Fox hits bottom... or does it?

Posted: Jan 12, 2001 12:00 AM
Since the early-to-mid-1970s, prime time television has been obsessed with sex. It was a staple for countless characters on series past, like Sam and Diane on "Cheers" and J.R. on "Dallas." It is nearly the only reason for the existence of today's lead characters, like Monica and Chandler on "Friends" and Jack on "Will & Grace." Take away sex as a topic and you're left with a test pattern on your TV screen. Sex, Hollywood style, does have its standards. Rarely will the creative community slide from pure physical fulfillment to that vacuous notion of "love." A married couple having sex? That's almost taboo in a culture that celebrates sexual relations only if they are demonstrably illicit. Tinseltown's defense? That this is mere entertainment featuring fictional characters. No real human relationships were shattered in the making of this TV series -- that's Hollywood's implied disclaimer. Leave it to Fox to shatter even that flaccid excuse. The singular goal of the network's new reality show, "Temptation Island," is to have single persons lure away persons who are in committed relationships. My, how we've refined our cultural tastes. We've come from "The Dating Game," where we rooted for couples to come together, to "Temptation Island," where we root for their bond to be destroyed. According to TV Guide, "Island" executive producer Chris Cowan "originally pitched an idea to Fox about married couples in crisis." In Cowan's words, "We all thought for a second and said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if we tempted those people?' Then we said, "Wait a minute. We can't go there ... But if they were all single,
that would be interesting.'" True, trying to sunder a husband and wife would have been more despicable than what "Island" seeks to do. But it's only a matter of degrees. Although the couples on "Island" are, legally speaking, single, they are also on a journey, the destination of which is, if they are serious, a lifetime commitment. Not to respect that possibility is itself more than a little immoral. In the month or so leading up to the premiere of "Island," the hype from Fox was massive -- especially during its Sunday-afternoon NFL telecasts -- meaning that a) Fox is banking on "Island" to restore its flagging fortunes, and b) it wants audiences of all age groups to witness the spectacle. Protests against "Island" are having no immediate effect on Fox. "It would be premature to judge a show based on seeing a 30-second promotional spot," said network spokeswoman Christina Kounelias, thus begging the question: Then why do 30-second promotional spots? "We hope people will reserve judgment until they've had a chance to see the entire program," Kounelias added. Fox knows full well just how offensive this program is when this is the best defense it can muster. Since the "dating" doesn't start until the second episode, the premiere of "Island" was creepy more for what it foreshadowed, or seemed to foreshadow, than for what actually happened. One of the attached men pensively remarked, "I feel like I sold my soul to do something fantastic ... Now the fun is over, and now I'm paying for it ... Now I'm in hell." For an explanation, however, we have to tune in next week, or the week after, or ... We also saw a great deal of the singles strutting their scantily clad stuff for the attached; some of the attached worrying about what's to come (one woman says that she and her boyfriend are "tempting fate, and it seriously scares the hell out of me," and one man comments, "I'm thinking about my girlfriend doing wild things with another guy, and now I'm wondering, what'd I get myself into?"); and, most painfully, a woman who's still bitter --
extremely bitter -- about her boyfriend's recent infidelity, and more than once lets him know it. So, what is there to say about "Temptation Island"? First, Fox was not being honest when it claimed to have learned its lesson from last year's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" disaster. In fact, one of the problems with "Multi-Millionaire" -- sloppy background-checking -- also bit "Island" on the backside. The day before the premiere, reported that a man and a woman had been chosen as one of the show's couples, and had taken part in several days of taping ... all before it was learned that they, contrary to "Island" rules and what they'd told "Island" producers, had a child. Second, while the producers of "Island" should be ashamed of themselves for using the undermining of romantic relationships as a ratings gimmick, what does it say about the participants, especially the couples? Just how serious is that relationship if they are most willing to see it destroyed while being humiliated before a national audience of millions? And what does it say that there is an audience that large for this show?