Netflix's The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On is wholesale relationship slaughter and one reason why streaming services are in trouble – Alastair Stewart

Frank Sinatra haunts you when watching Netflix reality TV show The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On. He's standing screaming “love and marriage” at you. If you doze off, Ol' Blue Eyes is there to wake you up.

Why? Because irony was never lost on Sinatra. His romantic songs were tinged by experience from a messy personal life. He sang but never lived his idealised ballads.

The Ultimatum has no such self-awareness. Dante might just find another circle of Hell watching this glorified dating show.

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Contrary to softcore porn indulgences like Love Island or Naked Attraction, this is a self-proclaimed “social experiment”. Six couples on the cusp of marriage enter into a quasi-open relationship. One party is ready to commit, and the other is not. "Shape up" is the titular ultimatum as they "explore their options" and enter a "trial marriage" with the contestants over ten episodes.

Issuing your partner a threat to snog, marry, or avoid is not what you might call sound relationship advice. It's not like the viewers seriously sit and watch with the best wishes of the participants in mind. We want misery and heartbreak as they mix and match partners to see if somewhere better is out there. Bill it however you want, "social experiment" this is not.

BuzzFeed reports that most of the contestants did not actually know the show's format. In addition to intimate personal questions during the casting process, they were also asked if their relationship was at a "standstill" or a "roadblock". And it was conducted through social media.

Who is more foolish, the fool who watches or the fool who takes part? To peek into the minds of these contestants would be worthy of a psychology show in itself. Two couples are now engaged, and another is married and pregnant. The rest have gone their separate ways.

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There were six per cent fewer marriages in Scotland in 2019, and seven per cent more divorces (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)There were six per cent fewer marriages in Scotland in 2019, and seven per cent more divorces (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
There were six per cent fewer marriages in Scotland in 2019, and seven per cent more divorces (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

What is bewitching about this show is it represents an entirely new breed of bait TV. We grit our teeth as it emphasises faux tragedy with stock stress music. We pray for the upset, even as it believes its nonsense about being a contribution to social science.

When Big Brother first hit our screens in 2000, we were just as gullible in believing it was anything other than a powder keg. Heighten people's emotional vulnerability for long enough, and you have an explosive TV – for our entertainment.

Fans of The Ultimatum will undoubtedly argue it is, like most things, harmless. Who is actually damaged by a group of couples indulging their preposterousness, and who are we to deny their right to do so?

Cicero condemned Ancient Roman politicians for voting for cheap food and entertainment to keep the population distracted. “The evil was not in bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”

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The social fascination is not that couples entered this with false hopes, but did so in the expectation they would not break up. After all, the show fits squarely into the broader trend of marriage shows.

"Marry or Move On” is the show's sub-title, and rightly so – it is a wholesale relationship slaughter. There were 26,007 marriages in Scotland in 2019, six per cent fewer than in 2018. The entire ends-justify-the-means logic of the show ignores that 50 per cent of relationships survived its "experiment".

Declining marriage rates are never the problem; it's the record number of divorces. The total number of divorces granted in Scotland in 2019-20 was 7,883, seven per cent higher than in 2018-19. If there is a plus for this show, it highlights the importance of getting it right or not doing it at all. It is not saying that, but this seems like its indirect consequence. It needles the slowly unfolding apocalypse of a wrought relationship.

The show is an exercise in chronic voyeurism, cruel to the participants and indicative of the general matrimony crisis in the West. Swapping partners around on TV is probably not as effective as extensive therapy, a candid sit down, and an honest appraisal of the attributes one wants in a partner.

The writing was on the wall when the commentary descriptions used phrases like "original partner". Anyone who has to threaten their partner on a global streaming service is likely not to last. It is a predictable trap. The premise might well be called the Bored Ultimatum.

At least some of the participating parents talk sense. In their candid moments of meeting their child's new partner, they help to unmask the "experiment" for the glorified dating show it is.

Torturing each other into consenting to an ultimatum by flaunting new relationships is probably not conducive to a happy relationship. "You don't know what you've got til it's gone" is one thing, but reducing people and partners to a list of pros and cons is symptomatic of society's shopping list-style approach to dating through apps (a problem made worse by the Covid pandemic).

More than 1.5 million people have cancelled streaming service subscriptions in the first quarter of 2022, which should be a sobering reminder for streaming giants about their vulnerability.

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Netflix alone announced a loss of 200,000 users. Not only does this fall well short of predictions it would add 2.5 million subscribers, but it begs the question whether their current creative output is enough to retain, nevermind attract, new viewers.

If The Ultimatum is anything to go by, they have a serious problem.

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