Tuesday, April 16, 2024

How The Ultimatum Pulled Off the Rarest Thing in Reality TV: Genuine Shock

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It’s becoming increasingly rare that we see something truly shocking when watching reality television. This is even more true in the subgenre of the reality television dating program. Shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette try to reinvent the wheel season after season to spice up the well worn “will they or won’t they” narrative that is central to any dating show. But there’s only so many times you can watch a man named Brayson choose between Olivia R. and Olivia S. At some point, the formula grows stale.

But not on The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On. From the twisted minds of the folks who brought you Love Is Blind, Netflix’s latest reality dating show slash social experiment focuses on couples at the brink of marriage or collapse, separating pairs of significant others and putting them in 3-week “trial marriages” with new partners of their choosing, only to bring the original couple back together to decide whether or not they still want to tie the knot. Some would call the premise something akin to swinging, others would say sanctioned cheating.

The convoluted and somewhat contrived premise of The Ultimatum, whose first 8 episodes premiered on Netflix on April 6th, took a little while to warm up to, at least for me. Unlike its forefather Love Is Blind, The Ultimatum requires a lot of buy-in from the very top. No longer were you watching pairs of strangers sit in sensory deprivation pods and go on blind dates, but now you had to “believe” that these “couples”—most of whom were in their early to mid 20s—were seriously considering “marriage,” a word that has almost ceased to have any meaning at this point, at least on Netflix.

But with a little bit of suspended disbelief, The Ultimatum eventually did provide a genuine twist, one of the more shocking moments I’ve ever seen on a reality dating television program. It happened within the first 60 seconds of episode 10, the reunion episode, as Nick and Vanessa Lachey—hosts of The Ultimatum and undisputed king and queen of dating experiments—sat on their throne i.e. the center couch, surrounded by many of the other couples. However, one couple was missing: Madlyn Riley Ballatori and Colby Kissinger, who had one of the rockiest rides on the show.

Throughout the series, Madlyn—the half of the couple that was not sold on marriage—seemed to possess almost superhuman levels of disdain for her boyfriend, Colby, the one who gave Madlyn the titular ultimatum. She complained about him incessantly in her confessionals and to her friends about things as broad as his general personality to things both nit-picky and incredibly specific like the fact that he often insisted on wearing a cowboy hat. (She made a good point there.) Madlyn’s distaste for Colby was felt by audience members, and prompted a flurry of tweets and even articles with headlines like “Why The Ultimatum Fans Think Madlyn Riley Ballatori Hates Boyfriend Colby Kissinger?” But the penultimate episode proved that the line between love and hate really is quite thin, as Madlyn went from breaking up with Colby to getting engaged and marrying Colby in the span of 24 hours. As Adele once sang, “Love Is A Game [For Fools]”

Given their whirlwind marriage and not immediately seeing them on the couch, I assumed, sanely (or as sane as you can be watching this show), that they had broken up, had their marriage annulled (if it was even real to begin with), and declined to participate in the reunion because Madlyn couldn’t bear to be in the same room as him.

But what happened was something that my brain is still having trouble comprehending. After being introduced by Vanessa Lachey, Colby and his cowboy hat and a very pregnant Madlyn walked out together, absolutely beaming. “Noooooo,” I shouted at my television, completely bewildered. “There’s simply no way.” At that moment, I was half expecting Madlyn to remove a prosthetic baby bump, say “LOL, can you imagine?” and go take a seat on the couch next to Randall Griffin, her trial marriage partner whom she seemed to have a lot more affection for than Colby.

But there they were sitting hand in hand on the couch, in prenatal bliss. If we roll back The Ultimatum tape, Madlyn and Colby seemed, well, doomed, not only because Madlyn didn’t seem to particularly like him, but also because Colby was made out to be the villain of the season. In the dating portion of the show, Colby straight up told fellow experimenter Alexis Maloney that he “did not find her physically attractive.” If you can imagine, she did not appreciate hearing that.” But Alexis wasn’t alone in her loathing, Madlyn’s friends from home Maeson, Karli, Caila—one of whom Colby had previously hooked up with and described it as “not memorable”—also seemed to intensely dislike him, supporting their girl Madlyn every time she threatened to leave Colby and yelling at him over margaritas that he “didn’t get it.”

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