Prolonged pandemic living has doubtless unleashed a litany of subtle, insidious changes to our collective brain chemistry. I await the scientific journal data once this 118-year collective pause/home invasion of our national psyche is definitively behind us. I’ve noticed some personal differences manifesting both significant and miniscule, and sitting alone in ye olde bunker lo these many months has allowed me to catalog them with some clarity. My general mistrust of large crowds, for example, of which I will eventually need to be broken like a horse being taught to carry a rider, is offset somewhat by the curious realization that I have over the last year almost completely forsaken serialized television in strong favor of watching movies, and this at a time when conventional wisdom insists I should be most susceptible to and appreciative of streaming’s unquestionable charms. Instead, I’ve largely retreated to the time-tested comforts of my DVR, offset with the occasional odd Netflix doc or episode one of a show I then inevitably pursue no further. The only thing in this brave new world that constitutes appointment viewing for me anymore is, strangely enough, Temptation Island, the outwardly tawdry yet deceptively deep reality romance competition reboot that has, over the course of its almost three seasons – and, especially, the eight episodes (and counting) comprising its junior year – morphed from riding the coattails of ABC’s imperious, unapologetically inane Bachelor/Bachelorette/In Paradise/Canada/UK/Australia/Paramus Mall ecosystem to standing on its own feet and merits as one of the most compelling current television dramas of any stripe or pedigree.
I’m not here to assuage whatever misgivings you bring to our discussion about the worth or even morality of Temptation Island. This is, after all, a show that turns on if not revels in the gutter-level glory of couples undergoing active romantic distress, whether uncovering it, exacerbating it, or even creating it given the proper opening – feigning concern and purse-clutching horror at the state of affairs on the one hand as it fans flames with the other. Temptation Island is at least up front and brutally frank about both its intentions and their implications – so much so that I’m continually amazed it can ever rope in contestants – and does not cater exclusively to the lowest common denominator. That may sound like faint praise, and even from my own lips it admittedly aligns with public preconceptions. They’re not completely wrong; I just don’t care. I was an early adopter, if for no other reason than the show spoke to my innate wanderlust, schadenfreude toward beautiful people, and affinity for ultra-softcore porn. No other reasons were necessary, but more were on the way. What I’ve come to understand over three seasons of viewership (six if you count the early aughts Fox original it so ably reboots) – what has shifted its status from guilty to unambiguous pleasure – is that Temptation Island is leagues smarter than residence in the reality slums requires – cleverer, more cannily crafted, with excess sympathy to offset its perpetually wandering eye – and instinctively squirms against the expectations that seek to define and confine it.
The premise alone likely sold Temptation Island back in 2001, some eighteen years ahead of its time, but season three of the reboot – now on basic cable where it always belonged – has seen the show truly come into its own. On the surface, nothing material has changed. Brimming with misplaced confidence, four ridiculously telegenic young couples with ingrained trust and/or commitment issues travel to a secluded luxury resort in Hawaii to test their relationships by dating and cohabitating with amorous members of the opposite sex pre-selected to press their buttons. Over the course of four real-time weeks and eleven episodes under the care of unlicensed therapist/emcee extraordinaire Mark L. Walberg (not that one), they test and refine their romantic limits whilst walking a knife edge to keep their existing relationship intact, then reunite at a climactic “bonfire” ceremony to confront one another and decide their future together. The secret, as with any superior reality competition, lies in the casting.* No longer content to merely feed a procession of attractive non-entities to the beast, season three’s caretakers, whether through careful diligence, blind luck, or both, have populated Sex Paranoia Island** with couples taking up four very different journeys via almost diametrically opposed paths. The fun on a weekly basis has evolved from the car wreck voyeurism that is reality television’s stock in trade into a hybrid of unrepentant eye candy with something much more analytical – dare I say forensic? – in nature. Munching the numbers alongside my popcorn, I can’t help but wonder how some of these pairs came together in the first place.
*Of the three reality shows in which I regularly indulge – fewer reservations on “The Amazing Race” and “Project Runway” – “Temptation Island” has, at a total of eight, the shallowest contestant pool and, therefore, heaviest burden to demonstrate that runway-ready twenty-somethings can ever be more interesting in person than the sum of their Instagram feeds. This assumes you exclude the twenty-four unattached hedonists assembled to turn their heads. Season three shines in part because its casting prowess extends beyond the couples to their ostensible tempters – a role so traditionally rote and interchangeable that original run seasons routinely performed desperate infusions of fresh blood at the rough ⅔ mark to no discernible dramatic or practical effect. I will admit to following happenings at the “Guys Villa” more intently, since the aesthetics suit me, and because that crew, both male and female, has on the whole seemed more enthusiastic about playing their prescribed roles. It’s just nice to see people dotting the landscape I can relate to beyond their ability to complete a sentence. However comparatively sedate the “Girls Villa” has been since, I will also give props to the ladies for systematically purging their suitor bullpen of its pronounced frat douchebag element during first eliminations. Not quite The Red Wedding, but satisfying nonetheless.
