My TV

28 March 2019

Temptation Island & the Upside of Reboot Culture

By // TV

Reboot culture as the go-to MO of our modern television landscape is, to say the very least, uninspiring. My head spins at the thought of the original ideas unexplored because some executive would rather reboot Dynasty than greenlight the next Dynasty. There must be hundreds of them, thousands probably, TV shows that never got made on account of not having been made already. The crushing feeling that originality is yesterday’s game is not helped by the fact that most reboots stink. Fuller House stinks, MacGyver stinks, Dallas stunk, Lethal Weapon super stinks, and, yes, when I really reckon with the reality of the situation, even my beloved Girl Meets World stunk most of the time. Other than One Day at a Time (RIP), I can’t think of a single contemporary reboot that has been, without the aid of nostalgia, a real credit to the age of peak TV. The same could be said of continuations for the most part- Arrested Development was certainly a lesson in being careful what you wish for- but I’ve found myself grateful for the modern existence of Will & Grace at least twice this season so I’ll limit my complaining to just the one specific subsection of cultural failings for the moment.

Then came a reboot of a show that under no circumstances deserved to be rebooted. The original Temptation Island was a sideshow- a crass, sensationalist display of bad behaviour enjoyable exclusively for schadenfreude and the warm glow of toxic self-righteousness. Nonetheless, good ole USA Network snatched up the rights and decided to give the concept another shot. Much remained the same- the original host returned, as did the central premise that four “committed” couples would come to a tropical island, be separated from their partners, and be given the opportunity to schmooze a selection of 26 hotties in supposed pursuit of clarity about the relationship they came in with.

But the oddest thing happened when Temptation Island returned for what is technically a fourth season but is really something entirely new. Apparently- and feel free to extrapolate whatever life lessons you’d like from all that I’m about to say- sometimes things that seem bad are just a few tweaks away from being actually pretty great. If at first you make one of the grossest shows in memory, I guess the answer is try try again?

The new Temptation Island was maybe the best reality show of the year so far (sorry, second best; The Masked Singer was a masterpiece). Honest to god, I wouldn’t dare lie to you. Coming off a season of The Bachelor that left much to be desired in the emotional maturity department, Temptation Island bizarrely filled that void with a level of interpersonal complexity I was neither expecting nor altogether prepared for.

The changes were small but impactful. The original two-week timeline was expanded to a month, forcing the couples to really adjust to time apart and giving potential new relationships the time to actually grow. And the singles were cast more like Bachelor contestants than “tempters”- maybe they’re there to be on TV but they’re also genuinely single and theoretically looking to start a new relationship rather than singularly focused on breaking up an old one. The results were a little bit fun but mostly just really interesting- the eight individuals at the centre of the show all reacted very differently to the situation and four different couples found themselves facing four very different outcomes.

the male singles

The producers did the singles no favours by outfitting them like they were at the Playboy Mansion during their introductory scene and scripting them cheesy, off-puttingly aggressive opening lines. But the relatively loose structure of Temptation Island 2019 meant a lot of laying around the house time, a lot of casual chat, a fair number of character-revealing hijinks when boredom set in. The female singles, with an exception or two to be discussed later, were surprisingly chill, you could even say down to earth as long as you didn’t think too hard about the fact that they signed up to be on Temptation Island. Among the single men, a very interesting trend I am not qualified to analyze with any proficiency emerged when you looked closely at the racial breakdown of the group.  When you looked at the white men in the group, they blended quickly into a blob of  alphas with a roidy look and that particular brand of over-eager self confidence that only ever develops out of a pretty crippling inferiority complex (two of them had glasses and were touted as the “sensitive” types; they did seem nicer than the others but they were still stoic musclemen). The men of colour, on the other hand, seemed to be across the board pretty cool dudes. Most of the meaningful connections made on that side of the island were with the minorities in the house who were prepared for emotional conversations, vulnerability, and *gasp* platonic care for another human being without the promise of anything in return. I’m sure there’s a sociologist or twitter user somewhere who can take on the task of explaining the societal constructs and casting biases that inform said observation but I’d rather just credit (in order) Justin, James, Tyler, Carlos, and Wynn with being good dudes who were right there with the assist in some of the most interesting character arcs of the season.

the four girlfriends at a bonfire

Temptation Island as a concept is theoretically about cheating and not a lot else but the reboot made room for a lot more nuance than that. The relationships between the women and men who were separated from their partners oddly became a highlight. Every week at the bonfire where they were made to watch clips of their partners, they were given the option to watch alone with headphones or lean on the others for support. With only one exception all season, they all chose support. The women reevaluated their own relationships in the context of their peers’ experiences. The men reconsidered their behaviour when they saw how their friends were hurt by similar actions taken by their girlfriends. These two forced-together foursomes leaned on and learned from each other in ways that were kind of captivating even without any of the singles involved at all.

It was overall not that salacious a season. There was a little canoodling and at least one woman who badly needs a lesson in “no means no” but ultimately only one sexual encounter that I would actually call cheating, at least within the admittedly relaxed moral guidelines of the show. If you tuned into the reboot in search of tabloid thrills, I hope you learned something from the journeys of self discovery and lessons on emotional intimacy you saw instead.

