Since we presumably know what couples do under normal circumstances--catch up on their reading and go out with old friends their significant others can't stand--Fox has huddled these parted lovers in the tropics to frolic with wily singles custom picked to be their "type." By betting on the demise of these relationships, the masterminds behind "Temptation Island" are presumably examining social Darwinism at work.
According to Dr. Helen Fisher, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and author of "Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce," we can view the premise of "Temptation Island" as an extreme version of the rules by which we all seek out the best possible mate. "It's natural to ask ourselves 'can I do better?'" says Fisher. "Even if we're not on an island, we all have the opportunity [to stray] all the time. We're mixing in the office, we're walking down the street. We're constantly lying in bed adding up the perquisites and drawbacks of our relationship. That's why we watch reality television. As we watch these other people struggling, it enables us to sort out of own feelings."
But even if we were babe- or hunk-alicious enough to parade for Fox's cameras in bikinis and front- and back-cleavage-revealing swim trunks 18 hours a day, would we really want to subject our own relationships to this cruel and unusual punishment? Dr. Fisher theorizes that love can be broken down into three categories: basic lust, the giddiness and euphoria of romantic attraction, and feelings of attachment and security. "But these three brain systems don't always interact," she says. "These couples have put themselves in a dangerous situation. All eight of these people feel attachment to their partner. But you can feel lust for someone while you're still feeling attraction for someone else. We're dealing with brain architecture that is the most primitive architecture we have."
As is its wont, Fox focuses narrowly on the lust category. Despite the show's occasional attempts to highlight moments of shrewd thinking--Shannon is impressed when her dates picks up the check at the cabana bar (does she really not realize Fox is paying for everything?)--none of these young people is engaged in anything more than what Fisher calls "short term reproductive strategies." If Fox were interested in Fisher's other elements of love, it would have presumably peppered its seducers with romantic poets, or at least investment bankers who would appeal to the women's hard-wired need for security.
Pity, then, these couples who have all ostensibly signed up because they want to see if they or their partners are ready to make a final commitment. In Fisher's realm, we desire long relationships to drive up our chances of producing viable offspring. Once the couples are tempted out of monogamy, however, they will just go and procreate with a more qualified partner. If Mandy, the redhead with an ever-changing array of pain-inducing hairstyles, decides her Billy doesn't have the goods for a permanent commitment, she might attempt to secure the sperm of one of the tempters. In the real world, it's conceivable that Mandy could be trading up, securing the best possible partner for child rearing.
The problem is that "Temptation Island"'s seducers are no more qualified than the seducees. With lines like "I'm Elizabeth from sunny Miami, and I like it hot," the chances of any DNA on the island combining to propagate a human who is fit to do much more than drink Mai Tais in Daytona is remote. This is a huge glitch in the scientific value of "Temptation Island."
So what is Fox's great experiment really testing? "If you're interested in short term reproductive strategies you'll be more focused on sex and less focused on intelligence and humor and career path and all the other reasons we pick a partner," says Fisher. "The people who've gone on this program may well be interested in neither their mate nor the seducers. They're interested in going on TV."
Enough said. "Temptation Island" is not about ditching your mate for a massage therapist, it's about becoming famous so you can ditch your mate for a rock star or Victoria's Secret model or a network executive, whoever it is that famous people date. Fisher also points out that anyone truly interested in long-term commitment will do their philandering in private, without millions of people watching. "If they're good looking, they can do that anytime they want," she says. "They can do it even if they're not good looking."
This ruins my theory that some Fox executive with an undergraduate anthropology degree had a sincere interest in measuring the emotional and circumstantial conditions that lead to sexual infidelity. Instead, it seems Fox has selected couples in palpably rocky relationships and placed them in a situation that practically bullies them into cheating. And we're glad to watch.
On that note, I'd like to up the ante even further and pitch a reality show called "The Meaning of Life." Take a group of people so disenchanted with the consumer-driven, exploitive vagaries of the human condition that they're on the brink of suicide. Put them on an island teeming with great books, music, and artwork, powerful spiritual influences, and meaningful conversations with compassionate, thoughtful people. After two weeks, those who decide life is worth living are declared the winners and receive million dollar book contracts, thereby explaining the meaning of life to the rest of us. The losers, having lost all faith in humanity, drown their sorrows in reruns of "Temptation Island." Now that would be ground-breaking television.