**”Hell is other people,” wrote philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his 1944 masterwork “No Exit”, and, despite appearances, our picture postcard surroundings bear some subtle similarities to the French existentialist’s weird, mirrorless waystation. Simultaneously guests of honor, centers of attention, and hunted quarry, contestants in the island games are by necessity of a bifurcated mind, with their attentions split equally between the heady rush of massive incoming romantic attention – however often uncomfortable – and concerns about the state of their partner/relationship that quickly go from nominal to infected to gangrenous the longer they are kept apart. In no other scenario can the constant poking and prodding of ostensible well-wishers edge into low grade mind tricks and debilitating stress of the sort routinely inflicted on prisoners by solitary confinement. Crafty tempters must of course appear outwardly sympathetic to their target’s plight while consistently maneuvering to elevate their own romantic stock and devalue others. Sometimes I even believe they are sincere.
With eliminations and final dates now imminent (tonight’s episode 9) and the all-important one-on-one bonfire confrontations of episodes 10 and 11 looming just beyond like the grim spectre of Death itself, I find myself increasingly consumed with unpacking each participant’s motivations and anticipating their next moves. Bearing in mind my established awful track record of predicting the outcome of Amazing Race All-Stars, or Avengers: Endgame, or The Battle of Winterfell, I’ve decided it’s well past time for me to be wrong in print once again. It’s a surprisingly liberating feeling, and not at all embarrassing. So here are my stream-of-consciousness notes on how we got this far, and where they go from here.
Erica (24, Personal Assistant) and Kendal (26, Business Owner), of Hawthorne, CA
Who they are/Discount analysis: Temptation Island’s most buzzworthy couple presents a classic power imbalance that has manifested itself into a permanently skewed, possibly irreparable interpersonal dynamic. Laid back, terminally confident alpha male Kendal’s high standards and rigid yet random expectations lie in marked contrast to how he has comported himself in paradise thus far, subjecting mildly insecure but otherwise normal girlfriend Erica to grainy night vision footage of his unambiguous infidelity followed by a full blown menage a trois at consecutive bonfires. Not so much a conventional bad boy as a consummate bad faith actor, Kendal’s sleepy-eyed combination of blase hard-headedness and innate superiority must play well with fellow card-carrying members of the American Chauvinists League, but elsewhere he’s pretty consistently infuriating. I honestly don’t know whether the coldness with which he operates is an eccentric affectation, an act for the cameras, or something much worse, but it has him edging into black hat villain territory, which is a rarity for this show. Erica has operated in the wake of Hurricane Kendall for days/weeks now, slowly piecing back together her shattered self-image and beginning to emerge anew noticeably fortified. Here’s to the new Erica, in fact, last seen proclaiming said emergence while holding hands with Jesse and taking his pulse via an ear to his probably shirtless chest (I forget). It’s a good look on her.
Highlights: Dueling catchphrases from episode 1 pretty much tell the story here, as, while being introduced to their respective oiled up suitors en masse, Erica offered her soon-to-be ex the priceless advice, “Don’t drop a dime for a nickel”, while Kendal countered by proclaiming – to the audience at home more than to her or anyone there assembled – “Let the games begin.” At that lineup, a delightfully forward SoCal blonde with an unfortunately spelled name sauntered up to center stage, veritably oozing sex with every step. Young Alexcys singled our Kendal out for some reason and made her intentions known to the world then and there. The diligence with which she followed through on her trash talk is almost inspiring in a way, though it still doesn’t say much about her judgment. Kendal and Alexcys became an almost instant couple, and, in the height of responsible restraint, lasted all the way until episode 4 until they wrecked Kendal’s actual relationship, then doubled down by spontaneously inviting overwrought party girl Nickole into their bedroom for an encore the very next night. Two and a half years straining under the yoke of a generally understanding anti-taskmaster like Erica had obviously triggered a realization deep within Kendal’s soul that he would indeed enjoy having consensual sex with anybody he possibly could, provided he had the technical cover by which he might indemnify his actions. Pretenses don’t come more flimsy than the whole “No Rules” thing, but Kendal has proven time and again by now that he is unbound by the standards employed in recognizable situations by normal adults.
