The opening moments of 90 Day Fiancé’s eighth season, which premiered Sunday evening, are a brain-melting series of smash cuts, shock reveals, and, some might argue, assaults to more refined viewing senses. Audiences are introduced to Brandon, a 27-year-old farmer who lives with his parents and never really had a girlfriend growing up. After a few atmospheric cutaway shots showing Brandon tending to sheep in rural Virginia, Brandon’s unlikely love interest appears: Julia, a brunette go-go dancer from metropolitan Russia. After a slick montage of Julia sliding down a stripper pole, gyrating in a bra, and posing in a thong, Brandon solemnly explains, “I fell in love immediately.”
In a flashback, we learn that Brandon decided to propose to Julia after five months of dating and only one in-person meeting—which, in the 90 Day-verse, feels like a reasonable courtship. And now that Julia has been granted her K-1 visa, the couple has 90 days, once Julia lands, to marry, or else Julia will have to return to Russia.
As if that time constraint is not intimidating enough, Julia will also have to acclimate to life on a farm in a foreign country with her fiancé’s controlling mother who, at the start of the episode, questions Julia’s motives, and by the end of the episode, will call a doctor to inquire about getting Julia on birth control. Brandon and Julia are just one of seven couples that the roller-coaster eighth season follows.
At a time when most television audiences have seemingly jumped the linear-programming ship in favor of the deep, bingeable-content seas of streaming services, 90 Day Fiancé’s numbers continue to grow. Since the series was introduced in 2014, TLC has spun the show off into over 10 franchise legs—and in the process, has become the year’s leading cable channel for women, as well as the top television destination on Sunday and Monday nights for adults this summer. This year alone, according to TLC, viewers have consumed a staggering 73 billion minutes of 90 Day and its children. This week, the network announced its new streaming service, Discovery+, will contain four additional spin-offs and more than 200 total hours of bingeable 90 Day content when it debuts January 4—the closest TLC can get to injecting its tried-and-true variety of “vérité” into viewers’ veins.
The genius of the series, created by Matt Sharp, is that beneath its slick editing are real-life couples who were already struggling to obtain K-1 visas when his production team found them. While reality series like The Bachelor or The Real Housewives ply their stars with wine and manipulate social setups to breed petty drama, 90 Day’s couples were living out their highest-stakes romantic lives before being cast on the show. By the time TLC turns on its cameras, the couples are usually emotionally drained by the parameters of their long-distance relationships, financially drained by expensive K-1 paperwork, and, in some cases, worn down by critical friends and family members. No priming for drama is necessary.
“These people aren’t just doing this for a television show,” Sharp told Vanity Fair. “This is their life. They put it on the line for this other person, and this is very real to them.”
This season’s returning cast member Tarik Meyers explained that, when he was first cast on the series with his partner Hazel Cagalitan, he had been through such a grueling “gauntlet” that he didn’t have the energy to put on a show for the cameras.
“When you have two different embassies breathing down your neck, basically going over your life with a fine-tooth comb, and then the camera crew gets there, it’s like, ‘Oh, you again?’” said Meyers.
The 90 Day team said that primarily, they’re looking for cast members who can be totally transparent about their journey.
“We’re really looking for people to open up and be comfortable letting us in,” said Sharp, explaining that his producers aim for each confessional-style interview to feel like “you’re sitting on the end of the bed with your best friend, and that best friend is really opening up and telling you what the deal is with their relationship.”
Added TLC president Howard Lee, “A really good cast member can articulate their thoughts powerfully, quickly, directly—and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. They do not hold back. They want to process everything that’s on their mind.”
Meyers—a rapper and single father who describes himself as “a cross between Carlton Banks from the Fresh Prince and Ice Cube”—said that he definitely fits that archetype.
“With me, what you see is what you get,” said Meyers. “I just let people see it, good or bad.”
Meyers said that he found the process of appearing on the show “therapeutic.” Until seeing the series, he didn’t know of anyone else who flew overseas to date: “I thought I was like a unicorn.” When he heard about the series, he said, “I was like, ‘Really, they’ve got a show about crazy people like me?’” Meyers laughed. “I started watching it and I was like, ‘Wow…I didn’t know we had a home.’”
Brutal, unguarded honesty is critical to the messiness quotient of the series as well. “We’re not looking to tell a puppies and rainbows story,” confirmed Sharp, “and we’re not looking to tell something that’s entirely negative. We’re just looking to tell an honest story.”
Interestingly enough, criminal backgrounds are not enough to disqualify a candidate, as long as that criminal background is neither violent nor boring. “Many times we embrace that as part of our storytelling,” said Sharp of the franchise, which has cast people charged with second-degree arson, theft and forgery, and felony possession of marijuana. “We know everyone has a past, and not everyone is proud of everything they’ve done in the past. Sometimes that enriches their story.”
