There’s no form of trash content I enjoy more than one that provides me with a full body cringe’s worth of secondhand embarrassment. Unfortunately, spending years in pursuit of the perfect cringe video online had left me desensitized; you can only watch so many clips of a kid bombing at a talent show before you get bored. But once I began watching TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé and its various spinoffs, I found that I was again able to experience visceral secondhand embarrassment at the hands of complete strangers.
Because the show airs on a network that almost exclusively creates programming about little people, big Christian families, and BeDazzled wedding dresses, it’s easy to dismiss it as run-of-the-mill TLC trash. But 90 Day Fiancé is so much more. Following the lives of Americans who have fallen in love with foreigners, the show centers around the K-1 visa process, which allows Americans to bring their fiancé or fiancée to the country for 90 days. If they don’t get married before the 90 days are up, their partners are sent back to their country of origin. This rush-against-the-clock element, combined with the fact that many of the couples have barely spent any time together in real life, guarantees a level of drama no Real Housewife could even dream of.
Most of these people meet online using various international “dating” websites and have never seen each other in person (though some do meet on holiday, while working abroad, or in other seedy circumstances, like “at a resort”). The most cringeworthy moments arrive when we get to watch the cultural barriers and subsequent shock the couples are bound to face. There’s a reason why the vast majority of the non-American halves hail from non-Western countries: You get to see what happens when the whitest, most American person you can imagine falls in love with someone who barely speaks English.
Despite near-constant red flags throughout the getting-to-know-each-other process, every single couple on the show underestimates just how difficult it will be to overcome the cultural barriers. In multiple scenes throughout the seasons we see their families dole out practical advice like, “I think this person you have never met is using you for a green card” or “You literally have no idea who this person is,” but nobody ever listens.
This, of course, is the foundation of the drama on which the show is built. In the second season, we are introduced to American Danielle (41) and Mohamed (26), who’s from Tunisia. From the beginning, it is clear to everyone but them that things will not work out. Upon first landing in the bustling metropolis of Norwalk, Ohio, the kindest thing Mohamed can muster is that Danielle looks “acceptable” for him.
As one of the longest-running story lines in the show’s five seasons, this couple provides the highest level of secondhand embarrassment. Throughout the seasons, we see it become increasingly difficult for Mohamed to conceal his disgust for Danielle, who in turn dangles her power of getting him deported at every moment. Eventually, they go through with the marriage, but because it’s during the month of Ramadan, Mohamed refuses to kiss Danielle at their wedding. (I’m Muslim and this is not actually a thing, but it is a very good lie because it’s not like anyone from Norwalk, Ohio, would ever know.) During a tell-all episode, in a moment that is burned into my brain forever, Mohamed reveals that he refuses to get intimate with Danielle because of her smell; he also claims that she screamed “I want my sex tonight” in front of her children while once again threatening to get him kicked out of America.
Oftentimes, the non-American half of the couple speaks broken English, and in some cases they speak no English at all. In Before the 90 Days, which follows couples before they are engaged, Paul (34) and Karine (21) from the Amazon speak no common language but instead communicate through a translation app that they pass back and forth on Paul’s phone. Paul is a weirdo with beady serial-killer eyes and a lengthy criminal record. Anyone who speaks English would automatically know this dude’s a freak, but it takes a while for poor Karine to understand exactly what’s going on.
You see it really hit her when Paul refuses to swim in the Amazon River without first wearing a condom and water-resistant pants so nothing “swims up his penis” (something he mimes to her but she does not fully understand). In a later episode, he chickens out on telling her about his criminal record and instead runs away into a marsh? And then Karine gets robbed by a guy with a machete?? (I told you this show was good!)
As with most reality TV, it’s difficult to enjoy the show without thinking about how sinister it is on a deeper level. While it’s obvious producers have manipulated conversations and arguments, these are real people, many of whom are simply looking for human connection and a better life. Most couples are comprised of at least one person from a developing nation, with the power clearly resting in the hands of the American in the couple. Some couples feature much older white American men and younger women from poor families who cannot provide for them. You can sense the desperation on both ends, and if I think about it too much, I get sad. Yes, this show is terrible for society and probably damages the reputation of the K-1 visa process, but in this upsetting time I’ll take my thrills where I can get them.