Within the first two minutes of Netflix’s new series The Ultimatum: Queer Love, you already know exactly what sort of brazen reality TV shtick is going to unfurl. “You guys slept together?” asks one woman, her eyes narrowing as dramatic music thumps in the background. Another replies, indignantly: “Uh, she led my hand … to her vagina.”
The next few episodes can best be summed up as follows: endless tears and cocktails, jealous glances across the fire pit and that very specific grim vocal tone usually reserved for long-term couples engaging in arguments they have rehearsed many times before. This time, though, each person is being watched: by viewers, multiple cameras and nine other emotional contestants, all packed on to the same outdoor patio with a bar.
If you have watched the previous UK incarnation of the Ultimatum franchise – which extends to the US, France and Australia – you will already know the setup. Five couples are at a crossroads in their relationship. One wants to get married, but the other isn’t ready to commit. So, like any couple worth their salt, they go on a reality show to furiously date other people, before ultimately deciding whether they will wed, break up or be with someone else entirely.
This season comes with a twist: they are all women and non-binary people. As we know, this is still rare for reality TV, which more often treats sapphics as token additions, or niche characters with an almost underground appeal (you probably won’t have seen Tampa Baes, Prime Video’s lesbian reality show, advertised at your nearest bus stop).
When queerness does appear on our screens, it often comes with its own set of well-worn tropes. Thankfully, The Ultimatum: Queer Love appears to dodge many of them. There are no back-to-back retellings of traumatising coming-out stories (important to share, but misery does not always a lesbian make). There are no endless saccharine proclamations of “love is love” (most queer people know this already; it’s straight people who have to keep repeating it). And there is no awkward tip-toeing around the sexual element of these relationships (“Do you want to sit on my face?” one woman asks another in the first episode, both clinking glasses on a picturesque boat trip). Instead, we are given a classic binfire of Netflix reality, with all the drama, brooding pop songs and emotional flip-flopping that entails.
That said – and as a lesbian on the brink of marriage, I may be biased – the queerness of the contestants does make for a different viewing experience to, say, shows such as Married at First Sight or Love Is Blind. There is discussion of the realities of having children and what that might look like for two lesbian or bi people (a conversation I have with my friends and partner, but rarely hear in wider culture). There are winking nods to how we are used to dating each other’s exes anyway, because we usually have smaller dating pools. And, purely logistically, there is also the fact that they can all date each other. One woman, the unruly Vanessa, decides to date two people in the same couple, leading to a three-way spat in which at least one person gets called a “narcissist”.
There is ridiculousness aplenty. In the second, nail-biting, episode, the contestants sit around a table and discuss which new “trial wife” they have decided to move in with. In this modern era of open relationships, the mainstreaming of “therapy speak” and constantly open communication streams – particularly among young queer people – you might assume that this would be a breeze. Not quite. There are eye-rolls, barely concealed jabs and words such as “gaslighting” being thrown across the untouched crockery like someone asking to pass the salt. If you put the subtitles on, you will see lines such as “[dramatic, overwhelming music playing]” and “[confrontational music]” appear at the bottom of the screen.
Of course, there is nothing smart, nuanced or mentally stimulating about The Ultimatum: Queer Love. It is, as advertised, a queer version of a format we have seen time and time again: young people being pushed to their limits for the sake of easily digestible, trashy entertainment. So, if that is not your thing, then you probably won’t enjoy watching this play out. The show isn’t going to change your mind about reality TV if you can’t stand it in the first place.
But if unscripted reality is your thing, there is definitely something to be said about seeing lesbian and bi people involved in that format: not as bit-part characters; not as plot points; not as trauma pornography for straight viewers. They are their usual selves, as messy, ill-advised and chaotic as the next contestant toting an unbranded beverage and talking about their “connection” with someone they met a week ago. Absurd? Yes. Watchable? Absolutely.