All Together, Now

We shouldn't want to watch Temptation Island, Fox's hypersexed answer to reality TV. The concept -- let's see if a bunch of alluring singles in an exotic locale can bust up a few established, if tenuous, relationships -- is offensive; the couples claiming to test their love, shallow and vain.

We shouldn't, and we don't. Despite the show's high ratings in its first season -- 17.3 million viewers tuned in for the final episode -- Temptation Island 2 has quietly tanked. (As of this writing, its average audience is a comparatively meager 5.9 million viewers.) This isn't shocking news, some might say, in light of the nation's recent gravitation toward gravitas. But other TV fluff -- Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond -- has managed to maintain top-five status. And what about the huge box-office success of escapist movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring? No, the problem with Temptation Island post-September 11 isn't lightness, but darkness.

Last winter, Temptation Island attracted a huge following precisely because it appealed to our dark side. Millions of us loved to hate the beautiful, empty, selfish couples and tempters; it felt good to see them get their comeuppance. Our viewing pleasure took an especially malicious -- and layered -- turn when we watched contestants react (bitterly, devastatedly, or mock-diffidently, but almost never subtly) to video snippets of their significant others' dates with the singles. Finally, here was a prime-time program that didn't glorify its pretty protagonists. And it was all the sweeter that these were real people -- not fictional characters -- and that they earned every bit of the humiliation they suffered on-screen.

Perhaps with this sort of Barbie bloodlust in mind, Fox has made it even harder for couples to stay together on Temptation Island 2 -- by separating them for 26 days, twice as long as before, so the singles can better insinuate themselves. We're also set up to be more disdainful this time around. When the seducers first appeared this season -- before the extra-relationship dating began -- they were dressed, like members of some creepy role-playing cult, in bright blue robes with hoods. The message: Evil may lurk in the garden, but it's evil al fredo, like slasher movies and haunted houses, to be laughed at rather than feared. The couples: even cheesier. The introductory segments that air before each episode drip with vapidity. "I want to see if the grass is greener on the other side," says one contestant. Says another: "It's do or die."

And the quick cutting from player to player, MTV-video-style, reveals minimal character and maximal flesh. Because the camera doesn't linger, we see types and not people. We know that Shannon likes money and that her boyfriend John is a bartender. But that's about all we know, so we're left thinking, sad sack better get another job or his greedy girlfriend will ditch him for the blond "aspiring lawyer."

The show isn't any cuddlier for the fact that one couple gets engaged (via videotape, Genevieve proposes marriage to Tony, who says yes at a special meeting arranged by the host) and leaves the island early. First of all, it's already been established that this relationship is imbalanced, perhaps even fundamentally flawed: Genevieve is bossy, and Tony lacks a spine. And second, the warmth of the proposal is almost immediately undercut by a tawdry teaser for the next episode: "Edmundo and Hillary finally give in -- and unlock the door to their carnal lust."

Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage, another Fox reality-dating program (which aired this past fall), also worked the viewer-superiority angle. Sixteen singles competed as couples to win $200,000 and a trip around the world. Although at first the men and women talked about finding romance, it took little time for winning the prize to become their chief aim -- and for conniving, exhibitionistic personalities to emerge. They formed Survivor-style alliances in order to protect themselves from being voted off the boat and sent to Loser Island. They cut deals, then broke them, and then lied about having broken them. Meanwhile, there was big talk about integrity and respecting straight shooters; about not wanting to be "played" and, more important, not wanting to look like a "player." Anthony, a pretentious, heavily tattooed poet, leveled the most scathing character judgments against his shipmates. But really, the others were just as horrible. Under ordinary circumstances, they'd have made us want to gag.

Now, we don't have the heart for it. The prevailing national spirit is one of community, not one of condescension.

Of course, Fox wasn't thinking terrorism in August 2001, when it taped Temptation Island 2 -- let alone in September 2000, when Love Cruise was recorded. After the attacks, the network struggled to schedule its seedy fare. The premiere of Love Cruise got bumped from September 11 to September 18, and then to September 25. Fox sheepishly crammed seven episodes into three weeks of airtime (the final show ran October 16). Even the Temptation Island 2 debut -- originally slated for October 31 -- was postponed a week.

But as the Bush administration keeps reminding us, the war on terrorism is ongoing. And so is our reprioritization of values. It may be that Temptation Island 2 wouldn't have gone far on the strength of malice and just deserts even if it had been put off for a year. People aren't (and don't want to appear to be) out for blood; they're giving blood.

If the love-TV genre is to survive, it may, paradoxically, need to make good on earlier PR promises to deliver actual ardor.

You'd think that on the heels of Temptation Island's success, Fox would have anticipated a passionate potential audience for Love Cruise in its smuggest critics. Yet on the Love Cruise Web page, Fox targeted wistful romantics with hooks like "Do you believe in love at first sight?" and "Watch 16 singles set a course for true love!" This marketing was a complete miscue. The show itself had almost nothing to do with love; its bickering hypocrites, switch cards, and "balls of shame" could appeal only to viewers who want to see the contestants suffer. It's entirely fitting that the first guy sent to Loser Island said that he "was actually looking to find a soul mate" -- and that only two people, Melissa and Darin, actually connected as a couple (although even that relationship was complicated by the fact that Melissa had a boyfriend at home).

It appears that Love Cruise and Temptation Island are henceforth doomed. But a reality-based show that encourages knowing thyself in order to connect more fully with others? There's more than enough room these days for something like that.