is it about watching others be put to the test? Why are
we drawn to watch?
It’s not a new phenonemon. The ancient Greeks did it playfully
with their Olympics. Modern sports, at their best, emulate
those games. The Romans had a far more cruel version. Our
martyrs died while blood-hungry crowds cheered. Today we
are reduced to watching all manner of trials emanating from
theater screens and glowing tubes.
We flocked to the recent film Gladiator. We still
swarm to watch people like us squirm in the hot seat while
Regis Philbin asks questions—dumb or not—that might change
a contestant’s life forever by making him or her a millionaire.
TV producers realized early in the TV game how powerful
the game-show format is. But the old games like Jeopardy
or Wheel of Fortune—even Hollywood Squares,
The Match Game, Truth or Consequences and
so on—seem benign. We watch people sweat with everything
to gain and only prize winnings to lose.
Maybe it was The Dating Game that raised the ante.
Eligible bachelors were interviewed by a prospective date
from behind a screen. The TV audience watched both sides
of the interaction. Now we were playing with real bullets.
From Mild to Wild
The Dating Game was nothing. As our culture has become
increasingly fascinated with—and dependent upon—computers,
home videos, pagers, cell phones and other technology, we
crave natural reality all the more.
Thus, the past few years have witnessed the birth of so-called
reality TV. In part we can blame technology for creating
the opportunity. Before the Industrial Revolution of the
1800s, most everyone was a survivor, wrestling crops from
the earth or battling poverty in the city to get along in
As we became more prosperous, we could turn to magazines
and books to observe others’ trials (Defoe’s Robinson
Crusoe and Melville’s Moby Dick are two examples
that have stood the test of time). Audiences would wait
for each week’s installment of “reality tales” in magazines
such as Harper’s Weekly, on the scene when St.
Anthony Messenger first appeared in 1893.
Super-duper cameras, microphones, satellites and buckets
of TV-generated wealth have made reality tales all the more
immediate. And what the audience wants, the media provide.
The mock trial of a benign game show could not be enough
for long. Now we go to new Treasure Islands and watch NBC’s
Survivor firsthand. Worse yet, we go to Fox’s Temptation
Island and indulge in voyeurism as “people like us”
(or perhaps our younger selves) run the morality gauntlet.
Problem With Temptation Island
himself could not have devised a better setup than Temptation
Island. Here we bring people with hope—thin or not—of
long-term commitment and see if it can be broken by manipulation.
The basic setup of this show is well-known: a group of unmarried
couples who have been “together” for some time go to an
isolated, exotic area where they are split up and seduced,
one at a time, by “dream dates” who in some cases even expose
themselves (“tastefully” handled barely off-camera or by
The seductions are orchestrated by an on-the-scene director,
a pleasant, seemingly reasonable authority figure, who offers
videotapes of the other partners’ trials and proposes to
rearrange the rules of the game.
cast as a morality play, but any hint of true morality was
cast adrift before this show was conceived.
of this magazine know that faith, hope, love—nurtured in
the community of the Church—are the most likely indicators
of successful long-term commitment. And, old-fashioned as
it might sound, avoiding “near occasions of sin” is a safeguard
of fidelity. Our Lord taught us to pray “lead us not into
temptation” for good reason.
Island is a cynical rejection of these Christian values.
It mocks us. And lots of people are watching.
and its progeny aren’t much better. That show does not have
an explicit lust theme—it promotes another of the cardinal
sins, greed. Whoever can pull off the most backbiting, manipulating
and disloyalty (along with other, ultimately more tame,
wilderness survival feats) gets the prize.
“reality TV” shows are highly contrived. They use isolation
and manipulation to call forth the worst in human nature.
know full well these shows aren’t reality. They have such
a huge following, though, because we know there is a real
struggle in the world. And humans, given some spare time
from actual survival, have always been interested in reenacting
problem with Temptation Island and Survivor
is that there is no moral to their story. These shows teach
us nothing. They degrade us.
faith tells us there is a real struggle between darkness
and light, between good and evil, between the abundant blessing
of God and the tendency of humans to reject it.
than set us on a Temptation Island with a guileful director
manipulating us into sin, God gives us a far better reality.
God gives us a world, yes, of free choices, but also gives
us grace, within each of us and through the Church, to strengthen
awareness of truth within us. Rather than manipulate us
into sin, God nudges us, implores us, begs us, toward goodness.
what’s real. We would do well to cast Temptation Island
and Survivor overboard. —J.B.F.