The finale of Netflix’s latest dating show hit, “The Ultimatum: Queer Love,” arrived on Wednesday after weeks of partner swapping that amounted to a milestone in romantic reality television: The first of the genre’s marriage contests that focused exclusively on queer couples.
Like its predecessor, “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” from last year, “The Ultimatum: Queer Love,” which premiered in May, follows couples who don’t agree about their future together (one wants to get engaged; the other is not ready). So they agree to split up and live with new partners for a few weeks in front of the cameras. After meeting, dating and committing to a “trial wife,” the original couples reunite to live together as married, also for a few weeks. Then, after eight episodes worth of soul-searching, they must decide whether to get engaged, end the relationship or leave with their “trial wife” — the “ultimatum” of the title.
“I feel like we’re at a lesbian club, and all our exes are here,” a castmate named Tiff Der joked in the first episode, sitting by the compound’s firepit surrounded by Der’s partner-turned-ex (for the purposes of the show), Mildred Woody, and the eight other contestants they each went on short dates with that day.
In the same scene, another contestant, Vanessa Papa suggests the cast all have a “polyamorous orgy,” drawing head shakes and nervous laughter from the others. By that point, Papa was interested in both Lexi Goldberg and Rae Cheung-Sutton while her ex, Xander Boger, was hitting it off with someone else’s former partner nearby.
Same-sex marriage became federally recognized eight years ago, and it’s taken that long for L.G.B.T.Q. people to get their own dating show focused on love and commitment — though a number of queer-inclusive reality shows have demonstrated an appetite for such series. In earlier such shows, like the bisexual-themed competition “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila” (2007) and the all-pansexual season of MTV’s “Are You The One?” (2019), the focus was on the competition, not on lifelong commitment. In “Queer Love,” which wrapped up Wednesday with a final episode and reunion special, the only prize is the clarity gained from such an experiment, the first in which men are not potential partners.
“The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On” hadn’t aired yet when the cast of the spinoff began filming, so the five couples who appeared in “Queer Love” had little sense of how the show would unfold. All they had to go on was the track record of the show’s production company, Kinetic Content, which is also behind the Netflix reality hit “Love is Blind,” as well as the long-running “Married at First Sight,” on Lifetime in recent years.
In many ways, “Queer Love” is reminiscent of any other marriage reality show — their struggles and triumphs with their partners (trial and otherwise) are not unlike those experienced by “Love Is Blind” competitors after they emerge from their pods and pair off. Commitment angst and the allure of potential new partners are reliable generators of the interpersonal drama that reality producers crave, no matter the makeup of the couples involved.
Der and Woody had been in a breakup-makeup-breakup cycle for almost two years, Der said, when they were approached by a casting producer about participating in “Queer Love.”
“I actually said no at first because I’m like, ‘Actually, we’re in a really bad spot right now, so I don’t think so, I’m sorry,’” Der said in an interview. “And then she goes, ‘No, actually that’s what we’re looking for.’”
Goldberg said she was approached at just the right time in her relationship with her partner, Cheung-Sutton. “It was kind of this question of, do you have a relationship where one person is questioning or dragging their feet?” she said.
As universal as relationship frustrations can be, “Queer Love” also captures the specific ways queer women and nonbinary people relate to one another — for example, spending time with one another’s exes, whether intentional or not, is common in such a small community. For straight viewers, the show serves as a kind of voyeuristic microcosm; for queer ones, it provides a more relatable analog to the messy behavior of heterosexual dating shows like “The Bachelor” or “Love Is Blind.”
Cast members, who ranged in age from 25 to 42 when they filmed, said they were encouraged by the production’s general queer competency — several crew members on set were L.G.B.T.Q., including the director of photography — but some noted blind spots. Yoly Rojas a first-generation Venezuelan immigrant, said she was excited to be “a brown Latina femme on television,” but she was disappointed that her partner, Mal Wright, was the only Black person in the cast.
“I don’t think that’s a fair representation of the community,” Rojas said. “It just felt still a little bit whiter than what I would’ve liked.”
Wright initially was concerned about being portrayed as an aggressor — a common TV fate for butch and more masculine-of-center women or nonbinary people. “I didn’t want to be portrayed in a way that wasn’t true to me,” Wright said.
But after watching the full season, Wright, who uses they/them pronouns, felt reassured: “There was no angry trope that got attached to me,” they said. “So it was a real accurate representation of who I am and how I navigate the world.”
One of the show’s stranger moves — and probably its most controversial one — was its choice of host. Nick and Vanessa Lachey co-host both “Love is Blind” and “The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On,” but for “Queer Love,” Netflix brought in the actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher, a star of its show “Sweet Magnolias.” When Garcia Swisher is revealed as the host in the first episode, the cast appears surprised. It is Papa who finally pops the question: “Are you queer?”
“I just wanted to know,” Papa, a fan of Garcia Swisher’s recurring role on her favorite show, “Freaks and Geeks,” said in an interview. “But she’s not, which is also great because now you have this mix of a queer cast and then this religious married-to-a-man host, so it’s like two worlds converging.”
Other cast members were confused by the choice.
“It took me a minute to warm up with Joanna because I didn’t get it,” Rojas said. “There’s no correlation to anything gay or to anything queer — like, it made no sense. But she’s a really sweet person, as understanding as one can be as a straight woman. She did her best.”
Chris Coelen, an executive producer of the show, said Garcia Swisher had the most important quality for a host: curiosity. “Is JoAnna queer?” he said. “No, she’s not. Does she need to be to do a good job on show? I don’t think so.”
Viewers of the show called out the strangeness of the hosting choice on social media. But overall “Queer Love” has been well-received and highly memed — praised by writers and viewers for giving queer women and nonbinary people a chance to see their own relationships reflected on an enormous platform like Netflix.
“It’s all pretty standard reality show stuff,” Emma Specter wrote in Vogue. “But I wonder what it would have meant for me to watch 10 queer people date, break up, cry, have fun and drink disgusting-looking cocktails out of weird chrome glasses on TV in high school, when there were approximately zero out queer people in my actual life.”
For the “Queer Love” cast, their appearances on the show came with a feeling of responsibility to not embarrass communities that historically have been ignored or misrepresented on TV. Goldberg, the youngest castmate, said the weight of the contestants displaying themselves in such a public way was palpable from their first group gathering.
“It was kind of this unspoken thing,” Goldberg said. “Not that the stakes were higher, but that the importance of being good representatives was something we should consider day in and day out.”
“But it doesn’t mean we don’t get to have relationships and feel and cry and deal with problems the way they arise,” Goldberg continued. “It just meant we do have to remember that this is important, and that there will be a lot of people that watch this and that look to this as a sense of normalcy in queer relationships that maybe they just never knew before.”
Coelen, the executive producer, hopes “Queer Love,” in both its relatability and specificity, is able to “lowers barriers between people in some way.”
“Because people are people,” he continued. “And, like the cliché, love is love, you know?”
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