Back (ugh) on a screen near you: ‘Temptation Island’

January 21, 2019
Erin Simkin Black Monday” stars Don Cheadle, Regina Hall and Andrew Rannells. (Showtime)

It was condemned 18 years ago as the downfall of civilization with its monogamy-testing premise and debauched scenes such as a woman licking watermelon juice off a stranger’s nipples.

Now “Temptation Island” is just more grist for TV’s nostalgia binge.

The Fox series, which first ran from 2001 to 2003 and helped usher in reality TV as we know it, is getting the reboot treatment beginning Tuesday on USA Network.

“Temptation Island” is just the latest vintage series plucked from TV’s archives by network executives looking for instant name recognition in shows that can break through a crowded TV landscape. And like low-rise jeans creeping back into style, some of the trendiest reality shows from the aughts are making a comeback — whether you like it or not.

In the same year that former prime-time heavyweights “Roseanne,” “Magnum P.I.” and “Murphy Brown” made their returns to the small screen, reality TV stalwarts joined the mix. Bravo’s groundbreaking makeover show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was updated for the Netflix generation — now simply titled “Queer Eye.” TLC’s home-design show “Trading Spaces” dusted off its paint rollers. The cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” reunited for another round of antics. And “American Idol’s” retirement was so short-lived, we barely remember it happened.

This year, in addition to “Temptation Island,” MTV’s popular young adult docusoap, “The Hills,” will return. And Fox recently announced plans for a new incarnation this fall of its short-lived 2003 reality competition series “Paradise Hotel,” which follows singles who live together in a tropical resort.

Hollywood’s growing reliance on bygone popular properties makes sense in the era of Peak TV. Built-in brand equity is a helpful advantage amid an ever-increasing wave of original content, when 500 scripted (and hundreds more unscripted) shows compete for viewers.

Offering audiences the familiar is less risky than enticing them with something brand-spanking new — a notion bolstered by viewers with an abundance of current TV shows at their fingertips often preferring to curl up with old favorites available on streaming services such as “Friends” and “Golden Girls.”

“I think nonscripted producers are looking at what’s happening with scripted and looking into their libraries and bringing out formats that have been on,” says Heather Olander, USA Network’s head of alternative development and production.

Resuscitating a reality show like “Temptation Island” is a lot cheaper than bringing back scripted shows like “Roseanne” or its replacement, “The Conners,” with big-name, well-compensated stars (John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert are each reportedly earning $375,000 per episode).

The thinking, says Jennifer Pozner, critic and author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” goes a little like this: “If we’re rebooting everything from the ’90s and early 2000s and spending a lot of money bringing back (‘Roseanne’), we may as well spend very little money and try to break up people’s relationships on an island.”

David Goldberg, president and chief executive of Banijay Group, which produces “Temptation Island,” sees it in a different light. “It’s tough to launch a show, it’s tough to get ratings, so why not embrace a show that will instantly market itself?” he said. “If it worked before, there’s a good chance it will work again rather than having to start from scratch.”

Of course, a key hurdle is finding a show that will thrive in a new era.

“Temptation Island” debuted in 2001, when reality TV was new and the idea of baiting people into infidelity as a ratings ploy still seemed shocking. Now viewers in the mood for a salacious dating show featuring the scantily clad and fame-hungry can watch “Ex on the Beach,” “Bachelor in Paradise,” “90 Day Fiance” or “Dating Naked.” Is there anything all that tempting about “Temptation Island” in 2019 for viewers? USA Network seems to think so.

“I think the reason it’s going to stand out is it has a central theme that is timeless,” Olander says. “It’s relatable, and maybe even more relevant now. With technology, you could be swiping left or right, and check out if the grass is greener. Even in the casting process, just perception and the way in which people look at relationships these days — there’s an endless choice, or access. I think now it’s going to be less about, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is on TV’ and more about ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited to watch this because they’re going to be exploring questions that I may have about my relationship.’”

Olander says there were discussions about whether the format needed updating. But the producers decided not to tinker much with the formula — even original host Mark L. Walberg is back as the ringleader of the shenanigans.

