larissa hates the cats — and that’s the least of her problems. Colt and his mom have a very special bond; as he says, “A man’s first best friend would be his mother.” But as soon as Larissa moves in, there’s trouble. She yells at Colt constantly, even when they’re shopping for wedding cake. “You don’t care about cake!” she sobs. “You don’t care about anything. You act like an attention whore!” On a show like 90DF, that might be a redundant accusation.
There’s Eric, an extremely sweaty forty-something divorced dad and former Marine who suffers through a midlife crisis (“I was thinking about going out to Syria or Turkey to fight ISIS”) until he finds true love online — meet Leida, a former runner-up in the Miss Indonesia pageant. This season’s most romantic couple: Kalani is a nice Mormon girl from Orange County who went on a vacation to Samoa, met Aseulu in the tiny fishing village where he’s spent his whole life, got pregnant, then went home to tell her family the happy news. Asuelu, who is very glad to be here, greets Kalani at LAX by ripping off his shirt, kicking off his shoes, and doing a semi-naked traditional Samoan love dance in the middle of the airport.
Everybody is here because they have their eyes on the prize: The Americans want love, sex and romance, while the outsiders want the green card. And of course, they all want to be famous on TV. The age-old Bachelor conceit of “the right reasons” never shows up on 90 Day Fiancé, so the pressure’s off in that department. There are no innocent bystanders here. As viewers, we go into this show knowing it’s a mercenary scam, just like they do. These people are grifters out to use each other — they volunteered for this con because they figured they were smart enough to out-think the game. Yet that turns out to be exactly what makes them all authentic Americans.
Because it’s 2018, the question of who gets to be American and who doesn’t is more politicized than ever. Up in North Carolina, when Mexican teenager Fernanda goes out to dinner with her meathead fiancé Jonathan and his friends, the conversation turns to immigration. They explain to Fernanda how immigrants take jobs and commit crimes. They also describe why they’re delighted with the current president and his speeches about building a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The families often don’t bother to hide their racism and xenophobia. In this season’s most infamous moment, one bride explains in a voice-over why her father disapproves of her chosen partner: “My dad didn’t want us to struggle the way he did, so he wanted us with white guys.” (She claims she didn’t say it, insisting the producers edited several of her comments together.) The America that hates and fears the outside world — it’s right there in the open on 90 Day Fiancé, because in 2018 there’s no way to avoid it.
90DF might be a heartless and sleazed-out portrait of the country, but that’s what makes it feel like an honest one, and that’s why it got me. No matter where they were born, everybody in the cast is here because, on some level, they’re in love with their own personal American dream. They signed up for this experiment, this imaginary republic, knowing the risks and dangers. But they find themselves stranded in an alien dystopia they don’t recognize, so far from their hopes, they can barely remember what their hopes looked like. These days, we all know how that feels.