I’m pretty hard to shock at this point, but a lot of reality shows I’ve seen have seriously stunned me. Like, there was once a show where some woman dated men wearing Phantom of the Opera type masks to prove she was looking for love instead of looks. Do you remember it? The masked men would only get to remove their bizarre facewear in the pitch black darkness of a cellar where the woman would take them to go make out and, while they were down there, the woman would all but feel up the guy’s face to assure her obviously-terrified mind that no, this man who willingly donned a mask for twenty hours a day did not have boils growing off his cheekbones. Another show I watched involved two strangers marrying each other after a mock beauty pageant and it only came out later that the groom had restraining orders out against him for stalking. So yes, much of the reality television that’s come out has been (at the very least) mildly grotesque, but it was the first installment of Temptation Island that was on back in the day that freaked me out entirely – and now that nightmare is back.
The premise for Temptation Island is that four couples head to an island that’s packed with booze, cameras, and scantily clad human distractions. They will eventually be separated and then they will both be plied with vodka and a barrage of not-at-all leading questions about whether they’re really sure if the relationship they’re in brings them more joy than, say, taking a belly shot off that hot stranger over yonder who requires nothing of substance from them. One of the new contestants calls the entire thing he’s about to embark on “the ultimate test,” but what I consider the real test here is figuring out why any even slightly rational person would engage in this televised hellscape. As I – a slightly rational person – have zero idea why anyone would go on a show that is literally my worst fucking nightmare come to life (Cheating! Beer for breakfast! Humidity that causes hair to frizz! Emotional destruction!), allow me to try to walk you through the insane proceedings.
After the adorable little opening ditty that accompanies the show’s title sequence – the one with the voice that sings “You’re not gonna tempt me!” – ends, it’s time to meet all the people who will in fact be tempted because this show is not really a crapshoot. The casting agents obviously chose couples who would easily be led astray because otherwise the series would be an extended montage of very loyal people staring reflectively out at the horizon whilst making mental wedding plans and that, my friends, is the sort of thing that may not cause you to pray for the apocalypse, but it’s also not compelling reality TV. So the people who will definitely be tempted are as follows:
Kaci and Evan. They are from L.A. and they’re ready to date other people on that island, but it’s okay because they’re totally on the same page so nothing can possibly go wrong.
Nicole and Karl. They’re from Chicago, and Karl is confident they’ll end up back in Chicago together after this brief sojourn wherein they both pretend to be Caligula for just a little while.
Shari and Javen are from San Francisco and they’ve been together for eight years. There’s a good chance these two went to the prom together and now they’re maybe looking for a wee bit of variety. But the biggest reason they’re headed into this horrifying experiment is because Shari caught Javen cheating a few years ago so now she would like clarification that he’ll never cheat again and it seemed wise to her to bring him into a scenario called Temptation Island just to make sure.
Early Call #1: Shari and Javen are fucking doomed.
Kady and John, meanwhile, are from Texas. Their at-home sequence shows them shooting skeet and see, that’s the sort of shit Kady is craving. She wants John to be one of those alpha males she’s heard about and she apparently figures the single best way to bring forth the rage alpha males tend to have in spades is by questioning John’s masculinity daily. Living with Kady sounds fun. Quick question: Do alpha males cheat on their virility-questioning significant others? They do, right? Then I take comfort in the fact that Kady will still have her hair extensions to keep her company when John ditches her on that island.
Just like every other couple on the planet, our Temptation Island couples are struggling with an issue or six. Kaci, for example, wants to get married, but Evan – whose family picture brought all kinds of once-latent Eight Is Enough vibes back to me – wants to be sure because his father cheated on his mother and was then murdered by the husband of the woman he was cheating with and that sort of history can fuck a family up but good. Evan is skittish about all that marriage can bring, but he also knows Kaci is a time-clock kind of girl and she needs to be proposed to before she’s thirty. Aren’t ultimatums awesome? Anyhoo, as this group of eight people approach the island, it’s pretty clear that Non-Masculine John is the normal one in the crew because he takes one look at the shore where the host, Mark Walberg, is waving at them and considers jumping into creature-infested waters instead and then swimming home.
Okay, so first things first: Mark Walberg did not star in Boogie Nights. He was never nominated for an Oscar and he had nothing to do with Entourage getting made. He is instead a man who hosted this same show a zillion years ago and he’s back now because nostalgia is adorable. He looks a little bit like The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison was left out to melt in the sun, but he’s welcoming and calming and I suppose that’s the sort of vibe you want to set before you have a hand in destroying the emotional wellbeing of eight perfect strangers. As they follow Not-Marky-Mark down the beach, Javen makes sure to let his girlfriend know how very much he values her by saying, “I love your dress and your body,” and, well, at least now I know what words I want the guy I’m dating to tattoo on his body next. Mark brings the group to a house, makes sure to get the brand of champagne he’s pouring into the frame, and offers up a toast to the people he’s about to help internally decimate. Cheers!