“We ended up thinking like the way to make it modern is through the storytelling, and the characters, and the points of view, versus trying to add twists and turns to what I think is a great format,” Olander says. “So we landed on doing it the exact same way, just with new people.”

Last year’s reboot of “Queer Eye,” which helped Netflix expand its unscripted reach, is an example of a feel-good reality reboot that worked by adjusting its format for a new generation and offering cross-cultural understanding when tensions seem to be intensifying in America.

“We all knew that we wanted to speak to the heart of what the show meant before,” says “Queer Eye” creator David Collins. “But we knew we had to do it differently. It was weird because the time definitely echoed and was similar to when we originally launched. We went from the Bush era to the Trump era. It was a time when politics were divisive and America was looking for something kind and loving and something to take you out of the fear of everyday politics, I think.”

And while we take it for granted that viewers feel sentimental about sitcoms they grew up with regardless of how good they actually were, guilty-pleasure TV like “The Hills” is often viewed with ironic detachment. Tapping into warm and fuzzy memories of the Conner family squabbles is one thing, but do we feel the same way about … Speidi?

When it debuted on MTV in 2006, “The Hills” was already derivative — a spinoff of “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” a reality series that was in turn inspired by the prime-time soap “The O.C.” It followed “Laguna” star Lauren Conrad and her L.A. friends as they partied, fell for the wrong guys, met for brunch and occasionally went to work. In later seasons, the focus shifted to Conrad’s feud with her former best friend, Heidi Montag, and Montag’s controlling boyfriend (now husband), Spencer Pratt — known collectively as “Speidi.”

Alarge part of the show’s appeal was teasing out what was genuine — or “unwritten,” as the theme song suggested — and what was staged. With pitch-perfect casting, it also had unusually high production values for a reality show.

“It was groundbreaking. It took the scripted look and tropes and put it into a reality format, which you hadn’t seen before,” says Nina Diaz, president of programming at MTV, VH1 and Logo. “It was ‘Gossip Girl’ before ‘Gossip Girl.’”

After “The Hills” went off the air in 2010, MTV, like many other networks, tried to shift into expensive scripted programming, like the short-lived fantasy series “The Shannara Chronicles.” As its young audience flocked to streaming networks, MTV saw its ratings drop by 50 percent between 2011 and ’16. But they have since rebounded thanks in part to “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation,” which became the network’s highest-rated new show in six years when it debuted in April and has already been renewed for a third — yes, third — season.

With the subtitle “New Beginnings,” the rebooted “Hills” will catch up with Montag and Pratt, now in their 30s and raising a toddler, but also introduce younger cast members, including Brandon Lee, son of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. (Conrad is not involved.)

“It was important that we weren’t just cutting and pasting the old franchise,” says Diaz, “but were infusing it, reimagining it and reinventing it.”

The interest in these reality shows is partly a matter of timing. Having resurrected beloved shows of the ’80s and ’90s, networks are now turning to the aughts, when reality TV ruled the airwaves.

For legacy networks, the motivation may be less about tapping into audience nostalgia than a desire to “recapture their financial heyday,” Pozner says, and return to an era of cultural dominance. “They don’t think we want to revisit the reality shows of our youth.”

ABC was in third place in total viewers and fourth place in the adults 18 to 49 demo, when it paid a reported $3 million per hour for the license fee to bring back “American Idol” — not to mention the extravagant paychecks for the judges. The move had seemed like a financial gamble to some, given that the series’ boffo ratings had eroded significantly in the show’s later years on Fox. But ABC was willing to bet that a reboot of the franchise would be “appointment viewing,” bringing viewers together at the same time every week to see the live results of the competition.

Yet it’s also hard to be nostalgic for something that’s barely been gone. ABC announced it was bringing back “American Idol” 13 months after the series bowed on Fox. Similarly, “Jersey Shore” went off the air in 2012 but MTV has broadcast various spinoffs nearly without interruption since then.

“Reality shows were always on a heightened, sped-up cycle” driven by the hunger for cheap programming, Pozner says. (“Survivor,” on the air since 2000, is now heading into its 38th season). “Think of these reality shows as the programming equivalent of dog years.’”

In other words: Mark your calendars for the reboot of “The Masked Singer,” coming to TV, well, a lot sooner than you’d think.