Only one episode of Temptation Island, and I have already learned
three things: 1. Not all Playboy models are Playmates; 2. There is
more than one way to spell Mark Walberg (that would be the yes
preternaturally annoying host, who is not an actor formerly known as Marky
Mark); and 3. If you’re a guy stuck on an island with four semi-single
ladies and eleven other men, it pays to be a masseur named Sean. Sean has
already been declared verboten to two of the women the boyfriends are
allowed to declare one man off limits to each of their respective
girlfriends, and vice versa and I still feel certain that he will not
escape from San Pedro without at least a few calluses on his soft Shiatsu
hands, among other body parts.
Otherwise, yes, I had the same reaction that you did. We are supposed to be
seduced by the stupidity of the whole thing who the fuck are these
idiots, I would never do this but within reason. The four young
couples who have agreed nay, no doubt begged, cheated and lied
to become contestants on this show are attractive and appealing enough in
that multicultural way.
They are a waitress, an attorney, a gym manager, a
model, a kayaking entrepreneur, a real estate broker, and like that. They
are from Miami and Atlanta and Malibu. They are blonde and they are black,
and at least one is blonde and black at the same time. Temptation
Island has a Cabinet that looks like America.
And the premise is easy enough: These four pretty-comfy couples test their
commitment to each other with two weeks of fantastical enforced separation
on an island twenty miles off the coast of Belize, sipping sticky white
juice (from a coconut half) with reggae Muzak all around. Kind of like
being caught on the security camera of Wal-Mart in paradise. Elbowing their
way into Eden are a serpentine array of eligible alternatives to their
significant others, selected from a battery of tests to be most tempting to
the idiosyncratic tastes of each. So while there are the obvious sex
objects among the seducers a former Laker Girl (but, like, so what,
so was Paula Abdul), a model from Perfect Ten magazine (her breasts
are real!), a surfer dude and a motocross racer there is also a
graduate student, a special education teacher, a third-year medical
resident, a litigator, a Jimmy Buffett back-up singer, and at least one
pretty bass player from Seattle with pink hair (the mid-nineties live on!).
Somehow, they’ve managed to populate the island with people named Maceo,
Ace, Kaya, Lawonna, Lola, Venus, Dago, Taheed, Ytossie and Britt. If
nothing else keeps you intrigued by Temptation Island, you can sit
there like me and wonder why on earth there are no Jessicas or Jennifers, no
Michaels or Johns on this show; you can wonder if any of these people really
have mothers, or were they simply sprung from Zeus’ forehead and told to
And here they all are, the men with their seductresses in Captain Morgan’s
Retreat, twenty miles from the distaff members and their male suitors at
Bata Chica, everyone skinny-dipping and playing quarters and strip poker and
spin the bottle, or something like that. One minute, you’re saying,
Honey, maybe we should see other people, and the next you’re licking
a margarita off some stranger’s stomach. Oooo-whee! And all the while, a
latter-day Ricardo Montalban (a/k/a, Mr. Walberg) will be there to measure
and monitor progress, occasionally making ominous statements to the camera
like, “Who will stay together? Who will be torn apart? Who will return
with the person they arrived with? Who will return alone?” All that’s
missing is a Mexican midget yelling, “Da plane! Da plane!”
So let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that Temptation
Island actually does tell us something about ourselves as a culture.
Let’s pretend that this show means more than reality TV is big and voyeurism
is hot. Let us try to believe that there is something real here, that this
is not the Heisenberg Principle all over again, that the simple fact that
this is a videotaped experiment does not mean that the results are
completely falsified. After all, the thesis behind Temptation Island
differs a great deal from the themes of Survivor and Big
Brother and The Real World. While those shows are about how
difficult it is for a bunch of strangers to live in close quarters,
Temptation Island is about how hard it is for two people who are
intimate to live apart. So there you are, trying to have a good time as a
swinging single for a couple of weeks, all the while worrying that your
better half is having a better time than you are (and occasionally having
your fear confirmed via video tape). It’s like competitive dating, and the
one you are competing against is the person that you actually are dating.
Philip K. Dick could not have come up with a stranger plot.
The paradoxical nature of reality TV is that it fascinates us at all;
reality is, in fact, rather dull. But our petty lives become more
interesting when writ large. And the issues of the Temptation Island
couples are everyone’s issues. Together for a couple of years or so, they
all are contemplating that next step, to wed or not to wed, and all that
other fraught and gloomy and possibly ecstatic stuff. So you sit there
watching, always on the verge of pelting tomatoes or throwing popcorn at the
television screen, forever disgusted by the disgustingness of the whole
ridiculous exercise and enterprise, and yet you can’t dismiss it entirely.
This brinkmanship approach to love is familiar to us all. You know the
game: it’s okay for me to cheat on him, but he better not
cheat on me. Or: just fucking some other person does not mean we don’t
love each other. Or, finally: I’m going to leave him before he leaves me.
Our private lives are rendered sickening and frightening by our simultaneous
desire to be loving, open and honest coupled with our fear of getting caught
foolishly devoted to someone who doesn’t feel the same way. As Joni
Mitchell once sang: “But now it’s just another show/ You leave them
laughing when you go/ And if you care, don’t let them know/ Don’t give
yourself away.” How can love thrive amid the paranoia of doubting? But on
Temptation Island, the doubt is not some dirty little secret; it’s
the whole thing. If Big Brother’s title was meant to evoke images of
Cold War spy games, on Temptation Island the demilitarized zone that
is supposed to make love possible has been turned into an active
And these days, such is love: c’est la guerre, c’est l’amour. In the
absence of meaningful engagement in the political or social sphere, we have
now found a way to make private life matter more. After all, this is only
the second generation of Americans to grow up without a major war to fight,
without a rite of passage such as that, and hence romance has become a
proving ground imbued with inappropriate significance: One’s merit as a
human being is now measured by your ability to function within a pair.
Since we are not all married by a certain age any longer just as a matter of
course, the challenge to find love through instinct and intuition, without
considerations of kin and community that used to force people together,
takes some doing, becomes some kind of talent as if it were no
different from playing the tuba or shimmying your hips in a hula hoop or,
for that matter, being able to write well.
And so, the people on Temptation Island, while enticing themselves
with all the sybaritic pleasures, actually have an interest in proving that
their relationships will endure. Winning will not be a conquest of the most
babealicious, but of resistance.
But the most telling anthropological lesson any of us stand to learn from
Temptation Island has to do with the tenets of evolutionary biology.
At the end of Episode 1, when the men get onto the motorboat to head back to
their end of the island, as the couples are separated for the next two weeks
of field work on the beach, there is teariness and sad exchange all around.
But only one couple, the confusingly and conveniently ethnically diverse
Ytossie and Taheed, seem really scared. I mean, she is weeping and whooping
it up, she has stormed away from Taheed before they have even had a chance
to say goodbye, the whole situation looks messy. Uh-oh: This relationship
is either already doomed or, to satisfy reverse logic, the one that will be
strengthened by all the temptation. We later see Ytossie confiding in the
other ladies that she is particularly worried because her man has run around
on her before, that the rest of them have not yet been cheated on. That
seems explanation enough for the whole bad scene.
Turns out, as we’ll discover in episode three, that Ytossie and Taheed have
a child together, which means the stakes are much higher. It’s not just
romance that they’ve got to hold on to it’s mingled and reproduced
DNA. The point of the show was to test couples who only had each other to
lose. This parenting pair get themselves thrown off the island because
their situation matters just a little too much for television.