Tania and Syngin were fighting. It was mid-June and sultry, with the afternoon temperature snaking toward 80 degrees. They hadn’t slept much the night before — blame work, blame sex — and now, in the front seats of a lumbering Chevy Suburban, having already missed a couple of turnoffs along a New York highway, they began to argue about the future. Did Syngin have a plan? Could Tania stop yelling?
“Are you just too young for me?” she seethed.
A third voice broke in, a man’s: “We should save this for when the GoPros are running. Otherwise we’re going to miss all the good stuff.”
America — American women between the ages of 25 and 54 in particular — will meet Tania and Syngin in November, when the seventh season of “90 Day Fiancé” begins. A flagship show for the TLC network and a social media miracle, the show and its endless spinoffs pull in water-cooler-worthy ratings. Lady Gaga and Mindy Kaling are fans. The “Vanderpump Rules” gang holds watch parties.
“90 Day Fiancé,” which premiered in 2014, follows couples as they navigate the K-1 visa process, in which an American citizen petitions for a foreign beneficiary to enter the United States. Once that beneficiary touches down, the couple has 90 days to marry. Otherwise, the foreign national must leave.
Unlike most reality shows, which rely on artificial constructs or manufactured theatrics, the stakes here — marriage or potential deportation — are inherent and existentially huge. It’s a social experiment show, like “Love Island” or “Survivor.” But these couples run the experiment on themselves.
The appeal, according to TLC producers, lies in the way the show fuses cultural difference and romance. “We’re always looking for love stories to tell,” Alon Orstein, a senior vice president at TLC, said at a rooftop party at an upscale New York hotel to kick off what the network calls the “Summer of Love.”
But if TLC promotes the show as a love story, fans take it in as a cringe comedy and a true-crime drama and a catastrophe that keeps on giving. Spend a little time on social media and you will see people debating, often via GIF, who or what is more deceitful, the show’s participants or the show itself. The semi-grammatical header on the Reddit board: “come to learn about the K1 visa process, stay to be frauded by TLC.”
From what I observed, visiting the production offices and shadowing a field crew, “90 Day Fiancé” isn’t any more misleading than your average reality series. It doesn’t manufacture events, as in the “Real Housewives” franchise, or create artificial contests, as in “The Bachelor.” Its stars mostly lack glamour, wealth, a discernible skill set. They can’t sing, they can’t dance, they can’t bake.
So how to explain the fascination? Think of “90 Day Fiancé” as the right show for a wrong time, a guilty pleasure that invites viewers to offload their confusion, mistrust and guilt around immigration onto the sometimes shirtless backs of a few messy foreign nationals and the Americans who debatably love them.
IMMIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES, as currently practiced, depends on narrative. If you are not from one of the 30-odd countries that receive visa waivers and you want to come here, legally, you will have to tell a story about what you do or whom you love or what you are running from. And you will have to make some judge or consular official or case officer believe it.
The “90 Day Fiancé” franchise depends on narrative, too. Every season, TLC and Sharp Entertainment, the show’s producers, select six or seven couples who have already applied for a K-1 and then tell their stories. Those stories need to keep fans watching past the commercial break, so episodes — each a commercial-heavy, lavishly underscored, two-hour event — emphasize conflict, some of it funny, like disagreements over wedding venues, some of it not, like accusations of cheating and allegations of domestic abuse. That’s “the good stuff.”
That formula has created a hit for TLC, where it is often the top-rated ad-supported cable show in its time slot, especially among women 25-54, a demographic coveted by advertisers. Unlike “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or competition shows, “90 Day Fiancé” is an anti-fantasy, with a cast it is impossible to envy. Sitting on your couch, posting the occasional meme, it is easy to believe that you would never be so stupid, so deluded, so dishonest. It is easy to believe that a green card is something the rest of the world desires.
“90 Day Fiancé” has plenty of success stories, but commenters gravitate toward the messier couples. So does the network, casting them in spinoff series, like “90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?”; the web exclusive “90 Day Fiancé: What Now?”; and “90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk,” in which stars from past seasons loll in bed while watching current seasons. Put it this way: During the second season of “90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After?” a brawl broke out at a family dinner. That scuffle earned its participants their own spinoff, “The Family Chantel,” which premiered in July to strong ratings. (All told, the original series has spawned six spinoffs — five cable, one digital — giving the network fresh programming for its franchise nearly year-round.)
