The naked reality

A producer of "Temptation Island," the tawdriest reality TV show of them all, tells what went on behind the scenes.

Topics: Reality TV, Television,

The naked reality

“Temptation Island,” the Fox reality show that managed — with no competition, no winners and no fabulous cash prizes — to fascinate a grudging niche of viewers over the past eight weeks, ended last Wednesday with a whimper.

In January, we settled in to watch four couples — Shannon and Andy; Ytossie and Taheed; Valerie and Kaya; and Billy and Mandy — spend two weeks on a Caribbean island. They were kept apart and told to test their commitment to one another while surrounded by a swarm of predatory “fantasy singles” of the opposite sex.

Reality TV has quickly become a punch line, in no little part because of conceptions like “Temptation Island.” But on Fox over the last few months, something interesting happened on the way to the gutter. While the show engaged us with well-filled bikinis and overdeveloped pecs, we also got to watch some well-deserving people get put through the wringer. We saw the fault lines of what lyricist Lorenz Hart once ineffably called “the fine miss-mating of a him and her.”

The couples were made for each other like oil and water, and yet, in the disappointing final episode, they decided to stay together forever. “Temptation Island” demonstrated, perhaps unwittingly, that a certain degree of willful ignorance and denial may be crucial to maintaining a relationship intact.

The couples — who received no advance copies of the show — have only just emerged from a gauntlet of transparent honesty and cruel sincerity that few relationships could survive. While on the island, they were only marginally aware of what their mates were doing, thinking and feeling. As of last Wednesday, the hapless eight know much more than they probably ever wanted to know about each other. The eight stars haven’t just returned from “Temptation Island” — they’ve only just got there. And when the experience tears them apart, the viewers at home will not be given the satisfaction of seeing it televised.

The producers of the show were under wraps as it went through its broadcast life over the past eight Wednesdays. A few days after the last show, I spoke with the show’s head story producer, Dave Rupel, about the story behind “Temptation Island.”

While realistic about the industry he’s in — “L.A. is not a town that’s built on sincerity,” he says dryly — Rupel had some surprising revelations to make about how the show worked and why the producers chose the stars they did.



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Were you one of the people who came up with the idea?

Yeah, they called me fairly early on. The executive producer Chris Cowan had gotten the contract with Fox. It was a pretty bare-bones concept they sold. They knew there were going to be couples and singles and they would go on dates and not much more than that.

I’d done a lot of reality and soap operas. So it was my job and my team’s job to flesh it out in terms of what the events would be, how each date would differ, coming up with the bonfire and what would happen at the bonfire. And a lot of it was collaborative with the Fox executives. It was actually Mike Darnell’s idea to come up with the blocks — the bracelets. We had like six weeks to come up with what we thought the two weeks of shooting would be, and getting it approved by Fox.

Was it your background in soaps or in reality TV that made them interested in you?

I think they liked the unique mix. They first said this is going to be a reality soap opera. They wanted me to build in the cliffhangers and stuff like that.

How many couples applied?

Probably a couple hundred.

And how did the casting work?

There was a casting department in charge of open calls. We had open calls in four or five cities. Then we also had people go out and scout. A couple of casting assistants would go out to the Third Street Promenade [in Santa Monica, Calif.], and if they saw an attractive couple, they would approach them. Andy and Shannon, I believe, came in because they were friends of friends of one of the casting assistants.

How did you choose the couples?

Everyone had a little bit different take on what they thought would work. My take, since I was in charge of the story, was that I wanted a good mix of people. It’s almost like writing a screenplay. You want a variety of stories and you need different things. For example, it was clear from the beginning that Kaya was more into it than Valerie was. And even though she agreed to do it, she was hoping that it would push Kaya into realizing she was “the one.”

How did they even get involved in it in the first place?

Our Miami casting director found them. I believe she had worked with Kaya on some kind of modeling shoot. So she approached them.

How do you know if a couple would be good on the show?

