As a general rule, I have absolutely no interest in judging pop-culture consumers on their guilty pleasures. It’s 2018, and it’s bleak out there. If you want to sit in front of the TV watching the Kardashians while simultaneously bingeing Terrace House on your iPad, I support you. The Great British Baking Show isn’t really radical self-care, but if that’s what you need to tell yourself right now, who are any of us to judge?
Still, there is the rare entertainment product that I will guiltlessly shame viewers over. WE tv’s new “docuseries,” Extreme Love, is one of those. If you are uncritically consuming this cruel and callous show, it might be time to reevaluate your TV diet. And if you were at all involved in the making of this judgmental, salacious series, it might be time to reevaluate, period.
Extreme Love is billed as a “shocking and outrageous” offering—“bizarre real-life love stories that prove there is someone for everyone.” From the first minute of the first episode—the flirtatious British narrator (more on her later), the sitcom-style soundtrack—it’s clear that WE is reaching for a reality TV farce. It’s also evident that the subjects of the show are the punchlines. Extreme Love is strange in that it has clearly absorbed some progressive mores and lingo. There’s a sense that the series tried for sex and body positivity, but then quickly gave up on all of that, returning to the tried-and-true tactic of mocking weirdos for their sexual proclivities.
While advertised as a vehicle for quirky love stories, Extreme Love clearly wants to be a show that points and laughs at “freaks,” and mines their strange, dramatic lives for our amusement. So it’s quite fun to watch the series backfire, as each couple Extreme Love follows proves themselves to be resistant to the exploitative narratives producers are waiting for them to fall into. Our British lady-narrator is an increasingly disappointed voyeur; her commentary is bound to make most viewers more uncomfortable than the supposedly strange behavior she’s mocking, as the series attempts to make every relationship and scenario out to be dysfunctional, disturbing, and deranged.
The series premiere focuses on three couples. Kyle, 31, labeled as a “granny lover,” is dating the 91-year-old Marg. The series obviously plays up their sex life. Marg, who seems like an absolute delight, explains that her three loves are “sex, Nascar, and crocheting.” On top of the gratuitous clips of Marg and Kyle sucking face, Extreme Love doesn’t even try and pretend that they’re not totally icked out by the pair. They enlist two random bros on the streets of Pittsburgh to judge the couple, and at one point, the British narrator responds “TMI!” to some graphic details that were no doubt heavily prompted.
The only real adversity that Kyle and Marge seem to face is a lame, manufactured storyline. The show builds up tension by teasing a dramatic meet-up between Kyle’s mother and his elderly girlfriend. After the anti-climactic house visit (they looked at photos together, it was sweet!) our skeptical narrator admits, “Kyle’s mom seems accepting.” Actually, his mom reveals, Kyle’s always been interested in older women. She is quick to share that “Kyle’s never brought home anyone younger than me,” laughing, “now that would shock me.”
This is a recurring theme throughout the Extreme Love premiere—people being kind, accepting, and blasé about their loved one’s kinks. The creative minds behind the show tried to sidestep this issue by teasing confrontations and conflicts that never quite materialize. After the narrator warns viewers repeatedly to look out for a Kyle love triangle, solemnly wondering how Marg will react to the news that her beau has been stepping out, we finally meet Kyle’s “side piece.” Surprise, surprise: Kyle is openly non-monogamous, and the women are both happy with the arrangement.
Next up are Dave and Shawna, an engaged couple who live in Nova Scotia with Dave’s three sex dolls—or as our pesky narrator intones, “There’s something even more shocking going on up in Canada.”
At this point, the show somehow becomes even more overt in its distaste for its subjects. Describing Dave and Shawna’s early relationship, it narrates how he, at some point, showed her his basement full of toys. The whole screen darkens, and ominous music plays. We’re obviously supposed to think that Shawna should have run far away from this creepy man, because no one who’s into sex dolls could possibly be worthy of a “normal” human relationship. As the episode progresses, we learn that Shawna has also come to enjoy sex dolls, that the couple often plays with them together, and that their family’s generally pretty chill about it. Of course, this doesn’t stop the Extreme Love narrator from teasing “family drama” in the form of a much-hyped blow-up that simply never materializes. Instead, Dave, Shawna, and their family seem to all have great relationships, and a healthy sense of humor.
While our British narrator often breaks out the cadence of a quip, her “jokes” are really just rude observations that, thanks to a posh accent, sound wittier than they really are. Lines like “a 91-year-old with a whip, it brings new meaning to 50 Shades of Grey” and “will Dave object to some stiff competition” just leave the viewer feeling icky. In contrast, I could watch Dave lovingly shop for—and with—his wife’s new sex doll all day. Maybe we should let these people tell their own, unquestionably interesting stories, instead of misrepresenting individuals and whole communities with irresponsible, disrespectful reality-TV edits? As an aside, the only time I was truly happy to be watching this show was when Dave proudly revealed that he owned one of the dolls from Lars and the Real Girl. So yeah, this guy—and his loving fiancée—are doing just fine.
Then there’s Monica, an obese woman who’s “on a mission to become immobile,” supported by her boyfriend Sid. Unsurprisingly, Extreme Love revels in footage of Sid feeding his girlfriend, zooms in on her body, and emphasizes her sexual relationship to eating and food play. Monica’s mother is worried about her health—or as the British narrator oh-so-subtly queries, “Will Monica’s mom save her daughter from eating herself to death?” Once again, an object of the show’s phony concern fails to precipitate the desired drama.
Monica is surrounded by loved ones who ultimately concede that her body is her own. When Monica learns that she is pregnant, knowing that it is a high-risk pregnancy, she begins dieting and exercising to try and ensure a healthy delivery. By the end of the show, Monica has lost a good deal of weight and given birth to a healthy baby girl. While this is all good news, it’s still strange to watch as the tone of the series entirely shifts. Gone are the salacious quips and innuendos. Extreme Love celebrates this development in the “couple’s unhealthy obsession with food” with a triumphant soundtrack; tellingly, Monica’s description is changed from “food fetishist” to “new mom.”
It’s great that Monica and her child are both healthy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s been “cured” of her fetish—or that that’s a desirable outcome. Maybe if this show wasn’t so busy mocking and judging, it could learn something from its adventurous, good-humored, and caring subjects.