The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘90 Day Fiance’ and its Ukrainian stars have taken the show from escapist garbage to vehicle for real-life grief

“90 Day Fiance” followed the stories of Yara Zaya, left, and Natalie Mordovtseva, right, Ukrainian women in search of love in the United States. (TLC)
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Most reality TV fans know that artifice is baked into pretty much all of their favorite shows. Part of the fun of watching, in fact, is trying to suss out what’s fake and what’s authentic. That’s the case even after the cameras stop rolling. Reality participants eager to extend their 15 minutes of fame often continue their antics (or “story lines”) on social media, where, in turn, extremely online viewers take it upon themselves to evaluate which posts are for the likes and which amount to genuine self-expression.

But real-life events interrupted this largely harmless (or at least mutually parasitic) game last month, softening pockets of an ultra-cynical fandom into concerned and alarmed onlookers. While much of the United States has been horrified by the statistics coming out of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has thus far killed hundreds of civilians and displaced a million more, many fans of “90 Day Fiance,” the mega-popular reality franchise, flocked to Reddit, Facebook and Instagram to voice their worries over the safety of its Ukrainian cast members and their families.

Despite its obvious contrivances, xenophobic tropes and unrepentant trashiness, the TLC programming pillar has inadvertently become a rather moving medium through which some Americans with no other connection to Eastern Europe have become emotionally invested in the war in Ukraine.

Launched in 2014, “90 Day Fiance” has become such an integral part of its network’s architecture that it’s never not on the air; like Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise, new seasons start as soon as the last one ends. Inspired by the K-1 visa, which gives foreigners three months to tie the knot with their sponsor after arriving to the United States, the original series has spawned more than a dozen spinoffs.

Though the current season — “90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days,” centered on Americans who travel abroad to meet their foreign paramours for the first time after falling in love online — does not feature any participants from Ukraine, the country is heavily represented in the franchise, with American men entering into relationships, or hoping to do so, with Ukrainian women. In a couple of those cases, TLC’s cameras traveled to Kyiv and other parts of the country to follow the Americans’ pursuits of the women they hoped to woo — and in the process, offered glimpses of everyday life in Ukraine. In the flagship series’s seventh season, we meet Kyiv resident Natalie Mordovtseva, then engaged to Washington state native Mike Youngquist, as well as her sweet and doting elderly single mother who fretted that her only child would move thousands of miles away.

Because so few U.S. programs involve other countries, “90 Day Fiance” may well offer the most consistent Ukrainian presence on mainstream television. That’s not necessarily a positive, as the franchise tends to play up cultural or ethnic stereotypes much more than it challenges them: Latin American women are portrayed as fiery, Caribbean men as unfaithful and Middle Eastern men as sexually dysfunctional or reactionary. The majority of the Ukrainian women featured on the franchise — among them Alla Ryan (nee Fedoruk) from Season 4 and the mysterious “Maria” and “Lana” from “Before the 90 Days’s” third and fourth seasons, respectively — have been depicted as brutally blunt and unsentimentally practical, if not, as with the latter two, outright scammers. Only Yara Zaya, of the original show’s eighth season, has bucked the trend, coming off as a worldly if spoiled young woman who met her now-husband, Jovi Dufren, on an app for travelers.

From the archives: Wherever love travels, so does suspicion in the new ‘90 Day Fiance’

None of the Ukrainians on “90 Day Fiance” would be considered fan favorites, even for a franchise like this one, where the viewership often rallies around the foreign fraudsters instead of their dopey or entitled American marks. (The most likable Ukrainian participant may be “Maria,” who became an instant meme when she shut down a question about how much money she’s received over the years from the tip-dependent manicurist Caesar Mack with a cold “I’m not accountant.”)

But it probably matters more that the Ukrainians on the show were people we were introduced to in relatively lighthearted contexts: Alla, Natalie and Yara, especially, had relatable lives as mothers, girlfriends, daughters and daughters-in-law, friends, tourists and/or wannabe influencers. Natalie’s recent update about her mother’s safety, Lana’s since-privatized Instagram post about taking shelter underground and Yara’s description of her friends back home as too afraid to sleep lest they never wake up hit all the harder for how much of a shock the Russian invasion is to people like them who, less than two weeks ago, led fairly ordinary lives.

We don’t need to be personally acquainted with anyone in Ukraine, of course, to find the war abhorrent and its casualties gallingly tragic. But perhaps these are parasocial relationships in their most productive form: empathizing with the injustice and terror of war through someone we “know.”

“I just saw a reporter doing a piece from the square where David [Murphey] finally met Lana and it was so sad and surreal to see it like this now,” wrote one Reddit commenter. “Yes, this show gave us a special connection we would never have had,” responded another. Perhaps that sympathy will eventually veer away from policing the reactions of the show’s Russian participants (who have displayed a fascinatingly wide array of responses to the war) and toward donations for humanitarian relief.

“90 Day Fiance” never aspired to be anything more than an extremely entertaining dumpster fire. But global events have somehow transformed a heavily staged show fueled by American ethnocentrism into a vehicle for cross-border affinity and real-life grief. Stranger things have happened, especially where entertainers are involved. Just ask Volodymyr Zelensky.