90 Day Fiancé's History: How the TLC Reality Show Became a Cultural Phenomenon

Orstein: For that first season, we didn’t know who we were looking for outside of people who were engaging, had interesting backstories, were willing to be totally transparent and authentic. We looked at Russ and Pao very early and were intrigued by them. We felt they jumped off the screen and had a really interesting story to tell about how she was going to be acclimating to life in Oklahoma. That was so different from the life she knew in Colombia. They caught our attention from the get-go.

Paola Mayfield: For me, filming the show [coincided with] my first time in the U.S. When I arrived in the U.S. on my K-1 visa, I also hadn’t seen Russ in forever. So I arrived at the airport in the U.S. and all I knew was life in Colombia.

I felt like I would have time to get ready after I got off the plane, but when I landed Russ was there and the cameras were waiting. I thought, “Oh my gosh—I’m so nervous.” I felt like, “What am I supposed to do now?”

Adler: They had already invested time and money in their love. When we got those first cuts back, it was raw and authentic.

That first season, we almost wondered if it was too authentic. You’re watching these individuals who don’t know each other that well sitting in their living room talking to each other, trying to figure their life out. They’re not screaming and yelling; they’re not in some big, beautiful house. It was like, “Is this too real?”

But we just decided to lean into the real. Other networks wouldn’t have done that. Other networks would have said, “We need to brighten up this world. We need to make them look nicer, make their house look nicer, make them look more interesting.” The people we cast were going through something authentic. The stresses and triggers of the 90-day process—we thought, let’s sit back and watch it play out and not feel pressured to tell them to be louder or flashier. Let’s just work with who people really are.

Russ Mayfield: We had no idea what to expect when it came to filming. It got frustrating, because we wanted to be spending time together but there were always cameras around. I always wanted to do my best and look my best. So we just went with the flow. The amount of filming we did compared to what aired was frustrating—how much we worked, versus what was presented.

A Slow Start

Ornstein: I think we all had a feeling that we had something special from the early days, once we got into production and started looking at the material. It did very well that [first] season, but it wasn’t this instant smash hit. It grew.

Sharp: If you’re watching Twitter, you can see when America is watching a show. This didn’t start as a juggernaut. When we started production for season two, we were trying to think about how to tell different stories.

Adler: Season two brought the game-changing couple of Danielle and Mohamed.

[Mohamed Jbali, then 26, met Danielle Mullins, 41, in a chat room. He moved from Tunisia to Ohio to marry her, but viewers—and Mullins’ family—were skeptical of his intentions. Jbali, meanwhile, felt misled by her tenuous financial situation.]

When we sent their casting tape to Matt, I thought he was going to say this was a no-go. We were looking at them and thinking, “Huh—we haven’t told this story yet.” We try to document both sides. In that storyline, Mohamed very clearly felt he was misled by Danielle. Whatever people might believe about his original intentions, he continues to insist that he came to America thinking certain things about Danielle and her finances and her world. He has a certain point.

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