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The sleazy thrills of Temptation Island

The reality series is an appalling, appealing blend of barely ethical chaos, psychological warfare, and irresistible TV.

A group of contestants on “Temptation Island” wear skimpy costumes for a party and toast each other with drinks. USA Network
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

The premise of Temptation Island, a reality show that airs on USA Network, is simple enough: Troubled couples are flown to Hawaii, separated, and surrounded by hot singles to test their commitment to their relationships. Frankly, it’s a foolish endeavor.

If the contending pairs were meant to stay together, they likely would not go on the show at all. There’s no prize money at stake, just the opportunity to cheat while on a free vacation, the possibility of social media fame, and a chance to prove a convoluted point to their partners and to themselves. It’s a dizzying routine of mental gymnastics, and while the contestants often seem clout-crazed and possess the enviable trait of pure confidence, it is their self-assuredness that usually leads to their eventual downfall.

Like so many reality shows, Temptation Island reframes emotional volatility as entertainment. It promises a train wreck that viewers can’t look away from, and it delivers in every episode. The result is a bizarre TV series that operates under the guise of “the process” — the process being the implication that the mess it creates could possibly be a therapeutic one.

Alcohol and partying are the crux of the show. Almost every night, participants drink and devolve into scandal after scandal. It is during the party scenes, of course, that most of the tempting and cheating occurs, between slurred words and sultry pool party madness. The atmosphere frequently teeters into spring break territory — nothing matters but feeling good, and decisions are fueled by hours in the hot sun, booze, and an array of sweaty, Instagram-perfect bodies. An intentional blurring of boundaries works to erase any feelings of possible consequences. It’s a fantasy, for both the participants and the viewers to indulge in.

Then come the bonfire scenes — Temptation Island’s signature “event” — at the end of each episode, à la Survivor’s tribal council or The Bachelor’s rose ceremony. They create for the camera an intimate portrait of people in true distress, as contestants watch out-of-context clips of their partner’s personal conduct on the island. Located most recently at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, the entire set is a panopticon of chaos and confusion. Contestants know that their partners will see footage of what they’ve been up to, but they have no idea what exactly will be shown.

The bonfires are what makes bad behavior on Temptation Island that much more egregious. Lots of participants simply want an excuse to cheat, and they know they might be seen doing so. While many cast members enter the “journey” with a strong belief in their ability to outsmart the show (and, in some cases, their significant others), they severely underestimate the psychological element of the situation. Isolation, inadequate mental health resources, and a seemingly endless amount of alcohol make for a series that fails the cast members who actually want to fix their love lives, and rewards those who couldn’t care less about their relationships or their significant others. All in all, it’s hypnotizing to the viewer. One fan summed it up clearly to me: “I feel so bad for these people, but I can’t stop watching.”

The current iteration of Temptation Island, which just wrapped up its third season, is a revival of the series of the same name that ran on Fox from 2001 to 2003. Not much has changed about the basic premise; it feels like a relic, in that it’s primarily focused on shock value. Like early 2000s reality TV hits like Fear Factor or What Would You Do?, or modern relationship-based favorites like Married at First Sight and Love Is Blind, Temptation Island has a social experiment element to it that makes viewers wonder how they might fare in a similar situation. The original series was controversial, as was the way of early 2000s reality TV, and its function as a morality play about fidelity is undoubtedly part of its appeal.

Temptation Island host Mark L. Walberg.
USA Network

The host of Temptation Island, Mark L. Walberg (not to be confused with that Mark Wahlberg), has been at it since the early 2000s series. His job on Temptation Island is more involved than, say, Chris Harrison’s is on The Bachelor, and he manages to stay out of controversies too. While he tries his best to role-play a therapist of sorts and is a genuinely delightful host, his guidance isn’t nearly enough for people so in need of actual healing and advice. For example, one season three cast member broke down after revealing her brother had overdosed some time ago, and how it had strained her relationship. How can Walberg, the singles, or any of the contestants be expected to properly help manage those serious emotions when they come up?

“When I’m sitting across this bonfire with these young people grappling with all these questions and problems, I can’t help but coach them through things based on what I know from my own life,” Walberg said in a February interview with TV Insider. “I tell them the advice I give is exactly what they paid for it. I’m a game show host. I’m not a therapist.” Perhaps predictably, Temptation Island attracts couples who appear to need the counsel of an actual therapist, but for some reason or another have arrived before America to embarrass themselves.

The series’ shortcomings are exactly what make it a delicious watch. When the absurdity reaches its boiling point, contestants typically experience a revelation that is both horrifying and hilarious, especially if they aren’t great people to begin with. Take, for example, a sullen quote from season three contestant Tom Gipson, watching his girlfriend kiss another guy after seeing clips of Gipson’s constant, handsy flirtations with other women: “Congratulations, I played myself.”

