A camera pans over a massive green mountain, hazy blue sky and surrounding valley. The footage looks like maybe it got cut from Jurassic Park for being too majestic. Two parallel planes dance together as they fly over a lush ravine. We see their smiling faces peering anxiously, hopefully out the tiny windows as an Australian voice says, "Inside these planes are ten single men and ten single women. They have one thing in common: They're all looking for love."
Thus begins tonight's premiere episode of Love in the Wild, NBC's newest reality dating series that clearly wants us to believe that it considers itself a real-life romantic epic, grand in both its location and hopes for its contestants. At least in the beginning, the show's intentions sound reasoned and pure (at least to those who have never actually seen a reality dating show before): To put these young, attractive, single, mostly white people on dates in the most extreme of wilderness situations, reward the most successful male-female partners with romantic prize packages, and hope that the combination of thrilling adventure, gorgeous landscape and mandatory teamwork will result in a lasting love for at least one of these couples. "It's like speed dating meets Romancing the Stone!" a naive person might think to him- or herself. "An epic tale of risk, danger and romance!"
In reality, though -- at least, the twisted, non-reality that we have termed the "reality" of reality TV -- Love in the Wild takes the forced isolation of The Real World, the silly challenges of not a Survivor or an Amazing Race, say, but of a Legends of the Hidden Temple, and the sophomoric sexual politics of Bachelor Pad, throws
them in a Costa Rican blender (that looks suspiciously like a high-end
Costa Rican resort) and hopes we'll drink up the drama.
It's low-brow, low-thought, low-budget and shal-low. In other words,
it's hilarious and fun and ridiculous and terrible. But terrible in one
of the best ways a reality show can be terrible, which is by turning the players, who seem genuine, if completely naive, in their hopes of finding a mate, into each other's punishments.
Unlike a show like Fear Factor or Bachelor Pad, where challenges are designed to punish the contestants merely for their participation, on Love in the Wild, if you choose your partner wisely and treat each other well, these challenges might actually be fun. In tonight's first challenge, it's not really about the crocodile-infested river (which is itself questionably "infested"), but how well you and your partner can construct the raft meant to get you down it. The rest of the challenge is basically a nature walk through a well-manicured ropes course. With the right person, it would be delightful. But with the wrong person ... well, it's just like a hellish first date in the real world, but with no way to hail a cab home: Your stupidity in date-selection becomes your punishment (and our amusement), as you may literally get stuck up sh*t creek without a paddle and, worse, with someone you initially thought was cute, but now completely loathe.
The best moments of the show are when we get to watch that transition from good first impression to disappointment, annoyance and, eventually, disgust. That sounds cruel, and I don't mean it to be. It's just that dating is all about judging (yes it is! admit it!) and harshly judging someone's flaws in an "extreme" jungle scenario feels right and fair, and it's stupid-easy to do. Then we get to watch as, based on these fast and loose judgments, the individuals get to choose to stay together for another round or dump their offending partners to ask for the hand of someone else's at the weekly elimination ceremony. As with real dating, there's an element of risk involved, because unless you won the challenge, you can get turned down. Whichever man and woman are left standing partner-less at the end are sent home. I'm already certain that later in the season, when one of the hyper-masculine guys does something truly horrific under the pressure of a date-challenge (as he surely will, because this is the jungle, the cruelest mistress of all!) and then gets dumped by every woman left on the show in an elaborate domino-effect rejection at the elimination ceremony, I will feel as though my viewership paid off.
Like I said, the very beginning of Love in the Wild sets us up for grand romance. It quickly becomes clear -- around the time when the women arrive, jungle-ready, in fake eyelashes
and short-shorts to pick their first partners/bunk-mates
based on looks alone -- that if you're watching Love in the Wild in hopes of seeing an actual love story unfold, you're watching for the wrong reason. But that doesn't mean there's no reason to watch.
(Image courtesy of NBC)