Photo Source: USA Network
It all started pretty innocently. USA Network, home to many of my favorite old reruns and late-night action movies, was heavily promoting their second season of Temptation Island (airs Thursday, October 10 at 10/9c). As part of their promotion, they were instructing everyone to go on-demand and check out the complete season one of Temptation Island. Finally, armed with an enormous pile of laundry to fold, I took the bait and decided to check out this Temptation Island. I watched the entire season over a few days of washing every scrap of laundry in my house, and while I must fully admit it was glued-to-the-screen viewing, as the show progressed I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable watching—with the finale being so uncomfortable I did find myself unable to watch parts. I literally turned away with my husband, who had been a vicarious on-and-off bystander to my Temptation Island marathon, exclaiming, “This is awful, I can’t even watch this.” He too was looking away from the screen as a young woman in her late twenties was literally coming apart in a shockingly sincere and heartbreaking way.
USA Network’s Temptation Island is actually a reboot from Fox’s 2001 original Temptation Island. The original arrived with a great deal of outrage as the reality world was still quite innocent then—not even The Bachelor had arrived. Americans had gone nuts for Survivor, and Fox (then known as a moral boundary pusher) wanted to capture this new reality TV audience. One just needs to run through a few of the articles I found online written in 2001 on the original Fox Temptation Island to get a sense of how the show was received: Reality TV Lowers the Bar Leads Fans Into Temptation (chicagotribune.com), ‘Temptation Island’ offers Unhealthy Portrayal of Relationships (the-standard.org), and ‘Temptation Island’ Tests Television Values (ethicsdaily.com). Now, remember these are all articles were written in response to Fox’s original Temptation Island (which, by the way, is identical to the USA reboot version—they even have the original host Mark L. Walberg). And as for today, a contemporary article written in 2019 on USA’s Temptation Island has an ominous ring as well: ‘Temptation Island’ Hasn’t Changed. We Have. (vulture.com)
The show’s premise is easy, but its rationale is foggy—It is especially awkward and sometimes funny when the couples, singles, and the host try to explain how this ‘social experiment’ is somehow positive. The show starts with four couples who are not married but have been in a long-term relationship. Two of the couples had been together for almost eight years with the other two in the two to three-year range. These are real couples with shared homes and pets. They explain (the inexplicable) to us that they came on the show to test their mate's fidelity or find clarity in their relationship. Instead of maybe seeking couples’ therapy to either find a way to stay together or have a good breakup with closure, the couples decide to go to Maui, separate, and spend twenty-plus days with over a dozen singles of the opposite sex (who are almost always wearing swimsuits) in a house powered by booze. Of course, things go terribly wrong—but near the end, things got worse, as it was clear the singles were being used for revenge (with one very weird exception), and the committed couples were getting tortured (except for one couple who did not go for the singles). Without spoiling season one, I will say the ending for one participant is so awful and unbelievable it has caused me to rethink where my ethics should come into play when I pick a show. Is it morally wrong to watch a show that might be harming people?
I found an amazing academic paper from The International Journal of Communication (2016) written by an associate professor from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, Jelle Mast, Ph.D. The paper was entitled: The Dark Side of Reality TV: Professional Ethics and the Treatment of Reality Show Participants. (to read click here) Prof. Mast broke down four areas of ethics surrounding reality TV and how it essentially can be morally and ethically outrageous. The four ethical areas are Intrusion, Humiliation, Misrepresentation, and Appropriation. There were also four stages where each area of ethics (like humiliation) was addressed. The four stages were pre-production in which the contracts people sign are horrible. Essentially, reality show contestants are signing their lives away indefinitely, as the producers can air the show or clips of the show as long and as often as they want. The second stage is the filming part, where often people are not prepared for the trauma of being under constant surveillance (intrusion). A quote from a participant of a reality show called Ticket to the Tribes: “You try to anticipate what it will feel like to have a camera around at all times, yet sometimes it really bothers you. When you just can’t stand them anymore. But you have to. You realize that you’ve committed yourself, you’ve signed the contract.” Then there is the stage of post-production. This is where the ethical consideration of misrepresentation comes in as the production team uses tons of writers, editors, film editors, and sound engineers to carve out the story and characters they want (which rarely tells the truth of the people and events that actually happened). The last stage is post-airing or after the show is aired as well as the promotion ahead of the show where misleading and often salacious clips are repeated over and over. This can be one of the most harmful stages for the contestants as their very personality is highjacked and replaced for a fictional one for which they will have to shoulder in society indefinitely. Additionally, many contestants are horrified by the judgment from social media.
It was difficult to see reality TV in the same light after reading Dr. Mast’s examination of the professional ethics surrounding reality TV production. Temptation Island was touched on in his paper, and it was clear after watching an entire season that many of the participants would better be described as victims. In the finale, a female from one of the couples sadly bemoaned that she was getting heavily harassed and criticized on social media. I felt bad for her, and my heart sunk as they filmed her strolling around her hometown with her very old and gray dog. The term guilty pleasure is used a lot—especially in conjunction with shows like Temptation Island, but does it go farther than simply being naughty but harmless fun?
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.