reality tv

Is the Temptation Island Reboot Trashy or Transgressive?

Photo: Mario Perez/USA Network

The question looming over USA Network’s reboot of Temptation Island was simple: Why would anyone do this? Its eight participants — four couples, including a pair who’d been together since they were 16 — never really adequately explained why spending a month apart and dating desirable singles was the best way to address problems in their relationships. By the end of its two-part finale, though, Temptation Island gave a clear reason: because, somehow, it actually worked. The poster child for early-2000s trashy Fox reality television was reborn as a show that seemed to be helpful, and even a little thoughtful, although it avoided wrestling with the issues it uncovered.

At the end, all but two of the eight were without their original partners, having broken up because of Temptation Island, yet they all seem to be in better places. Perhaps that’s thanks to the miracle of editing, but in the show’s straightforward and surprisingly sedate narrative, they all came to realizations about themselves and their relationships. How is this possible from a show that host Mark L. Walberg acknowledges is, at least on its surface, as “trashy as can be — or as the kids would say, trashy AF”? Even he doesn’t recommend its methodology: “I suggest if you’re having trouble, go to a therapist and work it out.”

While the Temptation Island reboot offered plenty of opportunities for voyeurism, and was marketed with images of dripping, hot bodies, it also resisted many of the urges that have consumed The Bachelor franchise and turned other dating shows into boiling hot messes. Finding a life partner is “the most elusive journey any of us will ever go on,” Walberg said. “That drives this. We don’t have to add any contrivance.”

The most contrivance they added beyond the central conceit arrived at periodic bonfires, where Walberg showed each cast member a producer-selected video clip of their significant other. These videos were condensed and lacked context, and thus provoked reactions, like spirals of questions or doubt. Seeing his girlfriend Nicole in a bed with another man was all the excuse Karl needed to have sex with one of the single women he and the other three men were living with. But also: What did he expect? They volunteered to split up for a month and date other people.

The one couple that survived this process, Shari and Javen, seemed to be the most likely to end things immediately. They’d been together since they were 16, and in episode one, they began bickering the second all the single people showed up. Instead of falling apart, they decided to get engaged, but that almost seemed beside the point, an attempt to wedge in an audience expectation.

“They were so young and so petty when I first met them,” Walberg said, sounding like that happened years, not weeks, earlier. He said his time with Shari and Javen was like “watching a high-school relationship go on break for college.” By the end, the difference was palpable: “So light and humorous and happy, it was such a different vibe. As silly as this reality show may be, that was growth. That was big, what they went through.” And Walberg initially thought they had no chance. “My judgment was completely wrong,” he said. “One of the things that makes this show really, really watchable: People really do go through a transformation, for better or for worse.”

For worse seemed to be Evan and Kaci, who arrived with a carefree attitude and a toxic relationship, where Kaci was pushing for an engagement, while Evan was haunted by the murder of his father, a 20th Century Fox executive who’d been killed as the result of an affair.

“I was pretty stressed before they came to the bonfire,” Walberg said, calling Evan and Kaci two people with “incredible pain caused by the other.” In their time on Temptation Island, they each learned a lot about themselves and their relationships, but that sent them in opposite directions. Kaci realized that her ultimatums were counterproductive, and seemed willing to reconnect with Evan. Meanwhile, Evan fell passionately in love with Morgan, a realtor, though Morgan was worried that this was a temporary reality-TV romance, and that Evan’s guilt would lead him to stay with Kaci. “What if you chicken out?” she asked him. But Evan didn’t, and the moment when he and Kaci finally sat down to face each other was painful and uncomfortable to watch. “Too little, too late,” Evan said. “You’ve pushed me into the corner for years and years … I can’t handle that anymore.”

The reality of what everyone on Temptation Island chose to do hit Kaci the hardest, and she was inconsolable as a car drove her away. “How is this real? No, like, this is a joke. This has to be a joke. This honestly really has to be a joke. How is this happening?” she sobbed. Kaci’s decision to participate in a show where her boyfriend — the man she so desperately wanted to propose to her — dated other people suddenly became brutally, viscerally real. It also left them both in better places: Evan moved to D.C. with Morgan, finding love and acceptance from both her and her parents, while Kaci returned to the arms of her parents, who were thrilled she and Evan had finally split.

Although Kaci’s demands that Evan propose may have seemed unreasonable, she wasn’t alone in echoing the expectations of parents or a patriarchal culture. Many of the couples struggled with the scripts society demanded they follow. Watching his partner Kady with other men, John said, “You made me not feel like a man.” Kady told John that he is not “the type of man that I want for my household, and the type of man I want to lead my children,” because, “I feel like I have to kind of baby you a little, I kind of have to mother you a little.” She told him flatly: “You make me not want to have kids.” They broke up, not because they’d found new partners, but because they realized they weren’t good for each other.

Meanwhile, Karl couldn’t stand the idea of his girlfriend Nicole even talking to other men: “Any woman should know, Hey, my guy’s in the room. I want respect. Not for my woman to float around the bar and seem like she’s single.” (While they decided to stay together at the end of their month on television, spent working on their relationship — which seems like quite a most reasonable approach — they split after they got home.) And Shari and Javen, who got engaged at their bonfire moments after their reunion, started the show being “crippled in their platonic relationships with the other sex,” as Walberg said. But spending time with people of the other sex taught them “that wasn’t challenging their sexuality or risking their relationship.” Instead of falling in love with someone he dated on the show, Javen formed a solid friendship with Kayla.

The toxicity of gender was leaching through the surface, though never directly discussed. Walberg says he found these young couples to be weighed down by “a lot of stuff that was somewhat antiquated” and “outdated ways of being that are ineffective,” such as “the idea of the ultimatum.” (He said those ultimatums lack “forethought”: If someone were to agree to a proposal, “what if that were to transpire, where would that lead you?”) But as ever-present as these expectations were, Walberg didn’t dig into the stickiness of gender roles with the couples. “I didn’t want to skin that cat. There’s a lot to unpack there,” he said. He also said, “I also don’t want to discount people’s desire for traditional gender roles.”

The confrontations of the Temptation Island finale — orchestrated so that each person was able to speak without the other responding, which Walberg said was “not unlike exercises I’ve seen in therapy” — were tense and uncomfortable, and made for riveting television. But it never sank to the level of exploitative garbage, trashy without being purposeful or redemptive. The format has a mission.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of Temptation Island is watching people who claim to be in loving relationships commit to the idea of seeing other people in order to figure themselves out. It’s one thing for the star of The Bachelor or Bachelorette to date a dozens of people at the same time. But if that person was already in a committed relationship? That’s so transgressive and unacceptable that it needs to be labeled as ”trash” so the rest of us can watch it without guilt. But by ditching society’s expectations, at least in that one way, eight people found their way toward healthier relationships. Your move, Paradise Hotel.

Is the Temptation Island Reboot Trashy or Transgressive?