“Here’s to you finding the answers you’re seeking to the questions you’re asking,” host Mark L. Walberg says at the beginning of Temptation Island season four. He’s talking to the four couples who’ve decided to spend a month apart in Hawaii, living not with their partners, but with a group of single people they’ll date instead.
They were between the ages of 7 and 17 when the first show aired, because it’s been 18 years since the original shocked viewers, both with its premise and with what came to light later. Walberg is back to guide them through the experience, and ask them questions as they search for their own answers.
I talked to Walberg about its impact, what happens behind the scenes, and how this new season (USA Network, Tuesdays at 10) plays out.
“The first season was the one that made the most impact for me because that was the one that was such a big hit,” Walberg told me, and he realized afterwards “how ahead of the game” it was. (Survivor Borneo had ended less than six months earlier; The Bachelor didn’t premiere until the following year.)
“Here was a reality show in the beginning of reality that had really very little gimmick or format other than the conceit of the show,” he said. “Once these people got the island, what seems to be a contrived reality show ends up being a very real experience for the people involved very quickly.”
The early seasons of Temptation Island
The first season premiered on Jan. 10, 2001. While it was an immediate hit, the follow-ups were not: season two aired the following October, and then two years later, a third season aired on the Fox Reality Channel.
“We did three seasons, but it was such a bizarre situation where we didn’t do them back to back, like you normally do,” Walberg told me.
Did Walberg’s approach change from season to season, especially with those gaps? “As the host on any show, you have to realize that the next season and the next cast is not the same as the first cast, so you can’t just show up and expect it to go like it did the time before,” he said.
“Casting is everything,” he added. “For the first season, we had this cast of young, young people in a bizarre situation that’d never been seen before, so they were really flying blind and I was flying blind, and that was fascinating and intriguing to host.”
But that changed as reality TV became more prevalent.
“Then when we got into season two, we had a cast that was kind of hip to reality and they were kind of manipulating the thing, and it became much more of a dance of trying to skate around it,” Walberg said.
“The third one was what it was. The cast was fine and the show was fine. It lost a little something over the break between two and three,” he said.
For the reboot as well as for the original, his approach is the same.
“I always try to be an authentic person,” Walberg told me. “I try to serve the show and the people on the show as best as I can, and buy what’s being sold as hard as I can.”
How produced Temptation Island is, and the role the cast plays
What’s being sold is a format the cast wasn’t truly familiar with.
For season four, Walberg told me that the “people who were coming on this show had no point of reference. Their reference is The Bachelor and shows like that they’ve been watching their whole life—which ironically came out of Temptation Island.”
He said they had a bit of “an expectation of what there was, and then a surprise or a shift as it was revealed what was going on.”
During production of Temptation Island season four, Walberg was on set for 33 days, and he estimated the couples were apart from each other for about four weeks.
That’s very different than season one, which was filmed over about two weeks, in an era when technology was less accessible.
“We weren’t addicted to tweeting or texting each other every 30 seconds,” Walberg told me. “I think it was tough for people to wean themselves off the crack that is your smartphone.”
That information and attention vacuum presents opportunities. Walberg says people often ask him “How can people fall in love so quickly?” on a reality show, and he says, “You take all that way and you put them in this paradise situation, and start really looking at this relationship thing. … If you lived together for 24 hours a day, and that’s all you’re doing and there’s no distractions, relationships come and go very quickly.”
All reality TV is produced, of course, and Walberg said the cast plays a key role in the process of turning real life into entertainment.
Walberg told me that “while producers produce these shows—how it gets cut together and how it becomes dramatic,” the cast affects the outcome, too. “They’re hip that if they don’t have a story, they’re not going to be seen so much.”
“I say this on the air to them,” he said. “It may be a reality show, it may be produced, you may be able to say things are untrue or are true to you, but the concept is going to make things real real quickly, whether you want to or not.”
Walberg said that if a dating couple pretended to have issues in order to get a vacation on Maui—something he doesn’t think actually happened—it’d be impossible to avoid the conceit of the show.
