Why are ’90 Day Fiance’ and its spinoffs so popular?

Loren and Alexei Brovarnik are part of the latest TLC "90 Day Fiance" spinoff called "Foody Call," which debuted on Discovery+ May 29, 2021. (TLC/TNS)
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Rodney Ho The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

TV spinoffs have been around for decades as a way to build brand recognition and reduce risk.

Norman Lear came up with “The Jeffersons” and “Maude” from “All in the Family.” Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” begot a spinoff “Law & Order: SVU” that has outlasted the original. Andy Cohen’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County” has led to housewives spinoffs all over the nation, and the world, from New Jersey and the Potomac to Australia and South Africa.

TLC has now turned one of its reality shows into a spinoff factory: “90 Day Fiance.”

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The show, eight seasons in, features Americans who meet mates overseas and bring them to the United States using a K-1 visa. The clock begins ticking because the foreigner must get married to said American within 90 days to qualify for a green card ― or go back home.

The premise, inspired by a “Dateline NBC” story, generates a melange of tensions: a ridiculously tight time limit, mixed motivations, suspicious relatives, culture clashes and wedding planning all melded into one show.

TLC executives sensed demand for more about these couples. So they obliged. And then some.

There are a whopping 18 variants of the original, the newest called “90 Day Fiance: Foody Call” on the Discovery+ streaming service where couples from past shows cook favorite dishes while “dishing” advice about keeping the romance spicy. Discovery+, in fact, has been home to seven spinoffs, all released since January.

“90 Day” is currently TLC’s most popular franchise, beating staples such as “Dr. Pimple Popper” and “My 600-lb Life.” And TLC is not shy about airing expanded two-hour-long episodes every Sunday night without fear of diluting their audience or testing their patience.

Of the 100 most-watched shows among 18-to-49 year olds the past eight months on broadcast and cable TV, “90 Day Fiance” and four spinoffs of that show made the cut. Four “90 Day” shows also made the top 100 amongst all viewers, each drawing more than 3 million viewers.

“90 Day Fiance” brought in more viewers in the 18-49 demo than NBC’s “New Amsterdam,” Fox’s “The Resident” and ABC’s “The Goldbergs.” It also trounced Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

TLC executives knew they had a great concept in 2014 that complemented shows at the time like “The Little Couple” and “Breaking Amish.” But they had no clue it would become such a genuine hit until season two when word of mouth enabled them to cast a more dynamic cast including the rocky marriage of Ohio resident Danielle Mullins and Tunisian-born Mohamed Jbali.

“That was a game changer,” said Dan Adler, the show’s executive producer. “We were really able to push the envelope with that couple.”

Monica King, a 50-year-old Alpharetta, Georgia, resident who works in corporate regulatory affairs at a health care company, said she is drawn in by the authenticity of the relationships. “They feel human, not like cartoon characters on ‘The Bachelor,’” she said. “They seem like real people seeking true everlasting love. I really want to find out what happens next in their lives.”

Once TLC realized through social media how rabid the fan base had become, they began casting shows focused on relationships prior to the K-1 visa process (”Before the 90 Days”) and shows featuring couples well past the 90-day period (”Happily Ever After?”). They delved into the lives of now single people whose K-1 visa relationship failed. They follow Americans who do the reverse and move to another country to marry someone.

They even have a meta-style show where popular “90 Day” couples sit in bed (”Pillow Talk”) and make snarky comments while watching another “90 Day” show.

One of the most popular couples in the show’s history hails from Atlanta: nurse Chantel Everett and Pedro Jimeno, a Domican Republic man she met and fell in love with while learning Spanish virtually. She brought him back to Atlanta to start the K-1 visa process while lying to her family, saying he was on a more permissive student visa. Her wary family did not like Pedro at first, and Pedro’s family in the Dominican Republic clashed with her family. It became a case of “Romeo and Juliet”-style star-crossed lovers that viewers ate up.

