Temptation Island

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FOX

Singles-cruise high jinks, yes; drama, no

Literally, Temptation Island is a tropical getaway off the coast of Belize where four unmarried couples went to test their faithfulness amid a bevy of buff and beautiful singles. Metaphorically, it is where Fox executives landed when the ratings success of Survivor tempted them away from their vow, made after last year's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire embarrassment, to forswear "exploitative" reality programming.

The result is a new round of Foxploitation. Temptation Island (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) has been the best-rated Survivor knock-off yet, nearly beating NBC's hit The West Wing. And it hardly has been hurt by the free p.r. from Jeremiahs who warned it would be a Jerry Springer-style romp of casual sex.

If only. So far, the six-week series is less a journey to Babylon than an overlong ride on a tacky singles cruise, short on both actual dirt and the kind of character revelation that would make you care if anyone cheated on anyone. And the previews of coming episodes have all the hallmarks of drama concocted through editing. The one potentially absorbing story line--that of a couple who had an infidelity in their past--will be cut short. When producers discovered early in the taping that the two had concealed the fact that they had a child, which made them ineligible, they were booted.

Neither, though, is Temptation the moral threat that overheated critics made it out to be last week. It is depressing, for instance, that 26 singles were brought in essentially as paid escorts and treated just as impersonally by the show. But it's not as though Fox is endangering otherwise trouble-free relationships. Anyone who would sign up with Temptation as marital therapy is not someone from whom you would want to buy a gallon of milk, much less make longer-term plans.

Temptation's critics underestimate its audience too. As with Multi-Millionaire, the show appeals precisely because most of us wouldn't want to be on it. At the root of the concept is a simple moral assumption: fidelity, good; cheating, bad. As one of the male Temptors said, "Don't hate the player; just hate the game." You don't have to be a prude to hate this game.