DVR Hindsight #18 (1/16/19): Temptation Island Premiere

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“Temptation Island” – “Temptation Begins” – Season 4, Ep. 1 (USA)

In the continued interest of exploring the fascinating push/pull relationship between high cunning and low art, let us now figuratively hold our collective noses and deign to discuss/ dignify a television dating game show on which four attractive young heterosexual couples in theoretically committed relationships of between three and eight years are, of their own volition, whisked away to a ridiculously swanky tropical resort to mingle and/or cavort – again, on purpose – with a herd of photogenic and aggressively amorous singles and, in the process, stick pins in those aforementioned relationships as if they were an assortment of designer voodoo dolls. Will these couples survive their respective dalliances, however innocent or flagrant, with their underlying affection and respective commitments intact? Could they possibly, with the decks so stacked against them? Will eyes wander, tempers flare, doubt cripple, and veneers crumble? Will the contestants invariably protest too much and way too frigging often in heavily edited “confessional” interviews, and, when so, just how egregious will the distance be separating their words from their deeds? Did you not know The Gap had a line of discount accessories designed to aid sexy young post-grads in their pursuit of romantic surveillance and/or mild sabotage? When the casting directors of Temptation Island have trouble sleeping, do they count abs instead of sheep? Where the hell exactly is this admittedly glorious luxury resort and can I take out a fourth mortgage on my own cozy hovel to spend an off-season weekend there?* It seems we have much to learn together.

*Quite possibly. Not really. Yes, yes, and yes. Gods, yes, extra strength/triathlon length. Kidding? Probably. Hey, no free advertising! Wow. I can’t reliably remember what happened two weekends ago, but it does seem as if my reptile subconscious kinda missed this show.

Happy 2019, and welcome (back) to Temptation Island, for the long awaited (by me, if no one else) technically fourth season of a show whose concept never lost a drop of its sinister potency despite dying on the vine way back in the days when a hashtag, which wasn’t called that, was just another key on your corded landline phone. Plucked from the ether by the USA Network as a low-cost, high-concept, selective reality reboot to help pad out its prime time slots not already occupied by first-run WWE programming or syndicated blocks of Modern Family and Law & Order: SVU, this titillating millennial artifact is somehow even more suited to, if still not strictly relevant in, the current Instagram age, with all its pervasive self-regard and rampant self-promotion. Couples much more well-adjusted than these routinely make idle dinner party conversation about their various “celebrity crushes” and “hall-pass” romantic partners. Just imagine if your significant other were to actually give you implicit permission to cheat – and, of course, vice versa – before the two of you jetted off to an environment eye-popping in every respect, custom designed and weighted with casino odds to make exactly that happen. It’s as if The Bachelor** roared on past the final rose ceremony and doubled down in an attempt to actually become interesting, with quadruple the talent pool, half the pretense, and none but the barest social graces. Temptation Island pays lip service to the sanctity of romantic commitment whilst simultaneously reframing it in a laser-sighted sniper’s scope.

**Launched in 2002, the year before the original run of “Temptation Island” ended, “The Bachelor” shares what I’m sure it would consider an uncomfortable amount of DNA with its tawdry forebear. Built on the faulty twin premises that 1) unreasonably beautiful people also/even fall for each other better than do workaday “normals” and 2) that no love can hope to be more honest, true, lasting, or organic than the kind manufactured and sanitized for nationwide consumption, “The Bachelor” went on to become the television institution “Temptation Island” probably should’ve been, sanding its saucy, salty milieu down in the process from (figuratively) a distressed bamboo sex hut into a tasteful wicker loveseat.

However ostensibly adult, these kids live in a largely perspective-free zone, or else approach life with entirely too much of an authentic child’s inlaid sense of indestructibility. This is a fairly merciless personal bargain for them to undertake. One has to wonder early on when (or if) the reality quotient of this equation might finally prove sufficiently “real” to them, and, indeed, it’s something we’ve barely glimpsed by the time end credits roll.*** Though most everyone talks a good game, one couple alone – commitment-phobe Evan and commitment-centric Kaci – appears to acknowledge the potential gravity of the situation they’ve stumbled into, and, thus backed into a corner, almost valiantly vow to play the game in the spirit of unalloyed discovery that its publicists intended. The two middle couples are aesthetically pleasing but wishy-washy (Casual emasculation talk! Vague trust and maturity issues!), and seem to be looking much more forward to their impending playtime than not. The final couple spends almost every moment together either arguing or jockeying for clipped rhetorical positioning in a ludicrously tense standoff. They can’t even authentically kiss each other goodbye when the time comes, which is unfortunate since they have the look of a hand grenade that arrived to the battlefield with its pin pre-pulled. Cheating of at least some manner or description is presented on Temptation Island as almost a fait accompli, and community standards of decency don’t necessarily apply. Like obscenity, the definition of cheating may vary from person to person, but everyone knows when he or she sees it.