Mark L Walberg

Though saddled with an awkwardly mockable name and a sadly unavoidable “faux-Chris Harrison” vibe, Mark L Walberg, it turns out, is a remarkably good host. Especially for this iteration of the show. His defining quality seems to be total sincerity and his level of emotional investment in the well-being of the men and women on his show is oddly the rock to which this potentially unwieldy vessel is tethered. His job is more Probst at Tribal Council than Harrison a Rose Ceremony, simultaneously serving as interviewer, therapist, referee, and motivational speaker as the cast attempts to navigate the traumatic experience they’ve voluntarily signed up for. He asks insightful questions, he calls out irrational behaviour, he aims for calm when surely the producers would rather him stoke the drama fire. He reminded the women that the clips they were seeing of their partners interacting with other women were out of context and it’s important to keep perspective instead of spinning out. He told the men that it takes strength to cry (they didn’t listen but at least he tried).

The two-part finale that concluded this week consisted mostly of “final bonfires”, the big confrontations wherein couples separated for a month while they dated other people came back together to decide the fate of their relationships. Each person was given the chance to speak, uninterrupted, then told to listen to their partner speak without interrupting. Then they had to choose to leave together, leave single, or leave with someone new.

Karl & Nicole

The first couple was maybe the least interesting of the season but their bonfire was surprisingly one of the most interesting. The reality TV cynic in me saw Karl & Nicole’s journey as essentially just Karl dragging his younger girlfriend onto a TV show in the hope that it would jumpstart his music career (let’s just all assume it didn’t). Two and a half years into a relationship that seemed fairly functional though perhaps not particularly emotional, Karl and Nicole seemed to me to be the quintessential Temptation Island couple. He’s clearly got a possessive side, she’s clearly a bit of a flirt, and though they claim to love each other, neither seemed all that emotionally wrapped up in what they had. A couple coasting along because why not is exactly the sort of couple I want to see forced to reevaluate. They’re also the sort of couple most susceptible to “temptation” and/or just plain finding something better. Nicole bonded with Tyler and realized that Karl wasn’t treating her as well as he should. More interestingly, she bonded with Kaci and realized that she didn’t actually love Karl as much as she thought she did. Karl cheated with Brittney, an outrageously hot yogi in desperate need of some boundaries, but that’s not really the point because this was Nicole’s story. Knowing Karl, Brittney or no Brittney, wanted to give them another shot, Nicole said she wanted to leave with him. And here’s where it got interesting. You would think that the show would want couples to stay together, unless they broke up with giant TV-friendly fireworks (which was not on the table here). But the ever-reliable Mark did something I can’t picture Chris Harrison ever doing- he read the body language and tone of the room and asked a deeper question. He didn’t let Nicole make the easy or popular decision, he made her actually think about what she wanted and make the hard call for herself regardless of what her partner said he wanted. It was some damn good hosting and frankly Harrison should be taking notes.

Katheryn

Then there was John & Kady which basically boiled down to John wasn’t the type of man Kady wanted to be with even though her gendered priorities are symptomatic of some deeply toxic socialization and likely some daddy issues. I get that it’s frustrating when you feel like you have to baby your partner or force them to take some initiative but that’s a growing up issue, not a manliness issue. John’s kindness is not a flaw and Kady’s attraction to brutish alpha male Johnny clarified that this wasn’t just a matter of John bucking up a bit. They really needed to break up so they did and hopefully John’s stated takeaway that he needs someone who “will build him up not tear him down” gets taken to heart and inspires him to go after someone more caring and Kady to treat future partners with more consideration. The only problem I had here was the Katheryn of it all. The one single among the female cast who felt like a throwback to the original show, Katheryn was dramatic and catty, talking smack about the four principal women in the first episode and specifically targeting John because she knew Kady feared her. Katheryn’s flattery of John was goal-oriented not authentic and I sincerely hope that in the real world he’s able to know the difference and doesn’t just flock to the first woman who’s nice to him because Kady wasn’t.

Morgan & Evan

As much as she was the single biggest source of whatever cynicism I did have about the show (she made me feel like the singles were competing to stay on the show for a bigger payday), Katheryn is actually arguably responsible for kicking off the biggest storyline of the season and she deserves credit for that even if it came from a gross place. Early on in the house, Katheryn bonded with a girl named Morgan. Morgan was one of the least glamorous girls in the house. She wore very little makeup and was the opposite of Katheryn when it came to aggressively pursuing the men. So, like all mean girls pretending to be your friend, Katheryn ratted Morgan out when she admitted to having a crush on Evan- the tall, low-voiced, giant-muscled bro with the girlfriend of nine years and the permanent look of someone who was up all night worrying and is only awake now because he drank five redbulls. Evan then made a (really very innocent) casual remark to Morgan to the tune of ‘I hear you have a crush on me’ and Morgan proceeded to completely lose her shit in the sort of nonsense display of yelling and stomping that gets promo’d beyond belief to hook any drama-seeking potential viewers then is quickly forgotten because it actually doesn’t fit with the tone of the show at all. And she did what we all do when someone tells our crush that we have a crush on them, she swore up and down that it wasn’t true until Evan became convinced that not only did she not like him, she actually disliked him. So he invites her on the first date of the season to attempt to convince her not to hate him anymore, ends up actually falling for her, bing bang boom we’ve got ourselves the big flashy love story of the season AND the most compelling personal dilemma as Evan has to decide whether this new shiny feeling feels real enough to turn his back on a relationship he’s been in for 9 years.

