Alan condescends to Kirlyam in the grocery store.
  • TLC
  • Alan condescends to Kirlyam in the grocery store.

Should you ever want to marry someone who’s a citizen of another country—but do it here on American soil where the wedding industrial complex can cater to your every whim—your betrothed will have to be approved for a K-1 visa or “fiance visa.” She then comes to the U.S., you guys tie the knot, she becomes a citizen, and you live happily ever after. The caveat: the knot-tying has to be accomplished within 90 days or she’ll be forced to leave the country. Which means you better be pretty sure about the whole thing, right?

On the TLC reality program 90 Day Fiance, four American men and their intended foreign brides give living in the same country a go and decide on the double whether getting married is a thing they want to do. The premise preys on our nationalism, so at first what we see are these sort-of schlubby guys being taken by (mostly) model-beautiful women angling for U.S. citizenship by any means necessary, even if those means include having intercourse with a schlubby guy. It also preys on our suspicion: is this like a mail-order bride situation? But the relationships are a lot more complex than that, and each couple’s circumstances are completely different. They’re interesting, which is a pleasant surprise.

Like Alan and Kirlyam. Alan is a 29-year-old Mormon who fell in love with 21-year-old Kirlyam when he was a missionary in her small Brazilian village. Kirlyam is very beautiful; it’s essentially the reason Alan fell in love with her—he says as much—and it has the potential to destroy them. Alan becomes possessive when someone suggests Kirlyam could model. She’s also innocent and dislikes being alone. It’s heartrending to watch him abandon her at his parents’ crappy apartment because he insists they can’t be alone together overnight without a chaperone. (Or, rather, God insists.)

Mike and Aziza are a particularly sad pairing. He’s an awkward thirtysomething who works in tech support in Cleveland, Ohio, and she’s a 20-year-old Russian who just so happened to develop feelings for Mike after her application for a U.S. work visa was denied. Aziza appears physically repelled by Mike—there’s a lot of talk about the fact that they haven’t consummated their relationship yet—and is given to passive-aggressive temper tantrums. Upon meeting his parents at their house for dinner, she refuses to eat, and stares off either into the corner or down at her phone.

The two other couples—Russ and Paola, and Louis and Aya—seem better adjusted and better equipped to handle the unusual circumstances. (Paola and Aya happen to be slightly older than the two other women.) Paola is probably the most relatable character, an outgoing, big-chested Colombian woman who has to adjust to living in conservative Oklahoma, in Russ’s parents’ home, no less. She’s vocal about hating the living arrangement, but it’s nice that we don’t have to worry about her like we feel we have to worry about Aziza and Kirlyam.

TLC is in the gruesome habit of making reality shows about subjects whose lives aren’t content-rich enough to fill an eight- or 16-episode season, so 90 Day Fiance benefits from filming several couples rather than one. The broader focus helps it feel more like an actual documentary than like something that’s been manipulated to death by producers (it still has plenty of reality-show moments). Now we’ll have to wait and see whether TLC can resist giving one of the couples a spin-off.