To marry or not to marry is the dilemma at the heart of The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On. Within minutes, we meet six couples at a crossroads of deciding whether to get engaged or to split up for good. It’s a bump in the road that many viewers can probably relate to, but things quickly get weird.
All six pairs must break up and pursue a relationship with one half of another couple, also on the show. For three weeks, each participant lives with their new partner to test whether the grass is greener with someone else. Then, everyone decides whether to get back together with their original mate, to hook up with their new partner, or to walk away alone. It’s a mess.
The Ultimatum seemed primed to be this month’s Love Is Blind, a bona fide gem in Netflix’s romance reality crown. The new show was introduced at the end of Love Is Blind’s reunion episode last month, and is also presented by real-life married couple Nick and Vanessa Lachey. With a trailer showing dramatic cutaways, saucy confessions and tearful confrontations, it promised irresistible scandal at every turn. Of course, The Ultimatum was never going to be an in-depth look into psychological relationship dynamics. We all know that to enjoy reality TV, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. But unfortunately, The Ultimatum needs so much salt it almost makes you throw up.
In the first episode, Nick Lachey tells the contestants: “Psychologists agree that an ultimatum is not a good way to get somebody else to do what you want.” With this in mind, surely this show should have stayed in the pitching room – the guy we’re supposed to trust, the host, has just admitted that the foundation of the show is deeply flawed.
The Lacheys try to justify the concept by explaining that they flourished after Vanessa issued an ultimatum to Nick, five years into their relationship. They broke up and tried dating other people. However, the temporary split made them realise they were a great match, and the two reunited and started wedding preparations soon after. That might make for a nice story for them, but it doesn’t serve as a legitimate reason to test this formula on the public. The more the show tries to convince us that it makes sense, the more cynical it comes across. The Ultimatum would do better if it dropped the façade and came clean about its true motivation: drama.
The concept of needing to find a new partner from a limited pool is another thorn in The Ultimatum’s side – it provokes desperation for the cast to find anyone who’ll take them. Rather than trying to establish something real outside of their original pairing, everyone just wants to save face. Madlyn, who is less ready to get married than her boyfriend Colby, sets her sights on fellow cast member Randall early on.
She lets him know that when it comes to sex: “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to please you.” It’s forced and makes everyone cringe. Still, in such a constructed environment, it’s no surprise that everyone plays up to the camera. Another contestant, April, is keen for her partner Jake to pop the question – though she often seems more interested in coming up with telly-friendly catchphrases. Everyone involved seems so aware of the goal to make compelling TV that it’s hard to enjoy the finished product.
Yet as the series develops, there are some moments that feel genuine. One couple grapples with whether or not to have children, while another come to terms with the fact that they might not have anything in common at all. And of course, some ultimatums result in wedding bells. But in trying to satisfy so many criteria of what makes a gripping reality programme, The Ultimatum ends up souring the joy of what this genre should be. Though it may end up being a ratings hit regardless, this new romance experiment is a manipulation too far. Maybe we can have too much of a good thing after all.
‘The Ultimatum’ episodes one to eight are available now on Netflix, with new episodes released every Wednesday.