You read between the lines. Even though Valerie said she was enthusiastic about it, you read her body language, you watch her watching her mate answer questions. It became clear, to me at least, that Valerie’s story would appeal to a lot of women who are ready to commit and their boyfriends are not quite there yet. And so that’s a very compelling element to me, even though some people said, “Well, she’s not going to be any fun and she’s not going to throw herself into it.” And I said, “Well, we have other people to fill that slot.”

Did she hold back a lot once she got there? Or was it clear that she would be pretty reserved from the start?

I think we had a pretty good idea, which was OK. You wouldn’t want all four women to be in Valerie’s position, but it’s OK to have a Valerie when you know you have a Mandy, who’s very exuberant, and a Ytossie who’s very outspoken. Whenever you cast one of these shows, it’s about the mix. It’s like a network developing a programming schedule. They develop a hundred pilots and they only put a few on and they don’t always pick the top 10, they pick the one they think complements “Frasier.”

Why did you choose Shannon and Andy?

We thought of Andy and Shannon as our 30-something couple, because they had been together for five years and some of their problems seemed more mature. Some people thought they seemed too in love or don’t seem to have the drama. I fought for them because I thought there would be a story with them.

They seemed like the most potentially explosive couple to me …

That’s what I thought. When they came into the interview, they were both very confident. They thought they could go through these two weeks, no problem. And they hinted that they were moving toward getting engaged.

One of the questions we asked the couples was “What do your friends and family think about this?” And most said, “They think we’re crazy, this could really wreck us.” But Shannon and Andy sort of said, “We’ve been through much worse.” They told us enough about their past ups and downs and their “down time …”

What made you choose them?

The two things I thought were interesting about them was No. 1, they have a tit-for-tat relationship. If one was caught kissing, the other person would go out and do the same. The other thing was that they had a little bit more mature issues. One of them was that Shannon is an attorney; he has a kayaking company. She has a very corporate existence and he has the mellow, 20-something, not far out of college existence. I thought that was different from our other couples, and would provide a contrast.

Was each of the main cast members assigned a story producer?

I supervised a team of eight story producers who were each assigned to one cast member.

Were the producers surprised by some of the outcomes?

A lot of people were surprised by Shannon and Andy because they really thought she was going to break up with him. I didn’t think so. She’d been with him for five years. As for Andy’s more controversial comments, it’s not like we were lurking in the bushes. He would say [these things] to the producers in interviews. That’s just who he is and I assume that Shannon knows that he is who he is. Do you live in Los Angeles?

No.

OK. Well, L.A. is not a town that’s built on sincerity. They can smile at you and then stab you in the back. So, even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything Andy ever said, I found it refreshing because at least he was honest. And the thing about Andy is that his intentions are never bad. For example, the comment he made when he compared Shannon’s legs to his date Megan. I don’t think this ever came out in the show but she used to be a professional dancer. She was a Lakers girl. So when he gave her I think it was an 8.5 or 9 and gave Shannon an 8, the way he said it, “Shannon’s right behind her with an 8.” I think, in his own mind, it was a compliment to Shannon, saying her legs were almost as good as a professional dancer’s.

Right.

Right.

Yeah. I saw that episode at the house of a member of our staff, and a few of her friends were there. And the women, when they saw him going down that path, were like, “Don’t do it, don’t say that, don’t go there.” And he did. But he wasn’t doing it to be an asshole. He thought it was a compliment.

We didn’t get to see a lot of what brought them there or what had happened between them before. Why didn’t we see more of the history between the couples? Is that a choice you made?

Well, that was always tough with first episodes of reality shows. You need to establish characters but you also want to get right to the action. And a lot of people involved were concerned because they thought “Big Brother” … shot itself in the foot. Because it had so much back story and people didn’t care. They wanted to get going. The people at Fox wanted to model it after “Survivor,” which basically started with people jumping out of that boat the first season.

I fought against that because, as a story person, character is very important. And, because there is no million-dollar payoff, you’re going to need to invest in the couples, and know why they are there. But I lost that battle. There’s a lot of good back story that never made it.

