The fleshfest's immorality is immaterial, say Kristen Baldwin and Josh Wolk

By EW Staff
February 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Temptation Island Illustration: Drew Friedman
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by Kristen Baldwin and Josh Wolk

SHE SAID Stupid people are funny. Stupid people bringing misery upon themselves — now, that’s hilarious. Humanity has always gotten a thrill watching other folks suffer — so much so we’ve even got a fancy pants word for it: schadenfreude. And ”Temptation Island,” my friends, is the schadenfreudiest show on earth.

Sourpuss critics charge that ”Temptation” is abhorrent because it demeans the concept of commitment. Well, heads up, folks: Men and women have long been adept at trivializing relationships all on their own (see Roseanne, Darva Conger, Bill Clinton). Fox is merely helping the inevitable romantic sabotage along with its salacious, silly, and oh so entertaining ”Survivor” ripoff. Speaking of that phenom Down Under, explain this to me: When ”Survivor” tortures near starving contestants by making them force down cow brains, people hail it as amazing, revolutionary TV. But when ”Temptation” producers let eight fame – o – sexuals eagerly ditch loved ones (and clothing) in exchange for national primetime exposure, that?s immoral?

Remember, the ”TI” contestants are folks like Taheed and Ytossie, two people who treat each other with a level of hostility usually reserved for DMV waiting rooms. (Yes, they have a child, but based on this pair’s ice cold interactions, if they break up, Fox probably did that kid a favor.) Then there’s Billy and his girlfriend Mandy, a woman who licked sugar off a stranger’s nipple and then proclaimed, ”If Billy can’t love me for…being who I am” — um, what would that be — a big hussy? — ”then we’re not supposed to be together anyway.” Must we really weep for the sanctity of this relationship? Hell, no. Just pull up a chair, bust open a bag of Chee-tos, and watch the idiocy unfold.

Okay, so maybe it’s not my finest hour when I’m cackling at the ”TI” couples’ misery. But what’s so wrong about feeling superior for 60 minutes each week? Most TV highlights the many ways we don’t measure up — we could be richer, smarter, happier, thinner — but ”Temptation Island” is far more kind: ”Hey, Mr. and Mrs. America, at least you’re not as emotionally and intellectually handicapped as these chowderheads.” Take poor deluded Kaya, a guy so adrift in the sea of personal identity that he’s turning to this sleazed up ”Dating Game” for enlightenment: ”I was waiting for an opportunity like this to…find out who I am,” he proclaimed. (I don’t know about you, but I have a suspicion Kaya is not quite ready for that discovery.)

What the naysayers need to remember is that Temptation Island is, at its core, an educational program. By tuning in, I’ve learned several lessons: (1) The reality of your boyfriend whooping it up with scantily clad hoochies on a tropical island can be nullified by adopting a sophisticated ”What I don’t see on videotape isn’t actually happening” strategy (thanks, Shannon!); (2) with enough chemical coaxing, human hair can achieve the color of a prison jumpsuit. (thanks, Mandy!); (3) it’s really not a first date unless you’re wearing disposable undies (as Mandy, Johnny, Valerie, and Matt did during their mud massages). While pondering the gravity of her ”Temptation Island” experience, Mandy mused, ”This will most likely never happen to anybody else.” You know those evil geniuses at Fox will make haste to prove her wrong.

HE SAID First, let me say I have no great moral objections to ”Temptation Island” as a concept; producers should have carte blanche to humiliate at will any amateur actors signing up for reality TV duty. But I am morally opposed to the show’s attempts to frame this Mating Ritual of the Ab Enhanced as a force for good — a valuable tool for gauging a couple’s marital future. That’s like saying cockfighting is a good way to boost a chicken’s self esteem.

”Temptation”’s faux earnestness is personified by host Mark L. Walberg, who passive aggressively tries to rub the contestants’ sunburned noses in their partners’ infidelities while feigning concern when the Coppertone finally hits the fan. After handing over his weekly dose of damning videotape at ”Bonfire,” Walberg waits for the mascara to start running or the pretty boy faces to grimace before innocently asking ”What did you see?”

Golly gee, Marky, it’s almost like you hadn’t been briefed by the producers about each pelvic grind and tongue kiss captured on tape. Misery maître d’ Walberg (an ex- daytime talk show host) spouts Zen lite quotes like ”It’s all about choices,” and interrogates in hushed tones, as if he were Oprah coaxing the troubled past out of an incest survivor, and not a tabloid ringmaster with a gossip jones querying a bunch of bim- and himbos about their booty chasing preferences.

Why the charade of caring? Huge audiences aren’t tuning in because they’re a- hopin’ and a- prayin’ that these crazy kids will end up in a big ol’ group betrothal, to be aired on Fox’s ”Most Happiest, Grooviest Weddings Ever.” They adore the conflict, so why doesn’t Walberg react the way we do at home, by, say, leaping up after the men’s Bonfire and yelling, ”Now that you’ve watched ‘Jacuzzi Jump,’ how are you Three Emasculateers feeling now? Suckers!”

Of course, Walberg only reflects the insincere ethos of the producers, like that oh so caring one who dotingly explained to Ytossie and Taheed — they of the ”secret” child — that they would have to leave the game because the show did not want to be responsible for ”fracturing” a family. Mr. Social Conscience then announced that he’d give the shamed couple some privacy. Accent on some: He left a camera crew behind to make sure America wouldn’t miss out on any potential histrionics. (Alas, the entente was brief and quiet.)

And with that one to grow on moment out of the way, the show quickly returned to zeroing in on destroying the most fragile — but non- childrearing — couple: Mandy and Billy. (Watching a Walberg proffered video of Billy doing a striptease for an admiring gal was enough to make Mandy’s braid tentacled head spin.)

But the series’ let’s have it both ways attitude is simply trickling down from the top: At a press conference last month, Fox TV chairman Sandy Grushow defended ”Temptation Island” as ”not a show about sex.” Cut to three weeks later, as the tape of fruit crazed Mandy licking watermelon juice off date for hire’s nipple is replayed so often it becomes the Zapruder film of relationship assassination.

If Fox ever plans a ”Temptation” 2, the least it can do is own up to the relationship havoc it’s wreaking — after all, nothing spoils a guilty pleasure faster than watching its makers desperately trying to distance themselves from the guilt of pleasuring us.

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