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‘90 Day Fiancé’: An Anti-Fantasy for Troubled Times

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.)

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