Why did the characters do it, if not for money?

I think anyone who is willing to go on a reality show has a little bit of extrovert in them, a little bit of exhibitionist in them. When we were casting, there was still a lot of hoopla about the first “Survivor.” But I don’t think any of them thought it would be as hard as it was. They thought it would be a lark and that they’d get an exotic vacation in a place they’d never been before out of it. Out of all of them, I think Kaya took it the most seriously, as some kind of opportunity to figure out what was in his heart.

Why did they all choose the same language in the final episode? Why did they keep talking about “making connections” and phrase things in the same way?

That was nothing that was scripted or told to them. I think it was a combination of being asked certain questions which I think shaped certain things in their minds. I also think that the island was isolated. They had nothing else to think about 24 hours a day. So they probably over-thought it.

How did Billy and Mandy get involved?

We had a casting director in Atlanta and they came to an open call. At least for me, when I first saw them, I said they have to be on the show. I think Mandy is stunning and she was so outgoing and so sweet. And I thought she’s going to be a star. Not necessarily a movie star, but she’ll be our Colleen or our Sue, the person people talk about.

Billy, you’re either really attracted to him or not at all. The people who he didn’t appeal to thought he looked mean, and that people wouldn’t be drawn to him. But I liked the contrast in terms of story. We may see Mandy having the time of her life and then we cut to Billy being miserable, and it makes it a better story.

Was it clear from the beginning that he was going to have a bad time or that it was going to be hard for him?

In my mind it was similar to the Valerie-Kaya situation, but not as extreme. There was a moment in the casting interview when the director asked them to describe their fantasy person. And it wasn’t supposed to be your mate, it was supposed to be some other person. Mandy started describing Billy, and then apologized. She said she knew she wasn’t supposed to describe Billy but that’s who it was. And Billy’s face just lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. So, again, it made us think that he was a little further along. He already knew that Mandy was the one for him.

But you never got a sense of what her doubts about their relationship were. She also seemed to very quickly forget about him.

Well, she’s the kind of person who lights up a room, and I’m sure that when they go out, he spends a lot of time watching other guys be attracted to her. I think she approached this as a lark, but as it got more serious — she’s a very emotional person — she would get more upset at what Billy was doing, and she was surprised. She went into it thinking she’d found her soul mate, and she didn’t think we could come up with people that could make them say, “Oh wow, I really am attracted to this other person.” So I think it threw them for a loop, and it may have startled Mandy. Maybe that’s why she sort of — you know — threw herself into more.

Did the crew make predictions about what would happen?

Sure!

Did you place bets?

Well, I didn’t have time to do that, I was working such long hours. But definitely there were people who were saying stuff like, “This will be the first person to kiss someone,” and “This couple’s not going to make it.”

A lot of people thought Mandy would break up with Billy or Kaya would break up with Valerie. So on the final night, when we were preparing Mark for the final questions, we had to say, “Well, if it goes down this path, ask this, and it if this happens, ask that.” Because we really had no idea.

Kaya not breaking up with Valerie was a surprise, right?

I thought it could have gone either way. He’s a very philosophical person and he likes to have deep thoughts and I could have seen it going either way.

What about Ytossie and Taheed? How did the whole child thing surface?

Ytossie started revealing it to people. And I don’t know if that was a conscious choice or a subconscious choice. But we all found out about it on the island and had to go with it and deal with it.

Any other interesting couples that tried out but didn’t get picked?

There was one interracial couple that didn’t get chosen. She was Southern. Her family didn’t know that she was dating a black man and she thought they would be very upset. We were like, wow, that’s an interesting way of wanting to break it to them, by putting it on national television.

Are you planning a sequel?

Fox hasn’t made up their mind yet, but I’ll be surprised if they don’t renew it. But you never know what drives a network. But it would be a challenge. The second season of any reality show is difficult because the participants have seen the first one and often try to mimic what they’ve seen, or they already know the surprises. We’d have to come up with another routine.

