Reality TV used to be about getting famous. 90 Day Fiancé is about the American dream.
Jorge and Anfisa, from the fourth season of 90 Day Fiancé. | TLCThe sprawling TLC franchise changed the game in reality TV. When you stop to think about it, reality TV and documentaries are cousins, if not siblings. The family resemblance may seem unlikely, but it’s there. Both documentaries and reality shows use the raw material of “real life,” then selectively edit and craft a narrative that’s funny or thrilling or dramatic, with characters, stakes, and something to tell us about ourselves. You might even say that documentary walked so that reality TV could fly — or vice versa?
That link is something that writer, critic, and comedian Ashley Ray-Harris has been thinking about a lot. A connoisseur of reality TV of all kinds, she writes for outlets like Vulture and the AV Club — including a lot about the TLC show 90 Day Fiancé — as well as her own newsletter. And her weekly podcast TV, I Say with Ashley Ray is a wide-ranging exploration of the medium, often with fun special guests. (When it was time to talk 90 Day Fiancé, she chatted with Seth Rogen and Roxane Gay.)
So it makes sense that Ray-Harris was asked by the True/False Film Festival — one of the premier all-documentary festivals in the US — to curate this year’s “Neither/Nor” section, an exploration of the margins of documentary. The program will be available for free online from May 5 through May 9 and will focus on shifts in reality TV and how its “constructed reality” functioned during the Trump era. Viewers can watch episodes of 90 Day Fiancé and read Ray-Harris’s writing on the subject, all collected on the True/False website beginning May 5.
I am a longtime True/False fan and someone who thinks about nonfiction filmmaking a lot. So I was fascinated when I heard about this year’s program, especially because I’ve only dipped my toes into reality TV. So I watched a few episodes of 90 Day Fiancé (which bucked my expectations, in a good way) and then called Ray-Harris to talk about why she loves the reality empire 90 Day Fiancé has spawned, the way Donald Trump changed reality TV, the relationship between reality TV and documentary filmmaking, and more.
You’ve watched a lot of reality TV and docuseries. Why do you think 90 Day Fiancé is so important?
90 Day Fiancé is one of the most pivotal reality shows. From when it debuted in 2014 to now, you actively get to see it react to the culture. You see it react to ICE and immigration under Trump; that impacts and changes the show. It became so popular — to the point where you get all of these spinoffs [of which there are now nearly a dozen] — because people recognized it as not being a product of the early 2000s Trump/Kardashian reality machine, which is losing steam.
When it comes to the reality shows like The Apprentice, the shows that made people like Trump — this idea that you could have someone pick you up and lift you out of poverty and make it as a reality star — I think today we see that reality as false. You can get famous being on Instagram, being on TikTok, being on Twitter, but the idea that you can even go on reality TV to get famous nowadays feels so false. The cast and crew of 90 Day Fiancé — sure, people know them and follow their lives outside of the show. But they wouldn’t call themselves celebrities. We don’t see them as the type of celebrity that you saw created with shows like Laguna Beach.
“Viewers have become more focused on whether what they’re watching is ethical”
That’s created this really interesting conundrum for producers. With some reality shows, things like My 600-Pound Life, Intervention, Hoarders — there’s always been the question of how exploitative they are. How much are we using these people? This isn’t manufactured like Real Housewives of whatever; this is people’s real lives.
In the early days of 90 Day Fiancé, like in season two, there’s some fairly exploitative TV. There are moments when you’re like, “Someone please help this 19-year-old girl who is about to marry a 50-year-old, please!” Or with [90 Day Fiancé couple] Danielle and Mohammed, where it’s so clearly a manipulative, abusive relationship on both ends.
Mohamed and Danielle, whose engagement plays out in season two of 90 Day Fiancé.
But 90 Day Fiancé is one of the rare shows that, when called out, has said, “Okay, yeah.” You shouldn’t call ICE on these people who are coming here for love. We’ll paint the American as the villain, rather than always siding with the American, or always siding with whoever American society might say is the hero for falling in line with the American dream.
I had not watched 90 Day Fiancé at all until recently, but when I dipped into it I discovered that it’s not just a show, it’s like an entire universe.
A whole universe! I wrote a guide on how to watch it. On Discovery+, there’s a 90 Day Fiancé “channel,” where you can just hop in and follow one couple if you want. You can just watch all of the 90 Day: The Single Life spinoffs. They call it their own Marvel U
May 4, 2021 - VOX
Jorge and Anfisa, from the fourth season of 90 Day Fiancé. | TLCThe sprawling TLC franchise changed the game in reality TV. When you stop to think about it, reality TV and documentaries are cousins, if not siblings. The family resemblance may seem unlikely, but it’s there. Both documentaries and reality shows use the raw material of “real life,” then selectively edit and craft a narrative that’s funny or thrilling or dramatic, with characters, stakes, and something to tell us about ourselves. You..