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Reality TV used to be about getting famous. 90 Day Fiancé is about the American dream.

The sprawling TLC franchise changed the game in reality TV.

A couple embraces and looks at the camera, against a colorful backdrop.
Jorge and Anfisa, from the fourth season of 90 Day Fiancé.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

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, participate in a Twitch watch party, and read Ray-Harris’s monograph on the subject, all collected on the True/False website.

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.

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.

A young man and a middle-aged woman stand in a garden.
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 Universe. At this point, they’ve got 11 spinoffs.

It’s so much to absorb! But the concept of the whole franchise is also really simple. It’s different from some reality shows I’ve seen — Real Housewives, The Apprentice, that sort of thing. One thing that struck me while I watched 90 Day Fiancé was how much it felt like a documentary. If you told me the show was just a documentary about people who are going through this specific visa process, rather than a “reality show,” I completely would have believed you.

I think some of that comes from the filmmaking. But some of it also comes from what it expects us to feel as we watch it.

That is the thing that shocks people the most. When people first hear about 90 Day Fiancé, they’re like, “Okay, is it some sort of competition? Is it some sort of thing where people have to fall in love in 90 days?”

That’s what I thought at first.

Then you start watching and you realize that these are people who already loved each other and would be doing this without the show. They aren’t making their decisions because they want to be on a TV show — most of them, anyhow. In the later seasons, with some of them, you’re definitely like, “Okay, this person just wanted to be on TV.”

There’s always a moment on a long-running reality show when you can feel the show becoming self-aware, because the people on the show now were watching the show before they were cast.

Yes. But with the 90 Day Fiancé universe, because the show kind of peeks in at different moments [in couples’ lives], that doesn’t really happen. You see them go through the visa process, and then you might not see that couple again until three years later, when they’re on 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After. That gives it a more natural feeling — “I’m checking in on this family that I like, and they got married, and now they have three kids.”

That kind of self-awareness can really go wrong. An example is the Teen Mom franchise. [Teen Mom is a spinoff from MTV’s 16 and Pregnant; both launched in 2009. Teen Mom now has four spinoffs of its own.] When the franchise first started, it was about 16-year-old girls who were going through stuff they’d never been through before. It was messy, and it was about their lives.

But by the fifth season of Teen Mom, they’re girls who grew up watching reality TV and who understand how to manipulate the producers just as much as they’ve been manipulated. On top of that, their children, who grew up on camera since they were on 16 And Pregnant, understand being on camera. You see these kids talking to the producers like they’re family members. The show becomes so much more staged. They understand how they should act on camera versus off camera. They start to understand their double consciousness.

With 90 Day Fiancé, the producers are very good about allowing the people on the show to have boundaries in their lives. A lot of the people on the show do get into legal trouble or have personal issues. But the show is very clear that that’s not what it’s about; it’s about exploring the K1 visa process. It’s about exploring the idea and promise of the American dream, and what we make of it.

That’s why it’s so good at showing that the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a show that says, “Yeah, people think America is great. And then they get here and they realize, Oh, now I live in Kentucky and we don’t have clean water. What is this place? We can’t even afford an apartment!” It’s unflinching and doesn’t really try to paint a better picture. I give it a lot of credit for that.

I think that’s why it does feel so much like a documentary, and why it has influenced documentary makers. In some ways, it elevates the genre of reality TV. If America is a melting pot, 90 Day Fiancé is when it reaches its boiling point, where you see it all come together. They somehow managed to find a way to spin that off into 11 different versions of that stew, and they all taste great.

When I watch the more Bravo-style reality shows, I know that when I’m watching, they don’t really want you to empathize with anyone. At best there’s a character you might root for. But 90 Day Fiancé definitely feels like it’s attempting to help you understand all the characters, to feel what it’s like to be them in this position.

Yes. In the end, it’s a show about people who want love — who in some cases desperately want love — which puts people in this really vulnerable position. And somehow the producers and makers of the show find a way to treat it with such empathy and sympathy. You want these people to find the love they want. When they’re with people who you know they shouldn’t be with, you’re not like, “Oh, this is gonna be good drama.” Instead, you’re just like, “No girl, you deserve better. Don’t date him. Don’t marry him. You should have someone else.”

It’s never a facetious thing, even when it’s like [90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days season two’s] Angela and Michael — and I mean, those two have so many issues. Angela is a white woman from Georgia. Michael is her Nigerian lover. I think they’re probably one of the most famous examples from the show of how twisted American exceptionalism can be.

Michael proudly says, “I’m a Trump supporter! I want to go to America.” Angela is like, “He’s my Nigerian king. How can I be racist when I have him?” If I just was reading about them, I would be like, “What is happening here? What is this?”

And then when you watch their story, and you see Michael does love her. They have real issues — she’s too old to have a child, they’re not sure if they’ll be able to surrogate. It’s way more empathetic than if it was just this Black guy who clearly has some internalized issues with racism and is trying to just get a visa. It’s about so much more.

It’s about how he is going to carry on his legacy and honor his family when he knows he really does love this American woman. It just warms your heart, even though on paper, you’d be like, “Oh, my God, this is terrible, it’s exploitative, and these people shouldn’t be together.” But then when you watch it, you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, no, Michael really does just want to help Angela take care of her horde of grandkids. That is his dream.”