***Despite the soothing presence of original host Mark L. Walberg, “Temptation Island” is largely being presented here as a whole new show, and is therefore as subject as any to the eternal problem with series premieres: how to balance information dumping with action delivery; how to provide both context and entertainment. I recently had occasion to revisit the series premieres of “Game of Thrones” and “The Sopranos”, two of my favorite shows of all time, and actually found each a bit lacking in sustained oomph at the expense of extensive indexing and table-setting. The “Thrones” pilot I found especially dry. Situated far from the summit of Mount Prestige, “Temptation Island” is so much humid swampland, too invested in its assortment of lush greenery and mild intrigue to be able to really drop the hammer on its test subjects. There’s time yet. The concluding sizzle reel touting the season to come promises to bring the comprehensive pain.

If history is any indicator, they can hardly wait to call it out either. Evan and Kaci both bring tricky issues to the table – he is haunted by legit past trauma and worried that history might repeat itself despite his best efforts, while her overly religious upbringing has in effect put a countdown clock on their relationship, which will revert to pumpkin form if they remain unmarried by age thirty. Amateur handicappers and degenerate gamblers of most any stripe will have a field day with aforementioned conjugal combatants Shari and Javen, giving and taking strategic points and likely operating in the over/under realm instead of merely picking boring winners. Whether the two will eventually explode and litter the surrounding jungle with flaming debris seems much more a settled question than either when or how. Their fundamental weakness as a couple – high school sweethearts who have never seriously dated apart, not to mention the fact that since he has already cheated on her their past will never fully be prologue – is so glaringly obvious that it very well all might end up a mirage, but I doubt it. “This is really a test,” says Shari, “to see whether we can handle being on our own…or whether Javen will fold under the pressure.” Her belief is, of course, touching. The Californian two-steppers briefly indulge the fiction that they are a loving if not altogether trusting couple, but immediately dig trenches upon arriving in paradise. Though I tired of their interpersonal rancor instantly, I am interested in seeing where the days to come take them. I think they both could really use the break.

The original incarnation of Temptation Island helped clear a path down which refined crowdpleasers like ABC’s Bachelor and Bachelorette might comfortably travel without getting unseemly muck on their Manolo Blahniks. That this modern reboot should realistically need to reboot so little – original host Mark Walberg (not that one) returns, along with all the nagging doubts, flotillas of flirting, deployed defense mechanisms and passive-aggressive mind games, the symphony of cheesy introductory one-liners (pay attention, as if you could help it, to the girl who gives equal credence to her “powers of persuasion” and the kind of hot pants James Brown once sang about), and the alternating pettiness, despair, delirium, and surprising generosity of spirit that are part and parcel of seeing so uncomfortable a journey through to its end – is just about the best news I could report at this early date. These initial episodes might as well be subtitled Sunshine and Schadenfreude for the oddly satisfying spectacle they present of pretty people squirming under patently unfair conditions they nevertheless super-duper-stupidly agreed to. Later on, with stakes long defined, the drama essentially writes itself without input from the show’s overly helpful brain trust, and rarely equivocates. Believe me, I wanted to answer Walberg’s meek assertion that the pack of seductively dressed and stubbled hyenas lined up for inspection behind that distracting water feature were, “all there to find love” with the Bronx cheer it so richly deserved. No, Temptation Island is what it is, and lets its participants know straight up that the price of being single for a couple of bacchanalian weeks may just be the potential to feel broken for much, much longer. Whether that approaches fair trade will vary depending upon whom you ask, but no one can say they weren’t warned, just like no one can hope to emerge from an experience still unlike most anything on reality television unscathed.

Besides, with winter whipping around like it is currently, who couldn’t use a virtual vacation?

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