On Twitter, on the Reddit forums (particularly the uncensored one), even on the show’s own Facebook site, fans portray the foreign partners as scammers and gold diggers. (The Americans? Dupes and sex tourists.) Some Redditors take it upon themselves to investigate the foreign partners, delving into online histories, which looks a lot like nativism.
A K-1 Visa, according to Lenni B. Benson, a professor at New York Law School and an expert on immigration, is popularly associated with marriage fraud. “It is not true in the majority of cases,” she wrote in an email.
Each year, 30,000 to 40,000 people apply for the visa and the vast majority are approved. The application process can take six to eight months, longer under the current administration, and costs around $2,000. A couple has to stay married for two years before conditions on the foreign partner’s green card are removed, and the American petitioner has to support his or her partner until a work permit is approved. Which is to say that if a K-1 marriage is a scam, it’s an involved, expensive multiyear one.
Maybe the fans tweeting fraud memes are deeply attuned to other valences of American immigration. Maybe not. The series, according to its producers, is avowedly apolitical. But in emphasizing cultural difference, in editing for drama (a producer had shared a personal motto: “If someone’s gonna tweet about it, include it”), in celebrating conflict, “90 Day Fiancé” has its own politics.
To explore the difference between the stories that most potential immigrants want to tell — stories of compatibility and benefit — and the stories “90 Day Fiancé” tells — of incongruity and discord — I visited the production offices, sat in on casting sessions and then, last April, drove to Kennedy International Airport in a caravan of black Suburbans as Tania — plus producers, camera and sound operators, and assistants — prepared to meet Syngin and begin their 90 days.
TANIA IS AN AMERICAN CITIZEN. Syngin is from South Africa. They are both attractive, both charismatic, both 29, and neither has much more money than the other. They met at a Cape Town bar in 2017 — she was there with another guy, Syngin was the bartender — and spent eight months living and traveling together. In the shambolic, schadenfreude-baiting world of “90 Day Fiancé,” they looked like a best-case scenario.
They were, as Orstein would describe them at the rooftop party, “a love couple.” I asked him what the opposite of a love couple was: A drama couple? A comedy couple? A disaster couple? They are all love couples, he responded.
Tania had applied for the K-1 Visa a year ago, providing an affidavit of financial support. Syngin had undergone a thorough background check and submitted to a consular interview. They received approval at the beginning of April and Syngin booked a flight.
On the day of Syngin’s arrival, crew members crowded into a room at the Time New York Hotel, while Tania scattered rose petals on the bed, “like a scene from a movie,” she said, and created a “sex shrine” — condoms, lingerie, some toys the crew had already filmed her purchasing — on a chair in the corner. She dressed in the shower stall, concealing her mic pack under a body-con mini. Then she and two girlfriends left for the airport. In the arrivals hall, they scattered more petals (a custodian tried to sweep them up, a producer had the custodian sign a release form) and took photos and Jägermeister shots.
In the terminal, over wireless mics, the field crew could hear Syngin speaking excitedly to a producer. “It’s gonna be a banger right now when I see her,” he said. “Is this my cue?”
Tania had told me that she wouldn’t notice the cameras, that they wouldn’t change anything she said or did, and I wasn’t sure I believed her, but then Syngin was at the other end of the hall, calling, “My sugar! My sexy sugar!” and dropping his bags and cantering toward her like some roan stallion and she was laughing and sobbing and Terminal 2 filled with their pheromones as they kissed and clutched and I believed her absolutely.
Flushed, giggling, they went back for his unattended bags and exited through the main door. Outside Tania turned to a producer. “Do you want us to redo that?” she asked.
EVEN A LOVE COUPLE needs a story. “If everything was smooth sailing, and everything was happiness and perfect and there was no opposition, I don’t know if that would make for a powerful story,” Howard Lee, TLC’s president, said at the network’s Midtown Manhattan offices last October. In April — at the airport and afterward at the hotel, where the cameramen filmed Syngin chucking Tania onto a bed, twice, and in Times Square, where Tania unveiled a banner she had made for him — and during a second set visit two months later, I watched producers try to craft one.
During the casting process, Sharp Entertainment prepares a cheat sheet for every couple, detailing who they are and how they met, plus possible story lines and points of tension. One paragraph wondered how Syngin, the product of South Africa’s macho culture, would react to living in a shed — small and very purple — behind Tania’s mother’s house in a suburb of Groton, Conn., and following her rules. Another paragraph targeted his possessiveness. Tania has close relationships with her female friends and is in touch with an ex or two. How would that affect him? In April, as Tania prepared to leave for the airport to greet Syngin, producers drove that narrative, soliciting answers from Tania like, “I could never be with someone who doesn’t like my best friends.”