It turns out that the house Mark took them to is only meant for the guys. Hooray! says Evan. See, Evan was worried he was going to have to live with the woman he lives with at home, the one who’s dying for a diamond. Nicole, meanwhile, is freaked out at the idea that she’s being separated from her boyfriend, but she calms down slightly when she sees the house production has provided for the women. It’s all outdoor spaces and tons of teak and it’s also seemingly so far away from where the guys are staying that the sky has turned dark, but that could just be a continuity thing. Once they’re all finally sort of calm, Mark asks them to sit oh-so-naturally in chairs on a platform near the pool and then goes to get them a great surprise. What could that surprise be? If you were thinking a team of therapists, well, you’d sadly be incorrect. Instead it’s a crew of single men and women – The Tempters – who are wearing very little and pretending to crave love but are actually craving Instagram sponsorships.
The Tempters look very young and most of them have nice teeth, but Shari decides to announce really loudly that she’s not impressed in the slightest. And then to prove she’s Instagram-sponsorship worthy, she follows up her harsh criticism with the very unique hashtag of #SorryNotSorry. All the Tempters walk forward on a mini catwalk and introduce themselves. What do we learn? Um, we learn some of the girls wear dresses made out of latex and one of the girls forgot to put on pants. We learn Shari hates everyone. And we learn that Val, the barber from Brooklyn, likes to quote songs about Santa when he’s feeling particularly tough. After their introductions, the Tempters leave and the couples have to say goodbye to one another for the night, which provides yet another opportunity for Shari to glare at the love of her life while he nervously calls her a queen.
Early Call #2: I wholeheartedly stand by Early Call #1.
The next morning the couples reunite for breakfast and so Shari and Javen have another opportunity to bicker. Into all the tropical joy comes our host, who doesn’t seem particularly pleased when John tells him that the male Tempters from the night before looked like a bunch of “nervous pussies.” Nervous Pussies are not on brand, John! I tell you, that guy best go inside and reread page 108 of his contract, the one that tells him not to disparage the show’s participants. If he’s still into reading, maybe he should then flip to page 109 of that contract because that’s the page that will inform him that being on this show will totally ruin his entire fucking life. But before John can peruse his contract, all the nervous pussies show up to take the women away to a cocktail party. Watching random men grab the hand of their girlfriends puts most of the men into a shitty mood, so it’s a good thing the women from last night are back to soothe all the delicate egos. As the separate parties get underway, a few standout Tempters take center stage…but in a totally natural way, you guys! It’s not like anyone here is looking for fame so stop being cynical! Carlos, for example, is all about chivalry and is so over the top about how passionate he feels that I would be exhausted by his entire persona in twenty minutes flat. Brittany needs to hold hands with Evan and do some deep meditative breathing to calm down the pitter-pattering of her heart. Jeffri and her very large chest make sure to tell Javen that Shari seems really hard to love, Kathryn flips her hair and tells John they should be best friends and then maybe lovers, and then the parties come to an end and the couples are reunited. During this mini reunion, Mark hands out necklaces to each couple. These necklaces symbolize the bond the couples share – you know, while they appear on a show about cheating on each other. But wait! There’s more! Another necklace appears and its purpose is for one member of a couple to stop a Tempter from dating the other member of that couple. Basically, what we have here is cock-blocking in accessory form. “Would any of you like to use your block?” asks Mark, and shockingly it is not Shari who leaps to her feet and grabs that necklace with her teeth. No, it’s Kady. She’s in the mood to exhibit a little jealousy here and she places that necklace around Kathryn’s throat and stops herself from squeezing it, even as Kathryn trills, “It’s okay, John. We can just live together.” Something tells me Kathryn will be shilling teas that make you lose weight by shitting out your entire spleen very soon! As for the guys, John is the only one to choose to block a guy from dating his girlfriend and he chose to accessorize the country boy in the mix to keep him and all of his testosterone away from Kady. With that joyous and relationship-affirming moment now complete, the Tempters leave and the couples sit down to dinner where Mark joins them and asks Javen what in the world he will do if lightening strikes on that island and he meets someone he wants to be with more than Shari. “I don’t think it will,” Javen answers nervously, and you’d think that would maybe be as bad as tonight’s going to get, but this is Temptation Island, motherfucker! It’s all bad here!
Mark’s next announcement is that this will be the last time the couples will see each other until they leave the island. Oh – and some of them may actually be saying goodbye right now FOREVER because one of the hired tarts could easily wiggle his or her way into a once-solid relationship and bring it crashing down. Why is there no product placement champagne to toast with right now?
In their final moments together – maybe FOREVER – Nicole cries, Kady and John kiss, Evan and Kaci tell each other they’re BFFs, and Shari gets annoyed at Javen for interrupting her and also for existing. And then the men leave and Kaci weeps about how Evan is her person because apparently the only way for generic women to prove how real and how strong feelings are anymore is to first quote early Grey’s Anatomy and then head off to Maui to appear on a reality show where you and your person will be torn to emotional shreds.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter