When Temptation Island first launched in January 2001, it followed the usual trajectory of Fox’s early reality-TV experiments, with intense moral outrage followed by intense ratings success. The idea was as devious as it was simple: Take four (straight) couples at a crux point in their relationships, ship them off to a tropical island, separate the men from the women, put them each in separate accommodations with a dozen hot and horny singles, and see how many of the relationships make it until the end.
Because everything from TV of old is new again, USA has rebooted Temptation Island. (It officially debuted last night after a soft launch online last week.) The concept is exactly the same — the couples, the singles, and the will-they-won’t-they breakups are all present and accounted for. It even has the same host, Mark L. Walberg (no relation to the Funky Bunch), a somewhat earnest uncle figure who is dusting off his hosting chops after years in cold storage. Just like with the original, the drama is there from the onset, and it couldn’t be more delicious — especially because the couples seem so wonderfully pathological in the way that only modern reality TV can highlight.
Nicole and Karl have been together for several years, but Karl is weary of making a long-term commitment because Nicole dumped her last boyfriend for him and he’s afraid she’ll toss him when she’s sick of him, too. Kady and John are a southern couple and, even though John looks like a former linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, Kady wants more of an “alpha man” who can teach their kids how to hunt and stuff. Kaci is very religious and being pressured by her family to marry Evan, a man with a body for Instagram and teary-looking eyes for an emo music video, who just doesn’t see why they need the “ring and paper” of marriage.
The stars of the show are Shari and Javen, a pair of 25-year-olds who have been together for eight years. They’re high-school sweethearts who have never been in a relationship with anyone else — Shari hasn’t even been on a date with anyone other than Javen — but they’re trying to get over Javen’s infidelity while he was away at college. They’re constantly squabbling, and she is quick to fall into ridiculous fits of crying that even Mr. L. Wahlberg finds inexplicable. At one point in the second episode, she gets upset at Javen for turning down the advances of a girl.
This time around, however, the producers promise things will be more respectable on Temptation Island. “A concerted effort was made to populate the island with singles genuinely looking for love whose personalities are appealing to the four couples who are questioning the long-term viability of their relationships,” David Goldberg, CEO of producer Banijay Studios, said in a press release about the show’s revival.
While that might be true, I recently rewatched the first episode of the original Temptation Island, and it is identical in both form and content to the reboot. The only difference is in the outfits.
But it’s not just the cringe of what we wore in those Britney Spears–inspired years that reveals the passage of time. The singles on this show have clearly been raised on reality TV in a way that their predecessors were not. These single women wear far less clothing and craft their opening statements for extreme attention grabbing. (It’s not “fake Australian accent” extreme, but close.) While Temptation Island is exactly the same, the context around it has changed.
Fox first launched the show in 2001, immediately after the monumental success of Survivor kicked the wasp’s nest of reality TV. The audience that tuned in that first season genuinely had no idea what might happen. Sure, there would be some chaste kissing and maybe some actual hookups, but could a couple actually break up on TV? The removal of two of the contestants halfway through production added to the furor. It turns out, while none of the couples were married, producers didn’t discover one couple had kids together until they were already taping. Yeah, extensive background checks weren’t a thing then.
But these were the days before Joe Millionaire, before Bachelor in Paradise — heck, it was even before The Bachelor. We didn’t know what romance on TV would look like outside of The Dating Game, Love Connection, or the harried hookups on The Real World. Like so many outrageous reality-TV experiments (see: The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault and Eaten Alive), it didn’t live up to the hype. Despite the few dalliances, all of the couples remained together. We never got the train wreck we were promised. That’s why seasons two and three, aired in October 2001 and August 2003, were ratings disasters. Temptation Island proved not that tempting beyond its initial premise.
In the intervening years, we might have forgotten the results of this original reality experiment, but we’ve learned what love on the tube should look like, mostly thanks to The Bachelor franchise and trashier descendants like Flavor of Love. This time around, the singles show up hoping to get as much attention as they can. In episode two of the revival, which was made available to press ahead of the premiere, a pair of single women get into the sort of massive drunken fight that is the stock-in-trade of “drama” on any reality show. One of the participants in the fight, Katheryn, seems not so much interested in finding love as she is in finding Instagram followers. She is trying to cause enough of a dustup to maybe get invited on The Bachelor and get even more Instagram followers. (Or at least enough for a Flat Tummy Tea contract.) Like everyone on the show, she knows she won’t find love, but she might find a certain level of fame.
That is what makes the show’s promise of singles “actually trying to find love” (or, you know, “here for the right reasons”) especially cynical. Anyone who might be interested in watching Temptation Island knows that no one finds love on television. Sure, they could in theory, considering the hot-house environment and producers heavily invested in getting them to fall for each other. But even so, that love doesn’t last unless you’re Trista Sutter. If the show focused on the “drama” of it all — the tears, the infighting — we might actually buy it. Instead, we get that as a bonus, even though that should be the real reason anyone tunes in.
Still, you should tune in, because even if all the relationships hold up, there are some train wrecks here in the style of 90 Day Fiancé. The best reality shows, even though they exist within an entirely constructed environment, can provide true insight into how adult relationships work. If Karl is right that his girl wants to leave him for someone else, how could their relationship survive a place where cheating is not only possible but actively encouraged? Temptation Island can give us insight, but what it can’t give us is a new relationship that stands the test of time. This is still a valuable experiment, but not for the reasons the producers seem to think. Viewers might not have gotten any smarter all of these years later, but we sure are savvier. The same can be said for anyone who goes to Temptation Island.