I'm pretty sure the Devil runs the Fox network. (And he's not embarrassed about it, either. Surfer-dude Billy, the first sufferer we meet on Temptation Island, the channel's newest slice of low-budget hell, mourns, "I feel like I sold my soul!") Who else but someone with an abiding, one might say career-long, interest in human frailty could conceive of programming so evilly attractive? I've seen Darva Conger earn her Playboy-centerfold cash by kissing a frog; I've seen police cars careen over embankments; I've seen failed "child geniuses" amass years of future therapy bills. The wonder of it all is that even as you loathe yourself, perhaps because you loathe yourself, you keep watching: How low can this go? How low can I go? The ultimate Fox reality show would be Who Wants to Watch this Program?, in which millions of appalled but hooked viewers vie to be the last to surrender the remote.
In that light, it should be no surprise that Temptation Island (8:00 p.m. Wednesdays, WFTC-Channel 29) has it all over ABC's cash-swollen The Mole (7:00 p.m. Tuesdays, KSTP-Channel 5). Conceptually, you have to hand it to ABC: While Temptation plops down four couples on an island rife with hot-to-trot singles and waits for fireworks, The Mole forces its ten contestants to meet useless challenges (and, more difficult, put up with one another) while detecting the saboteur in their midst. It's Road Rules with an enemy agent onboard. In production values, too, there's no contest. The opening episode of The Mole flew, drove, cycled, and walked everyone together to the Mojave, then treated them to helicopter fly-overs, skydiving, and a trip to Paris. Temptation Island featured a boat and some cabanas. And while The Mole sets out the already classic Survivor assortment--young black woman, crusty white guy, hip twentysomething dude, capable soccer mom, sporty grandma--half of the allegedly "committed" couples on Temptation already seem kaput.
So why does the cheese have it? Perhaps it's because nobody associated with The Mole seems to quite understand how ridiculous it all is. To misquote Marx horribly, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as reality TV. How else to explain the Cold War paranoia this show hungers to reheat? Trim, brush-cut host Anderson Cooper ("Anderson Cooper"? People must constantly ask him what that's an alias for.) steers his charges through their tasks with the impersonal efficiency of an FBI instructor, never once stooping to engage in the "humane" chitchat the competition doles out, usually just before inflicting fresh misery. When his hidden cameras catch the contestants arguing over a banned topic, he fines them $10,000 (they amass money for completion of various tasks, with the last contestant to collect "up to $1 million" at the conclusion). Later the mole leaves a ludicrously dumb message, pasted together like the ransom notes you see in movies, warning everyone that he's about to "execute" his first victim.
But despite Cooper's, uh, professionalism, we see far too much reaching for effect and not enough meaty gamesmanship. I don't expect mental gymnastics along the lines of Le Carré, but surely the producers can do better than having half the contestants repack the other's luggage. At the end of the first episode, when ethnic single dad Manuel gets the ax, we suffer a two-minute retrospective of such greatest hits as he has been able to muster in the previous 50 minutes, including his poignant remark that he's probably the "only Mexican in Paris." Some of his fellow contestants, perhaps responding to the sappy ballad on the soundtrack, even shed a tear or two.
The Mole may yet develop into a satisfyingly gnarly battle of wits. (Is the undercover cop too obvious a candidate, or does that obviousness make him even more likely?) But the first episode of Big Brother stank, too, whereas Survivor grabbed our attention as soon as its 16 rat roasters leaped off the ship. Unlike fictional characters, real people don't have the luxury of carefully plotted layers of personality; they either intrigue us right away or they don't. By forcing the contestants' quirks underground, The Mole may already have dug in too deep.
Temptation Island, by contrast, appalls you from its first seconds and never reaches any higher. Oily host Mark Walberg oscillates from fake-empathetic ("I hope it's a good experience for you guys") to fake-cruel ("you knew this time was coming") without ever stopping at sincere. That makes him appropriate company for the cast's slightly psychotic castaways. One couple, later kicked off the island for lying about the fact that they have a child together, seemed like exes from the get-go. The male half of another appears so in love with himself that he is unlikely to find anyone else remotely satisfactory. Worst of all, everyone involved mouths that deflating bar-speak where shopping and screwing get all tangled up: "I like it hot!" "This is like taking part in the Pepsi Challenge, only beautiful ladies take the place of Pepsi."
And there's not even anything to be gained from it all. If you stay together...you stay together. (Hollywood hopefuls, consider: Richard Hatch has hit minute 13 of his quarter-hour.) This is evil for its own sake. Ultimately, Temptation Island summons Fox's dark forces as efficiently as possible: vanity, greed, desire, envy, cruelty...a veritable seven-deadly-sins' worth of rating points. I imagine it will be a sizable enough hit to bring on imitations, especially if something hideous happens.
None of this should come as any great surprise. Surely one of the simpler lessons of the last century is that, afforded the opportunity to do ill, humans will seize every chance they get. Why not a show promoting cooperation? (Wait, they did that: The program was called Big Brother, and everyone ignored it.) So presumably we're in for a good many more of these programs, especially if the actors' strike hits. I'd love to say that I'm going to stop watching. But in all honesty, that would probably be a lie. You-Know-Who made me do it.