‘The Ultimatum’ Is Pure Emotional Torture, And That’s Okay!

Let's dispense with the reality TV self-help bullshit.

‘The Ultimatum’ Is Pure Emotional Torture, And That’s Okay!
Image:lana Panich-Linsman/Netflix

Aside from popping into the premiere episode of Love Is Blind to let us know that he was “obviously” Nick Lachey, the 98 Degrees crooner and his wife, model and TV host Vanessa Lachey, didn’t really do a ton of lifting as far as hosting duties go. But the couple plays a larger role in hosting their latest Netflix reality series, The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On. The new show offers yet another entertainingly experimental approach to finding love, one that the hosts and contestants insist is about emotional growth, and strengthening relationships. To which I say: Can we kindly cut the crap?

If watching people get engaged to someone they’ve never laid eyes on felt wild, The Ultimatum makes Love Is Blind seem positively tame. The series features six couples, and one member of each pair has issued their partner the ultimatum that gives the show its title: They either want to get engaged or call it quits. Before deciding on a path forward, the couples swap partners with the other couples and live together in their new pairings for three-week “trial marriages” to see if the grass is really greener on the other side.

“Psychologists agree an ultimatum is not a good way to get someone else to do what you want,” Lachey tells contestants early on, “but it is the best way to get you the answers you need on a timetable you can live with.” I am not a medical practitioner, but I’d truly be surprised if there’s a psychologist on this planet who thinks that participating in this or any other dating show is an advisable way to build a healthy relationship.

What makes the show deeply watchable is the fact that Netflix doesn’t allow the cast to date new people while keeping their original partners at a respectable distance, which makes for some pretty nightmarish scenarios. Imagine watching your partner of multiple years dating someone else while you sit on the other side of the room. Imagine going on a girls’ night out with acquaintances, only to have another woman remark that your boyfriend gets boners during their bedtime cuddles. Please shout if any of this sounds like the building blocks of the type of healthy, monogamous relationships the show is purportedly designed to build.

Still, the series maintains a pseudo-therapeutic pretense throughout. In the second episode, while contestants choose which virtual stranger they wanted to leave their partners for, Lachey surveyed the room full of emotionally battered 20-somethings and said, “If you guys weren’t feeling things right now, I would send you to the hospital and check for a pulse. You’re supposed to be feeling all these things that you’re feeling.” It’s like tossing someone into a wood chipper while nodding empathetically and saying that you understand what they’re going through.

“The hardest part is to put the jealousy aside,” Vanessa advises at one point. “But also to have faith.” If anyone ended up getting dumped, “Then thank god you did that now, and not after you were married with two kids,” she said. The suggestion—that sharing a bed with an attractive stranger for three weeks is some kind of essential test for couples whose ultimate goal is monogamy and marriage—is truly laughable.

The series is the messiest of messes, a show so engrossing that I didn’t binge it, I inhaled it. And The Ultimatum is far from alone in trying to give its high-drama manipulations a candy-coating of self-help through jabber about feelings, growth, and healthy relationships; pretty much every other reality dating show does the same thing, too. But we don’t have to do keep up this pretense. The contestants are looking for fun, fame, and the chance to meet some fellow hot people. Viewers come for the spectacle, hosts come for the check. We’re grown ups—let’s just be honest about it.

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