Patrick Freyne: ‘Instead of relationship counselling, let us go dogging in the car park’

Love is Blind, The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On – glossy modern courtship on Netflix

Love Is Blind. (L to R) Jarrette Jones, Iyanna McNeely, Shayne Jansen, Abhishek Chatterjee, Nick Lachey, Kyle Abrams, Salvador Perez, Vanessa Lachey, Natalie Lee, Deepti Vempati, Mallory Zapata, Shaina Hurley, Danielle Ruhl and Nick Thompson. Photograph: Netflix

Love Is Blind. (L to R) Jarrette Jones, Iyanna McNeely, Shayne Jansen, Abhishek Chatterjee, Nick Lachey, Kyle Abrams, Salvador Perez, Vanessa Lachey, Natalie Lee, Deepti Vempati, Mallory Zapata, Shaina Hurley, Danielle Ruhl and Nick Thompson. Photograph: Netflix

 

Nowadays, when we in The Irish Times want to know what the common man is thinking, we put aside our Somerville and Ross novels, cupboard toasters and homemade jam, and look at the “Top 10 TV Programmes in Ireland Today” bit on Netflix, which we are using with a cousin’s subscription because none of us has a television. It is there that we learn of The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On, which is the latest in a rash of TV programmes about identically-shaped hunk-folk navigating modern courtship. Think: Jane Austen but with bikinis and sleeve tattoos and more antiquated gender norms. The common man is some schmuck, it has to be said.

Goddamnit, I can’t pretend anymore. I watch all these programmes. I have eight televisions, my favourite show is Mass and I hate jam. I am the common man. The Ultimatum is overseen by the Lacheys – Nick and Vanessa – a platonic ideal of romance, who can also be found flaunting their celestial union in front of similarly-shaped heterosexuals on Love is Blind (also on Netflix). Their credentials for overseeing the mating rituals of others seem to be that they are the only married couple in the United States. They have also subsumed their individual identities into a two-headed blob, the Lacheys, taking equal turns saying alternating sentences rather than just babbling over one another incoherently, like you and your spouse.

Here’s a sentence Nick says: “Psychologists agree an ultimatum is not a good way to get somebody else to do what you want but it is the best way to get what you need on a timetable you can live with.”

“I like that,” says Vanessa, supportively, for they are modelling good relationship behaviour for the assembled hunks in their makeshift hunk sanctuary. But that’s the last we hear from psychologists. Luckily, a TV presenter who has heard what a psychologist has said is better than an actual psychologist in many televisual respects.

In Love is Blind, the lovelorn hunks – sick of people prejudging their beautiful bodies and angelic faces – agree to court one another through an obfuscating screen, like someone in an old fairy tale. Then they have a hurried, arranged marriage to the person on the other side as though they are a middle-European royal in dire need of funds or as though a cad has compromised their honour.

Because Love is Blind worked out so well for the institution of marriage, The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On moves things on significantly. In this programme, six couples are assembled. Half of each couple is hungry for their relationship to involve government paperwork and has issued an ultimatum: marry or move on. You will remember this classic saying from the title, except in the title it’s capitalised.

In the process of deciding whether to “marry or move on” the couples mingle with the other couples (though as someone with a more distinct body shape, I’m surprised the hunks can tell each other apart) while drinking from stainless steel goblets. What’s in these goblets? Mead? Tanora? Hemlock? The tears of their ancestors? Nobody knows.

Eventually they have a “trial marriage” with someone from one of the other couples. I’m not sure what Nick Lachey remembers a psychologist saying about having a fake marriage with a stranger, but as far as I can see, it’s basically swinging. As a way to navigate tricky interpersonal territory it’s right up there with: “My sweetest darling, instead of relationship counselling, let us go dogging in the car park.” At the end of this therapeutic process, either the original couples will reunite and agree to be wed or a new couple will emerge triumphant. For such is the circle of life.

The couples include April and Jake. April is sick of Jake’s marital shillyshallying. “I just want a ring and I want a baby,” she says, and if the Lacheys really cared they’d just give her both these things and let her go home without Jake.

But she is committed to him. “I want to be 65 years-old with you,” she says, and looking at Jake’s startled face, it’s clear he’s never before considered the concept of aging, never mind marriage.

Then there’s Nate and Lauren. Nate is the type of American man whose hair is the same beige shade as his face so that he looks like one of those creepy baby dolls people inexplicably gave to children in the 1980s. This is ironic because he wants a baby and Lauren, possibly haunted by Nate’s baby-doll appearance, does not. Other men then set out to gaslight Lauren into believing that she does want a child with the right man because this programme is all about perpetuating heteronormative weirdness. I mean, several participants brag about wanting a very “traditional” relationship. They often do so in interviews to camera in a strange black room filled with mirrors. I think this room is a metaphor for “society”.

Alexis admits that her love for Hunter (his name, not his profession) is dependent on him eventually earning more than her. Rae and Zay have names that rhyme, which is probably why they are together, but Rae feels more of a connection with the aforementioned Jake, with whom she has interactions like this: “If you had a daughter, would you be the dad who’s cleaning his shotgun when her first date came?”

“Yeah,” says Jake, still in shock due to his recently acquired knowledge of aging and death.

“I love that,” says Rae, because macho gun violence is sexy in this universe. Look, the world-building on The Ultimatum is excellent. To some degree all of these romance shows are one big heterosexual drag performance. I feel like each episode of The Ultimatum should come with the disclaimer: “If your relationship is anything like the relationships on this show, you are on this show.”

Elsewhere on my eight televisions, people are still making Reithian public service television and are focusing on the world as it is, not one that was imagined in Phyllis Schlafly’s secret acid trips. Our Changing Planet (Sunday, BBC1) is an expansive, typically well-made BBC series in which seven presenters work with scientists and environmentalists to document how humankind’s behaviour affects the environment across seven years. In the first episode we go from Steve Backshall watching a pregnant manta ray near the endangered corals of the Maldives to Chris Packham being a geezer near a geyser while visiting Iceland’s retreating glaciers to Ella Al-Shahami exploring the devastation of Cambodia’s biodiversity. It’s brilliant, ambitious and worrying television. The worry is that the presenters’ tone will become more elegiac and less hopeful as the years go by.

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