Isolation plays a huge factor in the way the show is able to guide, and often confuse, participants’ emotions. At bonfires, the videos shown are often incriminating, and clearly selected not to achieve a guaranteed outcome, but to sow doubt about the future of each couple. There is no way for contestants to fact-check or know the exact context of the flirtatious conversations they see. Other clips are straight-up humiliating.

Chelsea Orcutt and Erica Washington on Temptation Island.
USA Network

Early in season three, contestant Erica Washington was made to watch her boyfriend, Kendal Kirkland, take two other women to bed with him. While many fans have speculated that Washington and Kirkland may have never really been together in the first place, the pain she obviously felt, and the disregard Kirkland had for her on the show, seemed all too real. It would be traumatizing to be subjected to such lack of care in the real world, but having it unfold on television makes it even more disturbing. “I have never been surrounded by so many people, and still felt like I was all by myself,” Washington tearfully remarked at one point.

Contestants are constantly surrounded by strangers — not only the film crew, but Temptation Island’s swarms of eager singles. Quickly, they form attachments with a single or two and tend to stick with them until the end of the season. Attraction and producer prodding surely play a role, but friendships and romances are crucial for emotional survival on the show. The singles try to comfort the contestants but are naturally selfish in their intentions. After all, the main reason singles are present is to have fun and hook up, although some claim they are there to find true love. Overall, they’re waiting for an opening, whether emotional or physical.

In the finale, contestants can choose to leave the island with their significant other, with a new flame they met on the show, or to go home solo. It’s the first chance contestants have to confront their partners after a full season of flirting, partying, and bonfires full of maddening footage. And who among us can make a rational decision or adequately express our feelings in so little time, with so many lights and cameras around?

In season three, a handful of couples left together. Kristen Ramos and Julian Allen actually got engaged on the show. And while it appears that they have come to learn more about themselves, their results are outliers. In past seasons, most of Temptation Island’s couples have broken up, whether on the show or shortly afterward in the real world. Those who stay together likely still need to put in effort to make their commitments last, especially after such an intense and bewildering experience.

Cali Estes, a life and addictions coach with a doctorate in clinical psychology who has actually had a Temptation Island contestant as a client in the past, says that all reality shows would benefit from having on-site, ongoing therapy services. However, most lack such a system, and often wreak havoc on the mental health of their participants. Shows like Temptation Island want to capture tears and turmoil, and build an environment that lends itself to that. Sometimes the results play like borderline psychological warfare.

“There needs to be some sort of de-escalation from being on the show, and there’s not,” Estes said. “I think they should have a real therapist or psychologist on there, but I don’t know if it would have the same amount of ratings.”

Estes told me that her client who appeared on Temptation Island experienced real, lasting trauma.

“She didn’t go on there because she wanted to be an actress. She actually thought it would help. And it did the complete opposite,” Estes said. “She now has anxiety and PTSD from what happened on the show. Now I’m seeing her for all this other stuff that it brought out. [Temptation Island] put her in a position where she’s afraid to date. She can’t move on. She’s terrified that every guy is going to cheat on her.”

Originally, the client sought help from Estes because her partner seemed to have an alcohol problem, and it was taking a toll on their relationship. They have since broken up, and she regrets their involvement with the show. While I did not get to talk to the client directly due to worries about violating her nondisclosure agreement with the show, Estes told me the client wants to cut ties with Temptation Island. However, her contract compels her to fulfill certain press requirements, so she’s still attached.

“I also have clients that are on the [Bravo Real] Housewives shows. On reality TV, they have a green room that has an open bar specifically for this type of stuff. When you see them on the show, they’d been drinking before filming, during filming, and after filming. If there’s other items you would like, it can be arranged, let me just put it that way,” Estes said.

The casting site for Temptation Island boasts of a “safe, supportive, and fun environment,” and mostly delivers on the fun, but that’s about it. While the show doesn’t claim to be a heal-all for relationship issues, its narrative does imply that contestants might be able to fix their problems by participating.

Estes challenged this implication: “There’s no way you can do any kind of conducive therapy if someone’s under the influence. It’s just not even possible,” she said.