A white woman and a Black man smile.
Angela and Michael, who first appear in 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days, season two.

Several people in the documentary world have told me that reality TV — particularly early shows like The Real World — taught people how to watch documentaries.

I really think that that is true. There’s a phenomenon going on recently: We are seeing fewer documentary movies and more four- and five-part documentary series. And in some cases it’s warranted. When it’s something like The Vow and Seduced, series that get into deep topics, people don’t just want to sit down for an hour and a half. With episodes, people feel as though they’re getting more information, they’re getting more in-depth, they’re getting a whole episode about this person’s background story versus just the first 10 minutes of a film.

And I think that mirrors how people watch reality TV shows. I never was a big fan of The Real Housewives and other shows like that because there’s no longevity. You don’t need to know what happened the previous season to care about what is happening in these people’s lives, because really, it has nothing to do with their real lives. Whereas with 90 Day Fiancé, you have to know what happened in their lives before the show to see how they got there. You grow with them.

I think we’ve seen that mirrored in the documentary space, where people realize you can allow more space for empathy. There’s a template people expect for documentary movies — this is what this is about, and by this point, I should have this type of closure. When it’s more open-ended, you don’t get forced into that box. With series like Murder on Middle Beach, Heaven’s Gate, and Love Fraud, they focus on empathy for the victims. They get into the villain, but without making it the villain’s story.

And viewers have gotten more used to that because we’ve seen reality documentary series on TV change. Shows like Hoarders and Intervention have also grown. I’ve been obsessed with Hoarders since it first came on the air. People would be like, “How can you watch that show? It’s so exploitative. You know, they’re just making fun of these people with horrible homes.” But now they show you every step of the process: bringing in the family, the psychiatrists, the aftercare help that they get.

Viewers have become more focused on whether what they’re watching is ethical. Is what I’m watching fair? Is what I’m watching giving me two sides of a story, or is it just trying to get me to root for a plot, or some sort of overall villain or story? I think reality TV has had a huge impact on that.

And I love where we are in the documentary age. I am constantly just seeing new things I’m excited about. I kind of wish we could go back and redo some of my favorite documentaries as four-part series, because you just get so much more.

Okay, so: Tell me how this True/False program about 90 Day Fiancé came together.

I’ve been such a fan of this festival and their programming for a long time. When my friend Amir [George, one of the festival’s programmers], first hit me up, he was like, “Ashley, we want to do something really different this year.”

And I was like, “First of all, what do you want from me? Because I’m a TV person.” He said they wanted to look at the current surge of reality TV and how it’s changed over the last four years because of Trump, and the ways reality TV is starting to mirror documentary filmmaking. That was something that I had also seen.

So I thought we could do an in-depth look at reality TV, and specifically 90 Day Fiancé. At how we’ve seen that exploration of exploitation influence not just reality TV, but also docuseries and true crime, with more people saying, “Let’s focus on victims’ stories. Let’s focus on the untold stories rather than focusing on the murderer or the serial killer or the victor.”

Two men stand and smile at the camera.
Kenneth and Armando, the franchise’s first gay male couple, who appeared on 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way.

So for people who might watch the program, since it’s online, what will they experience?

We’ll be exploring how 90 Day Fiancé has not only changed in the time it’s been on TV, but how it’s impacted the culture of documentary making, as well as the current reality TV landscape. How it became a ratings juggernaut, a powerful thing that could set the tone for the reality TV landscape.

And we’ll look at why it’s doing that in a positive way that gives us more reality, more capability, more empathy, than previous generations of reality TV like the Kardashian era — or as I like to call it, the “fake it till you make it” era. Everyone knew Donald Trump had been bankrupt, but The Apprentice made some people believe, “No, he’s a legit businessman, he knows business.” That’s not true. The Kardashians weren’t actually a conglomerate family that’s done all these things — but now it is true, because they faked it until they made it.

We can’t really do that anymore with reality TV. People don’t want to see the fake. So we’re going to be exploring that transition and how it happened under Trump and how the show reacted to it.

We’re also going to dig into some of the most pivotal moments in 90 Day Fiancé, for people who’ve never watched the show and for people who are fans. Characters like Paul and Karine, who really define why the show is so good — Paul, confessing that he was an arsonist and running into the woods. Angela and Michael, and how they have to explore interracial dynamics, how someone can move from Nigeria to the American South and not realize racism still exists in America; Michael literally had no idea until he had to talk to Americans.

We’ll also look at Kenneth and Armando, the show’s first gay male couple. They’re on 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, a spinoff that shows Americans moving to other countries [to be with their partner]. That’s a pivot for the show, saying this isn’t only about American exceptionalism. This is about how people love, what people are afraid of and love, how people change, how people grow.

We’ll look at the moments on the show that hit on something important, special things that I think changed the landscape and made other reality shows go, “That’s what we need. That’s how you pull people in nowadays.” The glitz and glamour of seeing people on private jets, it’s gone.

A full guide to participating in Ray-Harris’s Neither/Nor program is available on the True/False website. It will take place May 5-9, 2021.

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