Lately, the students of the reality television arts and sciences have been clamoring all about TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days. I can totally understand why: The show, which ends its second season on Sunday night, is an amazing and shockingly modern concept and features the sort of people who crave attention and shun self-reflection. You know, the types born for making a reality show that is absolutely perfect to shout at while relaxing on the couch with a soft cheese and a nice glass of white wine. There’s only one problem, though: Before the 90 Days also sucks.
This isn’t a “so bad it’s good” sort of scenario, where we’re laughing at the show itself. Instead, the show is great despite itself. An offshoot of 90 Day Fiancé, where people travel from foreign countries on a 90-day visa to see if they want to marry an American, Before the 90 Days works in reverse. Here, the Americans leave the States to meet someone they matched with on the internet for the first time. After spending a bit of time with this person in their home country, the American then might propose (or get proposed to) and decide to take that person back home for an extended stay.
The stakes are very high, of course, because there is such a high potential for catfishery. The worst case is someone not even showing up at the airport to meet their love traveler, or a trickster who is just pretending to be in love for a fast track to American citizenship. As you might expect, these potential paramours are often younger, more attractive, and eager for a chance to move to the States. Which is why, even when things are going well, you can’t help but wonder, “Hmm, Michael seems to be using Angela to get out of Nigeria … but he has no idea just how bad her hometown in Georgia really is … and wow, this is all a really bad idea.” The best outcome on Before the 90 Days is almost always still a total disaster and that is what makes it so compelling to watch.
Any great reality show comes down to casting, and there are some humdingers on Before the 90 Days. Returning from the first season are Jesse, a 20-something from Amsterdam with anger and control issues, and Darcy, a 40-year-old Bratz doll who wouldn’t get enough outside approval if she paid someone to sit next to her all day and tell her, “You’re beautiful and I love you.” From the start of their courtship, Jesse and Darcy didn’t even seem like they liked each other, let alone loved each other. He’s always trying to control her and tell her not to drink — even though she does so sparingly by reality television standards — and she’s always trying to get him to say that he loves her, that she’s beautiful, and that he wants a life with her in Middletown, Connecticut.
This pair is as volatile as three sticks of dynamite. Jesse can’t even cut a steak for dinner without the two of them exploding. They get in so many fights that when the producers leave them and come back in the morning, they have to fill them in about another fight that happened when the cameras weren’t even on. By the end of season two they have finally broken up, but watching their toxic cycle of need and abuse is utterly fascinating.
Also returning are Paul, a convicted arsonist from Louisville who travels with a hunk of his mother’s hair so he won’t forget her, and Karine, a woman from an extremely poor part of Brazil who it seems only wants to take selfies, spend Paul’s money, and ignore him. It doesn’t help that he speaks hardly a lick of Portuguese and she speaks just as little English. They spend most of their time using translation apps as we sit by waiting for the computer to do the hard work of stitching together their conversation. It’s more exhausting than having a Speak-and-Say narrate Moby Dick.
These are very real people in incredible relationships and that is what makes them so utterly compelling to watch. So, why does TLC make the show so tedious? Every plot point is explained multiple times each episode, and all of that repetition makes binging Before the 90 Days impossible. Did you know that Rachel’s boyfriend Jon — a British zaddy who’s hotter than all of the members of New Direction combined — can’t get a visa to visit the U.S. because he has a conviction for fighting? I know you do, because it is mentioned at least three times every episode. Yes, fans might forget things from one week to the next, but not that much.
Maybe all of the repetition is because each episode is needlessly long. I get that TLC wants to stretch out their hits, but Before the 90 Days doesn’t need to be two hours long every week. That’s like trying to turn an Ariana Grande bop into an opera or an SNL sketch into an entire movie. (Sorry, Wayne’s World.) Make this thing an hour, just give us the gems, and save all the exposition for the “tell all” episode that nobody wants to watch anyway.
The situations are also seriously over-produced. Before Tarik can go to the Philippines to meet his girlfriend Hazel, he has to sit around in America with his friends so they can list all the possible outcomes and possibilities of what might happen. Can’t we figure that out for ourselves? We all know the dangers and complications — that is the whole appeal of the show. Even worse is when the show manufactures drama out of talking-head interviews and spliced-together footage. When Paul waits for 20 minutes for Karine to get to the altar, for example, we hear all about how he thinks she might not show up at all — but they always show up in the end. It always turns out alright, even though this show repeatedly amps up the tension before revealing what happened is what exactly would happen all along.
Above all, the problem with Before the 90 Days is that it treats its viewers like idiots. The show doesn’t think that we can figure out what the problems are going to be in these relationships, that we can remember what those problems are, or that we can discern where the drama is coming from. No one wants to watch that. We just want to see the spectacular pile-ups of disastrous, international, internet-based romance! It’s the difference between telling a good joke and telling a joke, explaining why it’s funny, asking if we think it’s funny, and then telling us we don’t know what the punchline is and then saying, “Just foolin’, you know exactly what the punch line is.” TLC has one of the best jokes going on television. Just let us sit back and laugh instead of ruining it by repeating, “Get it? Get it? Get it?”