Evan & Kaci

The Evan triangle was, on its own, enough to make this season of Temptation Island a must-watch. The balanced structure of the show never let Evan off the hook for the hurt he caused Kaci nor did it vilify the girlfriend in service of a new love story; we saw every perspective there was to see (including, thankfully, Morgan’s). Kaci’s story on the island was about putting the problems in her relationship into perspective and realizing that the pressure she’d been putting on Evan to propose wasn’t fair to him. In another world, that realization on Kaci’s part could have resulted in the couple leaving stronger than they arrived. Evan didn’t bat an eye at a single other girl in the house. If Morgan hadn’t been there, he likely would have returned to Kaci and hopefully she would have been more patient with him and considerate of the traumas in his backstory (Evan’s dad was murdered by his mistress, which is the sort of enthralling backstory that you couldn’t believe if it wasn’t true) and maybe they would have lived contentedly ever after. But Morgan put things into perspective for Evan. Her frankness and warmth stood in contrast to Kaci’s punishing high expectations and a weight seemed to lift off Evan’s shoulders when he decided to let her in. What played out then was an impossible conundrum of opportunity. It’s hard to argue that Evan did anything wrong but the reason that’s hard to argue is because he didn’t have the option of doing the right thing, really. I said earlier that I think there was only one real instance of cheating on the island this season (depending on how you interpret the “rules”; I’m choosing to just count sexual encounters because I know the couples discussed a certain amount of allowed fraternization but sex was definitely not on the sanctioned table). I think Karl cheated when he slept with Brittney, because he never intended to leave Nicole. What Evan did with Morgan was make a decision to be with Morgan; he gave up Kaci long before he was able to tell Kaci that and therein lay the absurd unfair tragedy of the whole situation. I think it was a bad relationship. I think Evan couldn’t ever give Kaci what she needed and she blamed him for that without considering why he couldn’t give her those things. I think he was a man without a family who had spent so long in such close proximity to this one woman that she felt like the closest thing to a family that he had, so he held onto her like a life raft and started to think he couldn’t get by without her. But they were bad for each other. Some people can’t remove themselves from a bad situation until something better makes them realize that their current situation isn’t working. That’s not the best way to be but it’s not uncommon. Evan needed Morgan to come around, and honestly so did Kaci.

Shari & Javen

The final couple was less dramatic but absolutely my favourite. Shari and Javen hit the beach on day one bickering like crazy and every other cast member looked at them like they were doomed off the bat. But they were the one rock solid pair there. High school sweethearts 8 years into a deeply co-dependent relationship, Temptation Island for Shari and Javen wasn’t about whether they wanted to be together. Of course they wanted to be together. It was about them learning how to be apart. This was the couple for whom that move from two weeks to a month was a game-changer and the less nefarious casting of the singles was so important. No matter how hard the occasional ambitious editor would try, you never really believed that either Shari or Javen would cheat and their engagement at the end of their final bonfire wasn’t much of a surprise either. They bickered, sure, but it was pretty obvious that that was mostly nerves. What these two got out of the show was an awesome subplot to the fate-of-the-relationship stories playing out around them. They learned how to spend time without their partner, how to depend on themselves and open up to other people. Crucially, they learned to trust themselves and each other enough to make room for other forms of intimacy in their lives. Javen befriended an incredibly kind woman named Kayla in whom he was able to confide without feeling sexual temptation or fear of Shari’s jealous wrath. He made a friend, which sounds really juvenile but for someone who has been in a really intense relationship since he was sixteen years old, the ability to make a truly platonic friend of the opposite sex is a big deal.

When USA Network decided to bring back the salacious also-ran of mid-2000s reality TV, I’m sure what they had in mind was Kady letting Johnny into her bed and breaking John’s heart or Karl cheating on Nicole and her leaving him single in the end. But they got so much more than that. They got Kady being forced to reckon with her own unkindness and Nicole evaluating whether she ever really loved Karl at all. There was Kaci’s epiphany that what she wants is right in front of her at the exact moment she loses it forever, an honest to god love story in Morgan and Evan that started in a bizarre, dramatic, cruelly relatable way with Katheryn’s meangirl antics and Morgan’s self-preservational instincts. There was a fascinating look at codependency and the value of platonic friendship and mutual trust in Javen and Shari’s story. There was honest self reflection and a host who challenged the cast to see things from as many angles as they could. There was strength found in vulnerability and leaning on your peers and a remarkable amount of compassion for the emotional journey of others whether it was relatable to your own or not. The Temptation Island reboot was fantastic. Not everything works the first time so I guess sometimes, just sometimes, it’s okay to reboot and start again.

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