Erica’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Jesse / 5%. Jesse’s a soulful, attentive sort, and a genuinely good-hearted guy. I suppose there’s always the outside chance that Erica rings his bell out of pure spite, but that seems way out of character. More likely she leaves the island alone and he later makes good on his offer to visit her (or show her around his hometown) once they return to the mainland.
Kendal’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Alexcys / 118%. Because they will have by that point already had sex at least thirteen times (approx.) during their stay, I can’t imagine Kendal and Alexcys won’t at least get together once more for old time’s sake. Both are showing signs of buyer’s remorse lately – Kendal because he likes being single; Alexcys because Kendal likes being single, and also, well, because of how he acts – but are probably also sensitive to appearing like morons or a**holes at this point in the journey. I’m betting they leave Hawaii separately or else break up within three months of giving their own boring future together a shot, but under these circumstances I doubt they’ll give the critics the satisfaction of watching them sputter to a premature stop.
Doomsday odds: 100%. Despite Kendal’s increasingly meek and unconvincing (not to mention utterly insane) protestations that he and Erica still have room for reconciliation, that ship has sailed so many times by now that it has circumnavigated the globe in full and is pulling back into its original port for refueling. No matter what kind of master salesman you fancy yourself, no customer is buying that tired spiel, what, now three times in a row? Erica’s combination of righteous frustration and blossoming self-respect should ensure the proper resolution to the relationship Kendal brought to the Island, leaving only the question of whether Kendal’s arrogance and glib obliviousness to the basic tenets of respectful human interaction not only end up torpedoing his pairing with Erica but with Alexcys – who did make the first move but still eventually thought deeper and definitely deserves better – as well. I’d put those odds around 85% by the way.
Kristen (26, Physical Therapist) and Julian (26, Personal Trainer), of Sewell, NJ
Who they are/Discount analysis: Haunted by personal tragedy and the ghost of a college indiscretion old enough to now be approaching its statute of limitations, high school sweethearts Kristen and Julian are bonded by time served but have graduated in their relationship to a foreseeable future of little beyond treading water. Here is a couple with so much shared history that the prospect of dissolving their partnership sent them spinning off in opposite directions – with her paralyzed by inaction and doubt and him wracked with guilt and overcompensating as a way of proving his worth. Logic suggests Kristen and Julian might have a future together if only they can overcome their lingering issues and current inertia – they certainly pass the eye test and seem to care about one another on a deep level – but that combination might prove prohibitively crippling.
Highlights: Kristen has thus far spent most of her time engaged in poolside piecemeal therapy with a rotating cast of guest counselors, as was probably both predictable and appropriate. After speaking at Bonfire about the tragic death of her brother, she has seemed more at peace with herself but on no surer ground with the relationship. Contrite almost to a fault, Julian has largely treated his time on the island as a month-long getaway with the boys and at times seemed comically flummoxed by the constant influx of bikini-clad coeds gyrating around him. Some of my favorite moments of the season have involved his extreme reluctance to ever get physical, such as tumbling backwards into an adjacent pool to avoid catching cooties from a nearby lesbian kiss, or prematurely ending a lap dance when the Sumerian personal trainer somehow succumbed to and was thus crushed beneath the weight of his confused entertainer’s 115-pound frame. Julian wants desperately to prove himself to his girlfriend, and she is the only woman for whom he has eyes. Kristen, meanwhile, is harder to read than a Master’s dissertation by Spencer Pratt. I truly dunno. Has all the water flowing under their bridge washed it away in the interim?
Kristen’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Lex / 0%. Despite chartering their trip to Temptation Island, Kristen’s heart was never in this process. Its current whereabouts are still something of an open question, but they certainly don’t lie with Juju Smith-Schuster impersonator Lex, who is always ready with a sympathetic ear but has as much realistic chance of getting lucky with Kristen on the overnight date as I do.
Julian’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Tula / 0%. Julian will always gravitate to the woman who is readiest to listen without judgment and be constructive. House mother Tula, whose name I’ll admit never registered with me until I rewatched episode eight (again) in prep for this article, is well-meaning, always keeps it 100, and is therefore a solid choice for an overnight of riveting anti-shenanigans. Julian remains in sustained, self-flagellating penance mode as a last ditch attempt to ease Kristen’s doubts. He won’t be stopping now.
