By Ken Tucker
Updated February 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s no mystery why Temptation Island — the ”reality” show about four couples earmarked for hootchie-cootchie by a bevy of sculpted singles — attracts more viewers in the advertising world’s coveted 18-49 age group than its chief time-period competition, The West Wing. Although TWW is TI‘s superior in every respect except in the areas of bikini waxes and tattoos, Island appeals to two audiences: (1) viewers who, like the couples themselves, are young adults who accept the show at face value, watching to see whether these surrogates-for-themselves will suffer guilt or party hearty; and (2) viewers who look at these hookup artists in fascinated disbelief and wonder, ”What will these horny morons do next?”

You can see where the West Wing audience might blend over into my theoretical audience No. 2. I, for one, am glad I knew how to program my VCR so that I didn’t miss Martin Sheen approving ambassadorships, but I also didn’t miss the tempted guy named Andy say, ”My strategy … has been, screw the looks — pick the chick that you think you’re gonna have the best time with.”

Island has surefire middle American appeal: It’s as close as you can get to televising the breaking of one of the Ten Commandments. Though not married, the couples are said to be in ”committed relationships,” and the ”uncommitted” men and women used by the producers to entice the couples are, as David Letterman has pointed out, virtually prostitutes — people encouraged to initiate sex with people they don’t know. The fact that the producers have suggested that no one, over the series’ six-week run, will actually engage in intercourse doesn’t matter: Sex is never shown on network television anyway; luring someone away from his or her mate is the TV version of sex in countless sitcoms and dramas. This show could go up against CBS’ 48 Hours and be called 26 Ho’s.

Given the number of people involved, Island does an excellent job of distinguishing one self-absorbed airhead from another. Everyone I know has marveled at the couple Ytossie and Taheed. Given what a hostile, selfish creep Ytossie is in every single scene, it seems a miracle Taheed has stayed with her for the advertised five and a half years — especially since Taheed, Mr. ”I Can Be Faithful, But if a Woman Throws It at You, It’s Very, Very Difficult,” is no prize himself, and this pair has a child about whose existence they lied to get on the show. Aaron ”West Wing” Sorkin himself couldn’t write two more vibrant villains; it’s almost a shame the show’s laughable rules obliged them to kick the duo off the island. No matter — skull-shaven, slit-eyed Billy, steamed because his gal Mandy let one guy get too close (”I licked on her stomach,” says the offending genius), is a worthy successor in raging-bull stupidity.

Meanwhile, the only way ABC could make The Mole any duller would be to turn it into a series about the beauty mark on Cindy Crawford’s face. As it is, the show — about a group of ordinary folks among whom exists what host Anderson Cooper calls ”a saboteur, a traitor” — possesses about as much suspense as Crawford’s 1995 Billy Baldwin ”thriller” Fair Game. In fact, The Mole is not a fair game. Because the show has been edited to within an inch of its life, it’s impossible, even after weeks of watching, to figure out the rules. The contestants are flown to Europe — places like France and Spain, which Cooper actually said was ”renowned for its bullfights and beautiful beaches” — and commanded to do things like wash each other’s laundry in a (tee-hee) town so primitive, there aren’t any Laundromats! If the group succeeds in its jingoistic stunts, thousands of dollars are thrown into a pot to be given to the winner when the show ends its nine-week run.

Where Island is creepy-cheesy, The Mole tries for some ’60s idea of cool: not Austin Powers ironic, but Our Man Flint campy — there’s Mission: Impossible-style music, and Cooper utters most of his lines with a halting, pointlessly ominous severity: ”I think you’ll find Steven is rather, well, uncomfortable.” I kid Cooper — he’s obviously an intelligent egg; heck, compared with Island‘s smarmy-dummy host, Mark L. Walberg, he’s Laurence freakin’ Olivier. No, The Mole — a Belgian import, Americanized — is too thought-out to be captivating; every episode ends with disclaimers about challenges that were edited or scenes that were rearranged for coherency, but the result is a botch with baffled bores. You don’t care who the ”mole” is, any more than you care whether the lissome fatheads on Island maintain their ”relationships.” It’s just that it’s more fun to watch someone lick on someone’s stomach. Temptation Island: C- The Mole: D+

[BOX]

Temptation Island
9 PM WEDNESDAYS FOX

The Mole
8 PM TUESDAYS ABC

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