“Even if a couple comes on, having dated for a while, saying, Look, let’s do this. We’ll get a couple week’s vacation, we’ll pretend to have drama, and then we’ll come home and be together, I keep saying to them, I know that’s what you think you may be doing, or maybe that’s what you’re thinking you’re going to do, but it’s not going to go down like that. This becomes very real, very emotional, very quickly, and my job is to bring it back to that,” he said.
As to how much the producers meddle or manipulate, Mark said, “I think some people think we’re nudging them in a direction: You should really start dating this girl; that would be awesome. You should really start dating that guy. You should really go yell at that woman and confront her. I don’t see any of that happening—now, maybe some of that happens, but I doubt it. I don’t see a need for it.”
The production learned that lesson early on, back in 2000.
“In the first Temptation Island, when we got to Belize, there was all this gimmick and game and concept that was supposed to happen,” Mark said. “I remember having a beer at the end of the first day, and we just said, This is just going; get out of the way and watch. … We watched and followed rather than led it as host and producers.”
“Life happens, producers observe it, and then begin to reverse-engineer the story so we can tell it in the timeframe of TV, with the backstory that makes sense from the viewer. But the story’s coming from [the cast],” he added. “I don’t think you need to produce it as hard as maybe some other shows, because so much is happening If a storyline isn’t going off, there’s another storyline going off—always.”
How much Mark Walberg knows
There’s a surprising amount of drama in the first episode of Temptation Island, but the real drama that comes from the format arrived at the end of episode two, when Mark sits down at separate bonfires with the men and women.
That’s when he shows each person brief clips of their partners interacting with the single people, and that’s what either assuages their feelings or fuels jealousy.
While Mark has an idea of what happens every day—“I get a hot sheet from producers, that all the producers get, which is basically: Where are we today, what happened last night,” he said—he does not know what he’s about to show to the couples.
“I don’t see the clips until they see the clips,” he told me. “I don’t know what’s in the clips; I haven’t been briefed on the clips. That’s a choice that the producers made and I made—same thing that I did on Moment of Truth.” (That was a Fox game show on which people were asked super-personal questions while attached to a polygraph machine; they earned money for every truthful answer.)
“I don’t need to know,” Mark added. “I want to react with them. I also don’t want to tip the hand: I’m going to show you a clip now—it’s going to be really difficult! It’s best that I don’t know too much, it’s best that I stay in the moment with them, that we process together, as much as they need me or want me to be part of that.”
Mark admitted that “from a TV standpoint, it’s awesome train-wreck television to show clips,” but he also said that they really can be helpful to the kind of person who chooses to go on Temptation Island to test their relationship.
“I really can actually justify all that craziness, because while it’s not a system I would use to evaluate a relationship, you definitely know how you feel when you see your girlfriend in the arms of another guy, even if it’s not what it appears to be,” he said.
“The clips are not about what they’re doing as a factual reference—it’s not about [the person’s boyfriend or girlfriend] and what they’re doing,” he added.
Instead, it’s about how the person responds to what they’re seeing.
“What can be taken from this?” Walberg asked. “I go back to the basic question of the show, which is: Are you meant to be together or not? Do you know where you are in this relationship and how you feel about one another?”
What happens this season on Temptation Island
As production on Temptation Island began last year, Walberg had initial impressions about the couples that quickly turned out to be inaccurate.
In those early moments, he said, “I’m still trying to get my head around what these relationships are, and trying not to judge them, even though I was quick to judge in my head—and completely wrong, by the way, on every judgment I had.”
“Like anything, your first impression may not be accurate,” he added. “I had a little bit of old-dude arrogance: this couple’s never going to make it, that couple is great. In about three days, I’m like, Okay, I was completely wrong.”
While he won’t divulge what he was wrong about (“I can’t tell you how because it’ll give you too much information”), he did say that Temptation Island will eventually deliver all of its possible outcomes.
“There are three possibilities at the end of the show—people can leave together, people can leave apart, or they can leave with someone new,” he said. “And all of those things happen.”