Doomsday odds: 51%. Kristen and Julian are so obviously meant for each other that the speculation hurts. Still, there’s something portentous going on here. Julian has undertaken such a gauntlet of stoic self-denial to prove himself reformed from his formative infidelity, and Kristen has remained so mired in ennui and blocked off for no good reason I can see that I can’t help thinking they won’t (and possibly shouldn’t) make it. Especially since I recall from a glimpse in an early-season trailer, never mentioned since, that there might yet be a ring and accompanying dramatic proposal in the offing. Those always go well, and I practically guarantee it’ll be front and center in the next “On the Next…Temptation Island” teaser. *sigh* Both Jersey kids deserve much happiness for all they’ve endured – preferably with each other – but could also honestly benefit from a clean break. Here’s hoping in the latter case that they don’t fall too hard or too far.
Erin (24, Behavioral Therapist) and Corey (25, Concierge Manager), of San Diego, CA
Who they are/Discount analysis: My favorite couple couple of season three has to be this energetic, photogenic “opposites attract” pair apparently plucked straight off the San Diego boardwalk. Indeed, I don’t find myself thinking about them as individuals half as much as I do collectively. Maybe it’s because they have seemed from the start to take the process more seriously, and consider it more in its totality, than have their peers, who are either shut tight or wide the hell open by comparison. It’s a bit harder to pinpoint the issues underlying Erin and Corey’s relationship at first, but as soon as they are off on their respective journeys and she starts feeling claustrophobic, Erin, who is on the verge of tears an easy 50% of the time, volunteers a host of them and never really stops talking. She was a college athlete with a history of dating professional ball players and a past littered with toxic relationships whose M.O.s she seems to have internalized much the same way an abused child might one day grow up to be an abuser. This isn’t a criticism of Erin, by the way, but, rather, a natural conclusion extrapolated from a point she herself makes with alarming regularity. She knows from toxic relationships and has, to hear her tell it, unwittingly turned her pairing with Corey into Exhibit E, devaluing him and doing things subtle and not to push him away. I think the lady doth protest too much, personally. For one thing, if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t be putting herself on the rack like this, and her experience wouldn’t so resemble abject torture. She certainly doesn’t lack for suitors, yet she turns them away in bulk and any word said in the direction of Corey gets her hackles up. Corey is something of an introvert who, yes, could stand to loosen up a little (mission accomplished!), and for his part, seems more intimidated by Erin’s past – it’s admittedly a whole frigging lot of past for even the most active 24-year-old – than subjugated by the present. Both are seized with doubts, Erin about her nebulous past behavior, and Corey about possibly ever measuring up. If they think to take a deep breath before diving into their final bonfire conversation, their chances for survival go up exponentially. I’m rooting for that to happen.
Highlights: Erin is great in a group setting and a star at coed field day, but in private her mind is, shall we say, consistently elsewhere. She is a terrific and giving sounding board for the emotion salad dished by her fellow temptees, and has allowed herself a few moments of fleeting if still unalloyed pleasure when she inevitably wins whatever competitive date activity in which she is currently engaged. She is nevertheless riddled with fear and unwarranted insecurities for the most part, and writes a new post mortem for her still living relationship – the one, for the record, that I think has the greatest chance at survival – on a near-daily basis. Meanwhile, Corey appears to largely be running out the string, content to await her return to both his arms and her senses. I can’t imagine the couples rewatch experience is going to be comfortable for them, but I do think they’ll get there, assuming one or the other doesn’t sabotage it out of an excess of selfless nobility. Erin has cultivated something of a martyr complex in a short amount of time. Hope he feels like talking sense to her, and that she’s prepared to hear it.
Erin’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Um, I don’t know…Griffin? / 0%. Erin, as mentioned, has spent the majority of her stay beating herself bloody for bringing Corey to the island in the first place. She’s held a procession of interested parties at arm’s length while she pined for her apparently mistreated boyfriend and, at times, even preemptively mourned her relationship’s impending demise. This is a mea culpa writ large. So disconnected is she from the merest possibility of a romantic nightcap that I see her choosing for her final date the very guy the producers obviously intended to be her chief tempter. And, chiseled, sun and sand-scoured, fan art-ready soccer player or not, if she and Griffin somehow hook up at the eleventh hour – after all this?! – yeah, I’ll eat my cell phone. With hot sauce.
Corey’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Amanda / 5%. Corey isn’t a nebbish or a wallflower. He’s just reserved for Temptation Island…which is no big deal, really, since that formula probably also applies to Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogen. He has developed a nice little bond with my favorite single on the show, fetching Texan blonde Amanda, who splits an understandable difference between genuine concern for his emotional health and sour grapes over the fact that this greek yogurt god who fell into her lap will soon be yanked back out because he’s still nuts for his girlfriend. I have little doubt that Amanda – sweet, smart, savvy, and sexy – could procure the romantic services of any man, anywhere, absolutely whenever she happened to be so inclined. That’s where the 5% comes from, but that’s not where either of these people is going. They’re too good for it.