“That’s stuff we’re constantly looking out for, those relationship dynamics,” Joanne Azern, an executive producer, said, as we drove back from the airport. “But we’re never pushing things that don’t seem real.”
In fairness, I rarely saw the producers fake anything. Yet reality was often massaged — sometimes lightly, sometimes more deep-tissue — with leading questions and retakes.
By June, with Tania about to return from studying herbal medicine in Costa Rica, the dynamics had shifted. Syngin, it turned out, liked her best friends fine. The shed hadn’t been much of a problem, either. But Tania, quick and birdlike, with a high-pitched nervous laugh, and Syngin, blithe and unhurried, with a signature hair flip that will probably inspire drinking games, had different plans for their shared future. Well, Tania had plans; Syngin did not.
While Syngin tidied his hotel room, David Bresenham, a co-executive producer, gave me an update. Tania had said that she wanted a baby and a prenup. Syngin wasn’t sure about either. “It hasn’t been cats and dogs, life and death and stuff, but it’s definitely something,” he said
The producers fanned that something, encouraging Syngin to revisit a heated phone conversation. On the drive, after Tania had pulled into a parking lot and Syngin had loped off in search of tea and crew members had adjusted the fritzing GoPro batteries, the couple delivered. In the two following cars, the field crew listened, unembarrassed, as the fight grew increasingly heated. Finally the couple stopped speaking and I started wondering about potential hashtags.
Tania had been wondering the same. “I’m like, wow, I probably sound so crazy,” she said later, holding Syngin’s hand at an Italian restaurant with a maritime theme. The drive, which should have taken about two hours, had taken nearly five, and the crew had detoured for a meal before further shooting. “I just imagine what they’re going to pull,” she said.
From the first days of filming, with Syngin asking for his cue, with Tania checking in on retakes, they had been savvy about what the show would ask of them. In two months, they had grown even savvier, answering on-camera questions in complete sentences, preparing responses in advance, satisfying the producers as quickly as possible. They signed onto the show, Tania said, because they wanted to share their story. But they didn’t know how that story would be edited. They have dreams, Tania said, of living off the land, of practicing permaculture and natural medicine. “Will those parts show through or are we just going to look like a party couple?” she asked.
Like a lot of franchise participants, they had other reasons for signing on. Syngin makes necklaces — that day, he was wearing, for the camera, a banded jasper pendant. Tania makes soaps. Soon they will have tens of thousands of Instagram followers. “For me, it’s getting exposed,” he said, with an optimism and hustle that felt very American. Someone might even see the show and offer them a camper van or some land, he suggested. “Like, I put a lot of hope on that,” he said. “That’s kind of my end goal, what I want from the show.”
The couple living off the land — the obstacles, the livestock — sounded like surefire spinoff material.
“That’s what I say,” Tania said.
WHAT THIS STORY — party couple or permaculturalists — will mean in the larger conversation around immigration often worried Tania. The daughter of Venezuelan immigrants and a social justice advocate (she recently worked with Democracy Spring), she recognizes her own story — indeed any K-1 story — as a privileged one. “I know a lot of undocumented people who are like struggling for themselves and their families right now, literally fighting for their lives, fighting for their rights,” she said.
“It’s just a whole messed-up system,” she concluded.
A waiter took their plates away. They picked food out of one another’s teeth. They were a “love couple” again. But even a “love couple” can signify in troubling ways.
Just before they left for the shed, Tania spoke about a night, a month or so ago, when a field crew had filmed her at her bartending job. A patron, hearing her story, had described Syngin as a good immigrant, someone who wanted to come here and work hard. “And I’m like, all immigrants want to come here and work hard,” Tania recalled. “It’s just like, no, there’s no such thing as like a bad immigrant.”
Back in October, I asked Howard Lee, the TLC president, if the show, which began in the Obama administration, had changed in the last couple of years. “We don’t get into the politics of all of that in the series,” he said.
In July, after months of news stories about family separations and detention centers and inflammatory rhetoric, I asked him if the show ever would become political. If he and the producers truly believed that these were love stories and not instances of immigration fraud, shouldn’t they show that?
“The stories are what they are,” he said.
The subject of immigration has polarized Americans, on and off, for centuries. Now and as the 2020 elections near, it is polarizing us again. And the incredible popularity of “90 Day Fiancé” suggests that stories that signal immigration as a joke, as a crime, as a dubious privilege, are the stories that some Americans want to hear.
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