The last ten years of television and movies have been pockmarked by reboots and revivals. As cable and broadcast channels go their own ways in what may one day be referred to as "the great entertainment unbundling," titles with name recognition remain preferable to untested new content, at least from a network standpoint.
This is true for drama and comedy — but also for reality television. What was once a newcomer to the U.S. TV landscape has now become a staple, with as many hits as flops. “Temptation Island,” one of the more horrific concepts to come out of the early aughts, is a flop that very unfortunately found rebirth this side of the 2010s. Indeed the show, which airs the first part of its season finale on Tuesday, is not simply back — it is thriving.
“Temptation Island,” one of the more horrific concepts to come out of the early aughts, is a flop that very unfortunately found rebirth.
For those who don’t regularly watch pay cable, “Temptation Island” is making its triumphant return on USA, one of the few top cable subscription-based networks. With some of its tentpole shows starting to lag — notably, Meghan Markle’s big career break “Suits” — the channel has begun to invest more heavily in programming like flagship reality show “Christly Knows Best,” a series that pulls in an absurd number of eyeballs from the 12-17-year-old demographic for reasons no one can adequately explain.
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“Temptation Island” is geared towards this same demo, but with a mean streak a mile wide. “Christly Knows Best” is merely an modified version of "Father Knows Best." “Temptation Island,” on the other hand, takes couples who foolishly think they can outwit and outplay producers and humiliates them on camera for the entertainment of the masses. Like all gamblers, these young people — consisting of naive lovebirds, cynical grifters, or some combination of the two — forgot the house always wins.
Like many American reality TV success stories, “Temptation Island” was born in Europe. Created by John de Mol Jr. of the Dutch media company Endemol — the same man responsible for the original version of the hit show “Big Brother” as well as the currently popular “The Voice” — the original version was set in Portugal. Entitled “Blind Vertrouwen” (literally “Blind Confidence”), the show placed three Dutch couples in a luxury villa, segregated them by gender, and then presented each group with a half dozen attractive members of the opposite sex. The point of the show was to see if the spouses could be tempted to cheat while of course being recorded on hidden cameras.
Showrunners claimed the moral of the series was trust, not titillation. Each week, the couples would be shown real footage either of their spouses cheating, or footage edited to make it look that way, and had to decide what to believe. Much like “Big Brother,” “Blind Vertrouwen” was billed as a social experiment, albeit the kind only sadistic psychiatrists would find fun. Dutch viewers were mostly not amused, however, and it was canceled after a single season.
Much like “Big Brother,” “Blind Vertrouwen” was billed as a social experiment, albeit the kind only sadistic psychiatrists would find fun.
The show was then retooled and sold to America under the title “Temptation Island.” The new version took a cue from Swedish import “Survivor” and relocated to a tropical island paradise; it premiered on Fox in January of 2001, a few weeks before President George W. Bush took office. The show was considered rather shocking, even for Fox, which, as the forever up-and-coming “fourth network” of the 1990s, still had a reputation for lowering the bar for TV programming. While the first season (only six episodes) rode a wave of prurient curiosity, the second season tanked. By 2003, with Fox now bathing in “American Idol” success, the show was quietly canceled.
In many ways, 2001 was a simpler time. “The Bachelor” hadn’t premiered yet. And the idea of an openly unfaithful president still seemed like the kind of thing that could shock voters. In 2019, things are rather different. And it’s into this very different social atmosphere that USA Network (part of the NBC Universal family of cable channels) has brought the show back.
But why “Temptation Island”? It’s possible U.K. series “Love Island,” which was revived on ITV in 2015, has something to do with it. Despite the similar name, “Love Island” is not directly related to “Temptation Island.” It’s also not nearly as cringe-worthy. It’s really just a dating show, where the “islanders” must partner up at the end of every episode or find themselves shipped home. Not only has the revival been wildly popular, but thanks to the first two seasons landing on Netflix and now Hulu, it's become a cult hit in America. (Think of it as the opposite of the “Great British Bake-Off” cult.)
And as ugly as the premise for “Temptation Island” is, the show has steadily grown in viewership over the first season’s ten-episode run, with massive growth in the 18-49 demo over what is known as the “Live+3” numbers. (Shows that are watched within three days of airing, either via streaming or DVR time shift.)
It is now booked for an expanded season two order with a planned 12 installments. One can hope, like the original “Temptation Island,” a cultural shift will once again make the series’ casual cruelty towards the contestants unpalatable to viewers. But in this Trumpian era, it’s hard to see how “Temptation island” is anything more than a reflection of the current social order. The cruelty, after all, is the point.