Doomsday odds: 30%. Don’t do anything stupid now, kids. Just. Don’t. You. Do. It.
Chelsea (29, Marketing Coordinator) and Tom (37, Investment Trader), of Los Angeles, CA
Who they are/Discount analysis: The Ballad of Kendal and Alexcys, with all its will they/won’t they/you bet your ass they will/in a jacuzzi/one-two-three-four-more times intrigue, sustained season three for the bulk of its run, but as their amateur relationship has grown more real and thus inevitably surreal, a new pair of all-stars has overtaken them for primacy of Skull Island. The oldest couple on Temptation Island – as well as arguably the most conventionally attractive – should’ve at least accumulated wisdom enough to avoid making the trip in the first place, but they are now stuck and struggling against what the cruel fates and their own foibles, short-sightedness, and overactive imaginations have unleashed. Chelsea and Tom’s biggest obstacles to love together are not one another, or the tempters, but, rather, themselves. He is a professional flirter, see, big-hearted, essentially harmless with a million dollar smile, while she is a well-intentioned, inveterate overthinker with what I can best describe as an overdeveloped sense of propriety. If you are familiar with either or both of these types from your own circle of friends, one thing you probably intuit right away is that they should never mix romantically. Tom never met a woman he couldn’t charm, though it rarely seems to go further. Chelsea never met a mental scenario she couldn’t twist into a pretzel, or a mass of untied A/V cables, to her inevitable detriment. His behavior really aggravates her; her perceived overreaction to his behavior aggravates him. Against his better judgment, he can’t stop flirting; whereas she can talk herself into conceiving and then believing fully in any possible outcome, like a hostage negotiator who ends up inadvertently killing everyone in the room. Not exactly meant for each other.
Highlights: Where to begin? Well, I’m a big fan of the time that Chelsea, with her hyperanalytical mind and gift for reading people, nevertheless got duped by a smooth-talking frat boy into believing that Blake, her perfectly bearded, well-intentioned substitute Tom du jour, was acting unforgivably “fake”, and immediately undertook a righteous indignation tour of the Girls Villa that almost demolished what has since evolved into the other legitimate romantic relationship on the show. There was also the time that Tom rubbed suntan lotion on latina crush Sophia’s butt, or flailed around with her in a coed kiddie pool wrestling match that was, if not obviously staged, then selectively memorialized by the show’s editors, and Chelsea, who, by that point had not only kissed Blake passionately and repeatedly but had also taken to lazing with him in a hammock like a schoolgirl fantasy made manifest, took it as evidence that he was “disrespecting her” and “not taking things seriously”. Tom, who despite his flirtatious nature had studiously avoided lip-to-lip contact with Sophia, similarly took the subsequent response video of Chelsea kissing Blake as tacit proof that she was in fact cheating on him, full stop. And so the cycle goes, and the circle widens.
Chelsea’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Blake / 40%. Though “Doctor Blake”, as he’s known on the island (he’s actually a dentist) is a pretty nice guy all told, he has no motivation whatsoever to protect Tom’s footing or Chelsea’s feelings should a romantic opening present itself, especially when he’s largely been following her lead up to now. Since she appears to think her present relationship is already dog food, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her fold and she and Blake go all the way. On one level, it seems almost a fait accompli. Like everyone else on the show except Kendal, however, Chelsea is invested above all in the preservation of her dignity, and her sense of moral superiority would surely take a wicked blow if it happened to come out later that she had miscalculated, and therefore cheated, while Tom towed the line. It’s the show’s biggest remaining mystery, far greater, in fact, than the fate of the two of them as a couple.
Tom’s Final Date/Chances for infidelity: Sophia / 20%. Tom has been slightly behind the curve for his stay so far, but now that he’s practically convinced Chelsea is a lost cause, expect him to make up ground with ferocious focus. Sophia’s a great girl but also, at 22 and crushing hard, frankly incapable of seeing the future with the clarity that an actual future would require. And, deep down, I think Tom realizes that and is just enjoying the moment. They’re Temptation Island’s version of a May-December romance, and just as likely to work out in the real world. That aside, it’s that troublesome need for dignity, almost victimhood, and the all important upper hand in their final negotiations, that is most likely going to keep Tom on the straight and narrow for at least a little bit longer…
Doomsday odds: 85%. …though I wouldn’t blame him or, indeed, either of them for a moment of weakness. Barring an unexpected Hail Mary, their relationship is over and has been for weeks. It’s a shame, as I can see them being solid to terrific for some very different kinds of partners in the proper, non-fantasy setting. Blake and Sophia, maybe. Already can’t wait for the “where are they now?” episode.