‘The Ultimatum: Queer Love’ is a mess in the best possible way

REVIEW: Netflix’s long-awaited queer dating experience is as imperfect as the queer dating culture it seeks to showcase

By now, within a certain generation of queer culture, the pansexual season of Are You the One? is entrenched into the canon. The concept for that show, the series’ eighth season, was simple: take the formula of a group of singles trying to find their perfect match at a tropical villa, and complicate it by casting a bunch of sexually fluid people and making everyone be able to date everyone. The result felt almost unreal—from the infamous fivesome in the “Boom Boom Room” to literally every moment of Kai and Jenna’s toxic love story, AYTO has remained the benchmark for queer reality dating TV and one of the few mainstream shows I’ve seen accurately reflect some of the messiness of real-life queer dating. 

And yet, nothing has reached its potential in the nine years since. Sure, we’ve had a slew of bisexual women attached to the Bachelor franchise (and even a Bachelor who came out as gay after his time on the show), and the cis gay boys just got I Kissed a Boy over the the U.K.; HBO’s 12 Dates of Christmas even gave us the fabled “two contestants end up sleeping with each other instead of the eligible Bachelor” storyline. But even as straight dating shows have gone more off the rails and gotten wilder and wilder with the advent of the Netflix dating show machine (see: Love Is Blind, Perfect Match and more), the queers have remained underserved.

Enter The Ultimatum: Queer Love.

When the season was first teased last year as a queer follow-up to the Netflix series’s first all-straight season, expectations were high. The idea of five queer couples, where one wants to get married and the other isn’t so sure, dating each other over several weeks—with the added sheen, metal wineglasses and faceless generic pop music of a Netflix original—was giving AYTO in the best way. And now that it’s here, I’m so happy to report that we did it, Joe: we finally have the sloppy AYTO sequel we’ve been waiting for. The Ultimatum: Queer Love is perfect. 

The cast celebrates together as they kick off some very messy dating.

Credit: Courtesy Netflix

And for the record: I don’t mean literally perfect. After watching the series’ first four episodes made available for review (which I churned through in a single night after receiving the screeners and have revisited several times to write this), I will freely admit that the show is flawed right from its very concept. Is marriage the most important thing in the world, as some of these people seem to think it is? Why is straight actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher the host? Why did some of these people agree to do this when they knew it would implode their lives? Are some people just there to be famous? What will happen to the various dogs implicated in the drama?

 

But reader, I don’t care about any of that because the mess is here. AYTO’s Kai and Jenna walked so The Ultimatum’s Vanessa and Lexi could run.

Here’s the concept: the show centres around five couples of queer women and non-binary folks, where one partner has issued “the ultimatum”—basically, they want to get married and the other doesn’t. They range from Tiff and Mildred, who’ve been together for a year and a half (but have somehow broken up multiple times in that period) to Xander and Vanessa, who’ve known each since high school and have been dating for four years. These couples “break up” and date amongst the group for a week, before choosing a new partner with whom to enter a “trial marriage” for three weeks. After that, they return to their original partner for a three-week “trial marriage” before deciding if they want to leave engaged, break up “forever” (as they say on these shows) or start something new with someone else (cue the dramatic music).

The age range is fairly broad, refreshingly reflecting the fact that for a lot of queer folks the timeline of marriage is different than the straights. While most of the cast is in their late 20s or early 30s, the spectrum ranges from 24-year-old Lexi (who boldly issued the ultimatum to her girlfriend Rae), to 42-year-old Aussie (who was issued the ultimatum by Aussie’s younger partner Sam). Rounding out the cast are cool butch Mal and the fiery Yoly.

It’s here where I’ll admit my perspective coming into this. I am turning 28 next month and also celebrating a three-year anniversary with my girlfriend, who’s five years older than me. We live together, but aren’t engaged (yet), but it’s a conversation we’re naturally having. And it’s refreshing to see queers talking through the things that are on my mind on TV—even if some things feel almost too close to home. 

Yoly and Mal enter the show with some realistic sticking points in their relationship.

Credit: Courtesy Netflix

Take Mal and Yoly: Yoly is ready to be married after three years together. But Mal is worried about having the financial stability to move forward in the way she wants to. That’s realistic and deeply relatable, and you can tell that they both love each other, but can’t fully work through that sticking point. I appreciate that the show tries to interrogate deeper and more serious aspects of queer relationships beyond the mess. Other conversations include two masc cast members genuinely talking through why they’ve never dated masc-for-masc before, and Aussie working through a gender journey with a sense of openness and curiosity. Plus there’s plenty of great one-off lines, at one party, one contestant loudly says, laughing, “It feels like we’re at a lesbian club: all of our exes are here!”

But reader, there is also the mess we were hoping for (or at least I was), and it boils down to some impeccably cast characters. I highly recommend watching The Ultimatum: Queer Love with your partner or friends, because you’ll learn a lot about someone from who they think are the heroes and villains here. Take Lexi, who’s confident, assured and very proud of her, uh, physical assets. She calls out other cast members for their bullshit and has a truly iconic moment over drinks involving accusing someone of having “my girlfriend’s fingers inside of you.” My partner and I love Lexi. She can do no wrong in our books. But after watching the episodes with a close friend, that friend came out firmly anti-Lexi. Queers, we have range!

Then there’s Vanessa, who’s accused several times of just being on the show to be famous. Is that true? Maybe. But the girl also knows how to be a reality TV villain and does it impeccably, at one point dating both halves of a couple that entered the show together (and using the same lines on them!) 

One of the things that works best about The Ultimatum compared to other dating show franchises is that there are stakes here. These aren’t a bunch of randos set upon a tropical location and told to date each other. These are five very real relationships—with all of their baggage, history and emotional connections. In the fourth episode, when one of the newly formed trial marriages results in actual sex, the tearful confession and phone call between one of the people involved and her original partner highlights the stakes at play. Or, early in the show, when one partner sees her girlfriend flirting with someone else and coldly intones: “I know my mom bought her that dress.” Sure, a lot of things happen for the cameras, but these are real people with real history together.

Now for what doesn’t work: the show rightfully focuses on its most interesting and loud characters, and that leaves some to fall out of focus, namely poor Sam, whose biggest character traits seem to be “pleasant” and “maybe doesn’t want to share a bed with a massive dog.” And then there’s the whole concept itself and that fact that this is polyamory, yet never named as such. The reality is that for so many people, and particularly queer people, a marriage and a house and kids is not the endgame. Dating multiple people is normal! Getting engaged isn’t what your whole life should hinge on! Also, sorting through all of these issues the couple enter with might better be served by, I don’t know, going to couples’ therapy.

But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and politics around all of that, and let The Ultimatum: Queer Love just wash over you as a voyeuristic peek into the lives of a bunch of queer people who decide to blow them up by going on a reality TV show, you’re going to have a great time. 

This is proof that the Netflix dating show formula not only works with queer folks—it thrives. Now give me gay Love Is Blind, you cowards!

The first four episodes of The Ultimatum: Queer Love drop May 24 on Netflix. Episodes 5-8 air May 31 and Episodes 9 and 10 air June 7.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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