After appearing on “Happily Ever After?” TLC gave them their own show “The Family Chantel.” It featured Chantel’s brother Royal falling for a woman from abroad, in his case, the Philippines, and Pedro’s sister Nicole dating a married man. The second season aired last year. Adler said it did well despite the fact a good portion of the dialogue is in Spanish.

Chantel, in an interview, said she was very naive at first. “I went into the show thinking it would prove to the world how lovely and perfect my relationship was,” she said. “That was not reality.” Instead, she said people were fascinated by the clashing family dynamics, the cultural misunderstandings and the communication limitations given that Pedro’s English was very poor when he came stateside five years ago.

They debated whether to do the spinoff show, but Chantel said they decided it might help people understand the K-1 visa process better so others could “benefit from our mistakes and find comfort that our struggles are normal.”

The producers would regularly question their motives and actions that in a way helped make their relationship stronger, Pedro said. “It’s therapeutic,” he said. “You can heal yourself. Talking about problems is better than hiding them.”

Jason Sarlanis, senior vice president for development at TLC, said he loves how they’ve “been able to highlight people of all races and cultures. It’s one of the most diverse shows on TV. We’ve told stories about LBGTQ couples and how different countries view marriage.”

To Sarlanis, “I think this show really gives people out there hope that no matter where you look in this world, your other half is out there.”

Some fans do watch with more cynicism. Bobby Gaines, a 50-year-old Bowdon, Georgia, resident, said he began bingeing the various “90 Day” shows during quarantine and enjoys it more than his wife. “Over the last year, I had my toe amputated,” he said. “My life felt pretty bad. But after watching ’90 Day Fiance,’ I feel like the king of the world. I don’t have problems compared to these people!”

TLC is continuing to mine the franchise and has more spinoffs planned.

They glean a lot from the fan base. Sunday night social media commentary, Sarlanis said, is “like a live real-time focus group.”

And a surprising number of the couples remain together, Adler noted. “We don’t put these people together,” he said, alluding to shows like WE-TV’s “Married at First Sight,” which is generating its own share of spinoff shows. “They fall in love.”

Spinoff heaven

These are the 18 “90 Day Fiance” spinoffs to date, some of which aired on TLC, some which were on the internet only and for seven more shows, on Discovery+, the streaming service. A few are glorified clip shows.

“90 Day Fiance: Happily Ever After?”: A look at the couples after the 90 days.

“90 Day Fiance: What Now?”: A TLCGo web series that looked at couples from multiple shows.

“90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days”: Couples wondering if they should go through the K-1 visa process.

“90 Day Fiance: Pillow Talk”: Couples reacting to other “90 Day” shows in real time while relaxing in bed.

“90 Day Fiance: The Other Way”: Americans falling in love and moving to other countries.

“90 Day Fiance: Just Landed”: A TLCgo original web series chronicling the first day a couple enjoys in the United States.

“The Family Chantel”: Atlanta’s Chantel Everett and Pedro Jimeno and their wacky families.

“90 Day Fiance: Self Quarantined”: A series during the pandemic.

“B90 Strikes Back!”: The “90 Day” couples respond to social media critics and other couples.

“Darcey & Stacey”: A look at Darcey and Stacey Silva, American twins and their Albanian and Bulgarian beaus.

“HEA Strikes Back!”: “Happily Ever After” couples clap back at critics.

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The seven spinoffs below all have debuted on Discovery+:

“90 Day Bares All!”: A talk show featuring “90 Day” couples.

“90 Day Diaries”: Couples shoot video of themselves.

“90 Day Journey”: A clip compilation of each couple’s journeys from beginning to now.

“The Other Way Strikes Back!”: “The Other Way” couples talk about what others are saying about them.

“90 Day: The Single Life”: Former “90 Day” folks who broke up and are now single.

“90 Day Fiance: Love Games”: A trivia game show.

“90 Day: Foody Call”: Couples cook dishes from their native countries.

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