'Temptation Island' failed but maybe another can deliver

At the risk of providing unsolicited advice, primetime programmers appear to be missing a significant opportunity to capitalize on society’s persistent fascination with infidelity.

Men’s adulterous ways (and it’s mostly men) are filling the airwaves and magazines as never before. Sandra Bullock is “Married to a monster,” according to US Weekly. Every day brings some new camera-ready addition to Tiger Woods’ extramarital portfolio. One-time presidential candidate John Edwards eventually came clean about an out-of-wedlock child, and so on.

Isn’t it time to revive “Temptation Island,” along with lots of other assorted little islets and keys? The celebrity edition alone could be a potential blockbuster, drawing from (and potentially provide a measure of redemption to) notorious figures in politics, sports, entertainment and media. The D.C. quadrant has even exhibited a level of elusive bipartisanship.

Daytime television certainly takes advantage of mining sexual politics. Jerry Springer and Dr. Laura Schlessinger pretty much made careers out of it (hers on radio), but even “The Oprah Winfrey Show” features experts like family counselor and author M. Gary Neuman to explain “Why Men Cheat,” while offering “proactive strategies and action steps for married women to help them prevent infidelity.”

Latenight TV, meanwhile, serves up the longrunning “Cheaters,” a syndicated staple combining hidden-camera surveillance video with the mixed martial arts that invariably ensue when cheatin’ lowlifes are confronted by their irate partners.

Primetime, by contrast, has been relatively slow to the punch and surprisingly restrained. Sure, Fox unleashed “Temptation Island” in 2001 (seriously, where does the time go?), and it was an immediate hit, waves of bad press and controversy notwithstanding. At the time an anonymous TV exec told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s like Fox swallowed ‘Survivor’ and then crapped it out,” which is a line that really ought to be periodically recycled.

The original, though, dealt strictly with couples that weren’t married (in “committed” relationships, as the show put it) and disqualified one set when it was publicly disclosed they had a child together. So there’s plenty of room for permutations that would dispense with such arbitrary limits, throwing married men into precarious situations to see what transpires. And before anyone sounds too shocked at the prospect, remember how ratings for “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” took off once the couple’s marriage fractured and broken vows oozed into the tabloids.

Obviously, there’s a prurient quality to the sexual shenanigans underlying such stories, and some advertisers might initially blanch. That said, it’s hard to think of an area with more demonstrable appeal among both men and women, with gay iterations (hello, Logo and Bravo) to follow in success.

Not all adultery-themed programming need necessarily be of the bottom-feeding variety. An inevitable question, for example, is “Why would he do that and endanger his family/career/endorsements?,” which only highlights how limited scientific and sociological understanding of the topic are. While some men hide behind an evolutionary defense, more are likely to quote modern philosophers like Chris Rock (“A man is only as faithful as his options”) than cite “The Coolidge Effect” or Masters and Johnson’s research on human sexuality.

Where’s the definitive PBS multipart documentary on infidelity? The news specials that don’t include a true-crime twist, such as a wife or mistress being murdered? Reality shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home-Wrecker Edition,” “The Biggest Philanderer” or “Under Covers Boss?”

Instead, TV deals with infidelity in a haphazard, willy-nilly manner. One scandal bleeds into the next, yielding a new round of “What a jerk” indignation mixed with tittering by cable newshounds. When contemplating the psychology of such situations, even a contrarian like Bill Maher can wind up sounding like a panelist on “The View,” recently asking on his HBO show, “Women pick bad guys. Don’t they deserve a little scrutiny?”

Given the voyeuristic urge to poke our collective noses into other people’s lives and marriages, it’s perplexing why there hasn’t been more temptation in primetime to explore these boundaries. Because from tell-all bestsellers and tabloids to unscripted daytime series and poorly scripted movies on Lifetime, it seems clear that with a more sophisticated tweak or two, “Cheaters” would surely prosper.

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