"I Can't Believe They're Together" -- Why You Can’t Stop Watching Ridiculously Bad Relationships on TV

Rose Bak

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90-Day Fiancé Publicity photo by TLC

Recently I was having dinner with some friends and we started talking about TV shows. The conversation turned to those “guilty pleasure” shows — you know, the shows that are so bad or so trashy that we are embarrassed to admit that we watch them.

I think we all have at least one show that we think we should not like to watch, but we do anyway.

I personally don’t watch much TV. We don’t have cable and unless I’m in a hotel, or in the mood to watch something on Netflix or Hulu, I mostly keep the TV off. Sometimes I will go months without watching TV.

Every once in a while though, I get into a “brain candy mood” or I am staying in a hotel that has cable and I decide to indulge. I just lean back on the couch, put my feet up, and lose myself in a few hours of mindless TV.

Often I like to revisit old favorites like the Golden Girls, MASH, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or My Name is Earl.

But sometimes, only trashy TV will do, and I find myself watching 90 Day Fiancé or Dance Moms or Toddlers and Tiaras or Parking Wars. I know, it’s totally embarrassing to admit that I watch these.

These are terrible shows. Yet I love them all.

An ode to 90 Day Fiancé

Hands down, my favorite trashy show is 90 Day Fiancé. If you haven’t seen this, it’s a show that started on the cable channel TLC. The show follows a group of couples who are all navigating the K-1 visa process in order for one of them to get residency in the United States.

The K-1 visa, also known as the “ Fiancé visa”, is a long and arduous process that can take a year or more to obtain. Once the visa is issued, a foreign national is allowed to come to visit their boyfriend/girlfriend for a period of ninety days. During that time the couple decides to either get married before the ninety days is up or send the person back to their home country.

This show has been around for eight seasons now and has spawned an incredible 16 current and future spin-off shows from “Before the 90 Days” to “90 Days the Other Way” to “90 Days Pillow Talk.” Most of the spin-offs feature couples before or after they are on the original show.

The thing I love about 90 Day Fiancé is the way it often turns the narrative about people who are coming to America “just to get a green card.”

As you watch the show you realize that many, if not most, of these Americans are no prize. There’s a reason they’ve turned to international dating. Many of the Americans are controlling, racist, xenophobic, and just low class. They bring people over and can’t understand why they might have a mind of their own or want to bring in elements of their own culture to the home. There’s a lot of fighting and tears.

Many of the couples feature middle-aged men who seem to have selected their future mate based on their age and where they think the most passive women would come from. There’s a lot of young women from the Philippines, Thailand, and Eastern European countries.

The show glosses over the power dynamics of a person holding another person’s residency hostage, but it does hover beneath the surface. It also only gives a nod to the fact that some of the people attempting to immigrate are leaving extreme poverty and looking for a better life, even if they’re going to be stuck with some idiot who criticizes their hygiene or freaks out when they rearrange a bookshelf.

Most of the time I feel sorry for the immigrant fiancé who has the choice to be stuck with a total jerk or go home to less than ideal situations.

Sometimes it goes the other way. There will be a fat, frumpy, middle-aged woman who convinces herself that the hot young stud from Africa or the Bahamas is really in love with them when it’s painfully obvious that the guy is just passing time until he can escape and date someone his own age.

Why we love trashy TV

At that same dinner where I confessed a secret love of 90 Day Fiancé, someone at the table said, “I can’t believe you watch that.” I asked what that person liked as a guilty pleasure and they said The Bachelor. I had the same thought: “I can’t believe people watch that.”

Trashy TV tastes are definitely subjective. But what is it about these shows that draw us in?

Maybe it’s because they are so bad that they’re good. Maybe it’s because we look at the train wreck situations on TV and feel better about ourselves. Maybe we just want to lose ourselves in the fantasy world and enjoy something ridiculous and mindless. For me, and most people I suspect, TV can be a bit of an escape from the real world.

We can all use a bit of escapism right now.

Those rare times when I watch TV I make it a rule to never watch anything serious. I carefully avoid anything that is violent. I don’t really enjoy a show like CSI or Breaking Bad, they’re far too heavy for me.

I like my escape time to make me laugh, whether it’s because Sofia hit the wall (the wall of Wendy’s) while walking her 5k, watching Earl figure out how to “get in good with karma” or watching Buffy save the world from apocalypse — again.

And I’m sorry to say that I often laugh when watching something trashy like 90 Day Fiancé. It’s a nice release for me to see how messed up other people are, and the ridiculous situations they get themselves into, even though I know much of it is scripted.

Yet some people are the total opposite — watching the more serious shows is their escape.

I once attended a presentation by an author who writes thrillers filled with gruesome murders. She said that she used to write lighter fare, but when she was pregnant she became obsessed with murder. All of a sudden, every TV show she watched or book she read was about murder. For her, focusing on murders and investigation of murders took her mind off her very real fear of becoming a parent.

Focusing on these worst-case scenarios made her feel better. It was a release.

So is it bad? Like anything, indulging in a little trashy TV is fine in moderation. It’s a nice break.

We all think we “should” watch Nova or something educational and serious, just like we all think we should eat salad and lean protein.

But sometimes, you just want to enjoy a big old real cheese gluten-filled pizza, and to laugh at some loser who thought he could bring over a fiance to be his free house cleaning service, but found out she had a mind of her own.

Brain candy, like junk food, is all about balance.

So what’s your guilty pleasure?

#television #entertainment #stress #marriage #immigration #relationship #streaming

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR
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