These backgrounds have bred dramatic moments—like when one American cast member confessed his arson history to his Brazilian fiancée via a translation app. “You need to know that I’m a convicted criminal. I’ve been in jail,” Paul wrote on his phone, as an app robotically dictated this hard truth in Portuguese. Later, he told cameras, “I was accused of burning my own house, burning my own personal property, and spent about 18 months in jail…. And then a few years ago, I was in a very terrible relationship and she took out an emergency protection order on me.” Later in the season, Paul had to explain his criminal background to his fiancée’s father via a translator.
But there are myriad other struggles endured onscreen by cast members, including financial problems, religious and cultural differences, conflicts with disproving family members, long-standing lies that are uncovered, incriminating personal histories that need to be overcome, and the harsh realities of settling in after the honeymoon phase wears off. The series shows cast members who not only struggle like the people at home watching them, but who very much look like them too.
“If you look at something like Bravo or a Bachelor, Bachelorette, those are attractive singles looking for love—but they seem to be on it for a television show,” said Sharp. “We’re really looking to tell the stories of regular people finding love.”
Given the number of 90 Day spin-offs, Sharp’s production team is essentially always casting—and constantly searching for couples whose stories are new and different. (Though it must be said that an American boy falling for a Russian go-go dancer is nothing new—see season three, when another Russian go-go dancer moved in with her 22-year-old fiancé and his strict Mormon family.)
Meyers, who appeared previously on the franchise in Before the 90 Days, said that the eighth season of 90 Days will capture him and his fiancée Hazel as they navigate new terrain for the franchise.
“Hazel is bisexual and she felt like that she wanted to let everybody know that this time,” said Meyers. In the new season, Meyers helps Hazel find a girlfriend to bring into their relationship. Said Meyers, “People are really going to be shocked, I think, just to see how that plays out.”
While Sharp would not reveal any specific plot twists of the new season, which he described as “our most riveting yet,” he shared, “there’s some shocking infidelity with one of our couples that we have never seen before.”
There are generally two kinds of couples in the 90 Day verse, explained Sharp.
First: “You want couples where viewers say, ‘Wow, they really make sense,’” he said. Those are couples in which both members are “basically the same age, they’re cute together, and clearly in love.”
Then there’s the opposite: couples who seem so dissimilar, so wildly wrong for each other, that they are going to cause “a lot of people on Twitter to scream at their televisions that [the pairing] doesn’t make sense.” Said Sharp, “They might look at these couples and say, ‘This is never going to work.’ But what’s amazing is that a lot of times these couples do work. I think that’s why people at home love playing along with the show.”
Lee told Vanity Fair that a watershed moment for him came when he received footage from the show’s second season, and saw how one of these ill-suited-seeming couples—Danielle and Mohamed—made for captivating television.
“They basically couldn’t seem more separate or more different from each other culturally. She was from Ohio. He was Muslim and from Tunisia. Personally, they seemed incongruous…the family members on both sides were questioning, ‘Why are they in love, what do they want out of this?’” said Lee. “When he finally came over to America and met her children…I don’t think America was what he thought it was going to be. I don’t think he realized what her household was going to look like. I think that foreigners have a very different and unique vision of what America means—then they come over here and it’s often a wake-up call for them. But you have to watch it to see how it ends up. That, for me, was one revelatory moment in the 90 Day franchise when things began to change.”
As Sharp is casting couples, he’s also casting the friends and family members of said couple. In the franchise’s history, confrontations between concerned friends and family members and the 90 Day couples have bred some of the series’ most cringeworthy moments. Relatives, friends, and, in some astonishing cases, former spouses go on camera to frankly share their fears about the pairings, aware that the 90 Day cast members’ relationship is being fast-tracked—which doesn’t leave time to sugarcoat anything.
There have been awkward bachelorette parties where the mother of the groom decides that this is the moment to confront her future daughter-in-law about her intentions; awkward lunches where concerned friends needle their lovestruck friend into admitting that she has been withholding critical details from her fiancé; awkward meetings between ex-spouses and future spouses, with both parties trying to stake their ground; and sad cutaways where the child of a cast member sagely explains what their lovestruck parent cannot seem to see.
“The couples are often deeply, deeply in love,” said Lee. “The tension normally begins when they don’t understand why everybody around them does not understand that love.”
Judging by the reactions on social media and Reddit, a large swathe of viewers watch the series cynically. But Meyers is hopeful that the couples featured will also help viewers understand nontraditional love stories like his own. It might help for viewers to remember how many real resources the couples have invested in their relationships before being cast on the series.
“It’s easy to point the finger and say, ‘Oh, that guy and that woman is crazy. She’s 60 years old and he’s 30 years old,’” said Meyers. But in his mind, undergoing those sorts of hurdles strengthens even the most unlikely couple. “Going through the K-1 visa puts you in a pressure cooker…and I think it actually makes relationships like mine stronger than if you just met someone at the Walmart down the street.”
When viewers tune in Sunday, Meyers said he hopes they see that “overall, people are the same all over the world. My relationship with Hazel and the ups and downs we go through are no different than what Jim and Jenny go through in Washington, D.C. So whether you’re from India, the Philippines, the Ukraine, South Africa, Australia—everybody wants love. I know that sounds cliché and corny. But we just go to longer lengths to find it.”
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