Temptation Island’s season three cast kicks off a round of drinks.
USA Network

And under the influence they are. In season three, Blake Eyres, a dentist from Missouri, spent almost all his time with contestant Chelsea Orcutt, and their courtship escalated to an odd pool hookup scene where she looked almost too inebriated to be an active participant. Like the consent fiasco that happened on Bachelor in Paradise in 2017, in which one cast member was allegedly too drunk to consent to sex, the antics on Temptation Island often feel like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Temptation Island appeals to its mind-boggled audience in spite of, and because of, its ridiculous and often unsettling premise. Jennifer Moore, a 47-year-old fan in Georgia, watched the original early-2000s version of Temptation Island when she was 27 years old. “At the time, I was going through a bad breakup, and it just seemed like the perfect trashy reality TV show. It was just an absolute train wreck, and I couldn’t stop watching it,” she said. “I saw USA was bringing it back, and I was like, ‘Oh, I remember this awfulness. I have to watch this.’”

As far as Moore remembers, there’s not much difference between the original series and the current iteration. However, she does recall that in the original series, one couple was kicked off the show when it came out that they had a child together. Producers did not want to play a part in breaking up a family; that’s where they drew the line.

Still, Temptation Island readily ignores plenty of other glaring issues with its concept. “‘I’m not a huge fan of reality TV, but something about Temptation Island just grabs my attention,” Moore said. “Who would do this to their relationship? You’re having problems, so ‘let’s go on TV and do body shots off other people’? There’s nothing healthy about it.”

And yet that is part of the appeal. If viewers have even an ounce of responsibility in their own lives, the show manages to make them feel like saints by comparison. In the lawless land of Temptation Island, anything goes, and viewers can easily judge the actions of the cast, strategize how they would have done better in the same shoes, and debate the right and wrong of it all without involving themselves in anything even remotely as risky in their own lives. Contestants play with fire, and the audience is dazzled by what catches.

Thomas Gipson and Chelsea Orcutt on Temptation Island.
USA Network

That’s not to say Temptation Island fans are unaware of the complicated nature of their viewership. Brianna Vega, a 24-year-old fan living in Boston, says she feels the show does prey on people who are in bad relationships. “That’s the biggest issue for me. Not only are you in this toxic relationship, but now it’s being exploited for the whole country to watch,” Vega said. “Like in season one [of the reboot] with Kaci and Evan? Her whole life fell apart on national television, and we had to watch her beg for him to take her back.”

The relationship Vega is referring to was between contestant Evan Smith and his girlfriend of a decade, Kaci Campbell. Early on, Smith mentioned that his father had been murdered due to infidelity, and it contributed to his hesitation to marry Campbell. However, he immediately became smitten with a single, Morgan Lolar, and left Campbell at the end of the season. He proposed to Lolar a few months after, but later the relationship fizzled due to his alleged abusive behavior.

Lolar has since bonded with Campbell over Smith’s toxic patterns, but at the end of Campbell’s time on Temptation Island, she had a breakdown that I have never forgotten. She screamed, cried, and hyperventilated, addressing the cameraman directly to ask if what she was experiencing was real — could this nightmare actually be happening to her?

“I don’t even remember a lot of it. I feel like I kind of blacked out,” Campbell said in a 2019 interview with People. “I was in complete and total shock and panic mode.”

While the entire drama between Campbell and Smith was disturbing to watch, it also spoke to the extremeness of Temptation Island, and it stands as a classic example of the dynamics that might fuel a holier-than-thou feeling among viewers. Most people probably think they wouldn’t leave a significant other sobbing on television, much less after 10 years together. Watching couples like those on Temptation Island helps smooth any cracks in our own relationship histories, because hey, at least things never got that bad.

“I had a toxic and abusive ex-boyfriend,” Vega told me. “If the end of our relationship played on national TV, I don’t know how I would have lived through that,” she said. “For me, watching from that perspective, it’s kind of horrifying.”

Ethics are not typically reality television’s forte, but Temptation Island consistently wades into murky waters. Yet, I’m an avid viewer because, despite the series’ inherent problems, it is deeply fascinating. Like TLC’s popular reality franchise 90-Day Fiancé, Temptation Island at times feels obscene. Many of the couples on the show seem like they would benefit from professional guidance, but a reality show is a shoddy replacement for therapy.

It is easy to imagine that we would never let such misguided disaster strike our own lives. It is even easier to imagine that we would be faithful to our partners if we were to appear on the show ourselves, despite never having experienced the engineered, alcohol-soaked complexities of Temptation Island’s bubble world. The concept is so unbelievable, so unsound, and so, so bad that it’s difficult to ignore the pull.

The fact is, participants on the show get reduced to caricatures of modern relationships. There’s the manipulative cheater, the ladykiller, the devoted girlfriend, the “crazy” (soon-to-be) ex. It’s a soap opera of epic proportions.

Vega tells me she’s converted plenty of people into fans. “Coworkers, ex-boyfriends, old roommates, my best friend, and even my current boyfriend. He hates reality TV, but literally can’t look away after watching just a handful of episodes,” she said. “Watching Temptation Island will make you feel better about your own life decisions. That’s how I always hook people.”