The trap that almost all reality television sets is to lure the viewer into taking it seriously; to buy into its concepts and to believe, despite far-fetched premises, that something fundamentally unserious is meaningful and weighty. There is an incentive for the viewer — that if there’s real value to these reality programmes, then watching them becomes detached from the negative connotations heavily associated with the genre. And in the last several years, we’ve seen backlash to reality TV that is openly gratuitous (in response production companies have tried to make shows like Love Island “kinder” and “more ethical”, moving away from innovations set to hurt its contestants) and a growing number of new programmes that aren’t about casual dating or personal drama, but are centred around heavier topics.
This trend can be seen with no greater clarity than in the rise of marriage-related dating shows, such as Married At First Sight, Love Is Blind, 90 Day Fiance and Indian Matchmaking. These shows — which have particularly exploded in popularity over the last two years — manage to pull off a potent combination juxtaposing what is, for the people involved, one of life’s greatest choices, marriage, with the guaranteed drama of that marriage being to a stranger or someone you’ve only spoken to a handful of times. What makes these shows viable for their viewers is that they often work: people do find love and get married and have lasting happiness. The method has, in some cases, justified the madness.
The Ultimatum is Netflix’s latest reality marriage show in this vein, but instead of the superficially virtuous aim of most wedding-themed TV — to help desperate singles find love — the aim here is much murkier. The show consists of a group of couples in which one half has issued an ultimatum: to get engaged or split up. The other half has doubts, usually for coherent reasons (questions around children, finances or age; most of the couples are in their early twenties and have only been together for two years). The show then asks these couples to officially break up, and subsequently gets them to date and then move in with other people in the “experiment” to see if their needs could be met by someone else. They live with a chosen other person for three weeks, before recoupling with their original partner, to compare the two experiences.
If it sounds like you’ve missed something, you haven’t. The premise is shoddy and unclear, especially in comparison to other dating programmes where, putting aside the fact that it’s reality television, there is at least something rational (such as two single people who have been matched based on their personalities and lifestyles) to justify the logic of the show. Part of The Ultimatum’s structure claims to be inspired by its hosts, the Love Is Blind presenters and husband-and-wife duo Nick and Vanessa Lachey. Supposedly they have been chosen to lead the show because Vanessa issued Nick an ultimatum that led to a brief split, in which they dated other people, suggesting the ultimatum was the trick that made their marriage finally materialise.
What ensues across the ten episodes is no more clarifying. It’s more sad than it is fun — a tragedy that isn’t so bad it’s good, but is instead merely depressing. Rather than see people fall in love, with the added drama of “will they or won’t they?” or even competing romantic interests, viewers watch the cast as the cast watches their long-term partners get off with other people. The couples are regularly thrown into group environments where, in front of their partners, they are asked to give speeches about why they find other people in the group attractive; they go on dates in their partner’s presence and live in the same high-rise building so that they experience this psychological torture at constant point-blank range.
It would be naive to think that other marriage reality shows are pure of heart, or that they truly care about the cast falling in love (any reality show ultimately cares about drama and excitement, whether that’s in the form of budding romance or the producer-led destruction of it). But as The Ultimatum progresses it becomes clear that its main thrust is not the trials and tribulations of finding love in an unconventional way, but to make its cast suffer. Its ugliness stands out as unique, and the result is a mess: the combination of its openly grotesque aims, mixed with its confusing structure and the fact that these 23-year-olds are not prepared to make a life-long commitment, means you end up with more tears than plotlines (which makes for mind-numbingly boring viewing). When a couple finally does get engaged after one half spent the entire show saying she couldn’t stand her partner, the announcement feels grim.
It seems far from a coincidence that, as The Ultimatum has been released, Netflix has reported its first loss in subscribers in a decade, and has seen its share price plummet, alongside news that it’s on track to lose another two million users over the next few months. You can credit a variety of factors – not least of which that Netflix no longer stands alone in streaming, but is now one of many giants – but it’s hard not to see the impact of the quality of Netflix’s original content. The Ultimatum is only one of many cheap concepts Netflix has put out in the last year and is among an increasingly dull line-up of originals, especially when compared to more exciting offerings from streaming services like Apple TV and Disney+.
Some fans of The Ultimatum will argue that the programme fits squarely into the broader trend of marriage shows and that its premise is worth taking seriously: most of the couples broke up, but one is now married, with their first child due in May. You can claim it worked, that the ends justified the means. However, the show signals a true mask-off moment for the genre, where the admitted aim is something that can’t be seen as anything but sinister. The trap is plainly laid, making it much easier for viewers to avoid falling into it.