meIt’s unbelievable what producers can get away with on reality TV if it’s done under the guise of a “social experiment”. Since Big Brother’s early release, the term has been used to evade scrutiny, but as shows of the genre become more outlandish and difficult to defend, this is a claim that is becoming increasingly popular.
Some of the most infamous shows have justified their existence in this way. We’ve seen pseudo-science justifying The Spouse House’s Exploratory Marriages, which put 14 bachelors in frenzied eight-week relationships in hopes of leaving the mansion occupied. Married at First Sight described the gimmick of first meeting couples at the altar as a “pioneering experience.” And what is the supposed justification for blind love, which has rocked the world over the past few years? According to his description on Netflix, the contestants talk to each other and even interact without ever seeing the other person, all in the name of a “social experiment.”
All this is done in the name of drama, not enlightenment. Netflix’s new show takes it one step further — by interfering with pre-existing relationships. A more surreal series from the Love Is Blind authors, The Ultimatum: Marry or Move on — which features the same introductory duo of Nick and Vanessa Lachey — is touted as a “new social experiment that pushes relationships to the next level.” We follow six couples at a crossroads – one partner has issued an ultimatum, another is unsure about the future of their relationship. Over the course of two months, couples will date people from other couples (largely in front of their partners) to decide whether to stay together or go their separate ways.
Something about it seems particularly rude. Lots of shows include audio clips from a TV psychologist or a panel of “experts” as part of the trick, but The Ultimatum doesn’t bother. In fact, it’s closer than any other series in being honest about its setting that caters more to audiences than couples. Not long after the first episode, Nick gives participants and viewers a disclaimer: “Psychologists agree that ultimatum is not a good way to get someone else to do what you want.” Finally, some honesty! His wife, Vanessa, disagrees with this succinctly by the fact that ultimatum was working in her favor when she made an ultimatum to him and they later broke up, dated other people, got back together and married. But it is still a moment to take off a mask, a confession of what we all know; The phrase “experiment” allows them to get away with a totally funny premise, but one that audiences rarely buy as an explanation.
The Alarm isn’t the first show that encourages contestants to destroy their relationships in the name of pop psychology. In 2019, Singletown welcomed five UK couples and made them spend the summer dating as singles, watching their other half cheat on screen. The US program Temptation Island has several couples who agree to live with a group of singles of the opposite sex, in order to test the strength of their relationships – including frequent video summaries of what their partner is doing.
These shows are especially addictive because of the high stakes. Watching couples destroy their relationships makes you ask, mouth-watering, “Why?” The answer is the same as in a lot of reality TV. processing. In an interview with Bustle, Temptation Island showrunner Scott Jeffress said that couples often believe charlatans who assure them that the show will save their union. “Any couple that comes up and says, ‘There’s no way we’re parting, we’re in love,'” Jeffress said, “I say, bring it up.” That’s a way to really test the relationship. If you two are really a match, you will walk away together. Usually, they buy and say, “We need to try it.”
Doing so could lead to dire consequences. Before episode two of The Ultimatum ended, there were already tears of regret and acknowledgments from the contestants that they should have thought twice. With all the bed-hopping and saliva swapping, you can’t help but think the contestants would be better off looking at polygamy, like on Channel 4’s Open House: The Great Sex Experiment. Across six episodes, couples wander through a luxurious getaway to discover if open relationships and sex with other people can strengthen their relationship. The Experience credentials are bolstered by intimate therapist Dr. Laurie Beth Bisbee, who offers support and advice on how to open relationships safely and healthily. However, it still seems like an excuse to watch people have threesomes on TV.
Really, the greatest trick the TV gods had ever played was to get couples to sabotage their relationships themselves in the name of science. Although couples may think shows have their best interests at heart, the rest of us don’t. The producers need to realize something: “Experiment” is a description of these seemingly real shows like the Love Islanders who say they’re on the show to find that special someone.