Would you do things differently anyway, now that you’ve seen it?

I think, for the most part, it would stay the same. But a lot of it depends on your couples. For example, are you better off if they have more chances to see each other, or does that make it worse? It’s different in every case. With Ytossie and Taheed and Billy and Mandy, it seems the more they saw each other or saw video of each other, the more it spurred them on to action. Whereas, with Shannon and Andy, when they saw each other they bonded. That time when Andy had a choice of two women and he chose the one he hadn’t been on a date with? That warmed Shannon’s heart.

And everyone else was grossed out.

Everyone else was grossed out, but Shannon liked it. So you never know. That was one of the things that didn’t necessarily make their story better, because it made her more loyal to him. Which is not necessarily a bad story point. But every time Billy and Mandy would see each other, it would stir both of them up.

Valerie seemed pretty sure that something horrible was going to happen the whole time. Didn’t she just get unhappier as time went on?

Yes. I think, like the rest of the cast, it was harder than she expected. And it didn’t take her any time at all to decide that she wanted to be with Kaya. The two times — which really were accidents — when she saw him on his date and then saw the single girls going home, were purely accidental and really hard on her.

You finished with updates of where the couples wound up. Has anything happened since then that you know of?

I know they are doing a lot of press. All of them are on the TV Guide Awards that air next week. And Billy was on “The View”; several of them were on “The Tonight Show.” I know Billy is taking a lot of meetings. There’s a rumor that there might be another update show. Maybe if there’s another season, it would start out with an update show.

To really see how the show affected their relationship?

That’s also a part of it. Even though we spread it out for eight weeks, they were down there for two weeks. And also, seeing it on the air and having people reacting to them … I never thought Shannon would choose to break up with Andy while we were down there, but I thought, if anything is going to linger, it’s going to be on her.

I’d have to agree.

Just from hearing people talk and reading message boards, a lot of people think she’s a great woman going out with a male chauvinist pig. And I think that’s either going to make her love him more — because that’s who he is — or it’s going to put doubts in her mind.

One or the other.

I used to work on “The Real World” and I know that kids were sometimes really freaked out when a year later strangers would walk up to them on the street and say, “Boy, you were really dumb when you made this decision,” or “Why didn’t you do this?” That would weigh on anyone and if your relatives, co-workers or strangers are coming up to you and saying, “I would have shot my boyfriend if he did that!”

You guys were working on the final episode just the other day, right?

Exactly.

So, have the couples seen the show?

No, they never got advance copies.

They’re seeing it all along with everyone else?

Exactly.

Do you know anything about Billy moving to L.A. and Mandy staying in Atlanta?

I know she has a music manager back in Atlanta, and that’s all I know. It wouldn’t surprise me if she did move out here because she’s had as much press as he has. Also, she’s the youngest of the cast. She’s 22, and it might be a little overwhelming. It might be more comforting to be around her family while she has this mega-celebrity.

Kaya and Valerie moved out to L.A. as well, right?

Yeah. From what I understand, Kaya is interested in a music career, which surprised me. I didn’t know he had any interest in that. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Shannon wound up being like a “Today Show” host, because she’s so articulate and so smart and so well-spoken. I can see that happening.

What about Taheed and Ytossie? Any news?

You know, I keep hearing different things, so I don’t really want to gossip about them anymore.

I have to say, I do wish we had seen more character development.

There was a big debate about whether we were more of a soap opera or more of a game show. And, I think, in the first episodes, they leaned a little more toward the game show and getting to the big parade of singles. But that was one of the biggest criticisms we got in reviews; people thought they didn’t know enough about the back story of the four couples.

Especially since it wasn’t really set up like a game. There was no prize. I think people were into seeing what happened and what people did to each other and how they reacted.

Yeah. Our department was always saying — you know how they release the director’s cut — we want to release the story department’s cut!

You should. And do the update special.

Yeah, we should.

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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