Instead of testing new waters in television programming, producers Jonathon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim have returned to what they know best for their new show, Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage. That’s right. The creators of The Real World, Road Rules, and Making the Band have put their heads together and come up with yet another reality show.
The love cruise begins with sixteen single men and women, paired off. By way of introduction, they reveal their fascinating insights on breast implants and casual sex. After three days, when these couples have the option of switching partners, you will, of course, be thrilled at the thought of watching someone be burned on national television. Then, you will perch on the edge of your recliner as each of the two groups (men and women) pool their thoughts and vote off a member of the opposite group, and laugh with glee at all the silly “challenges” the passengers must endure along the way. And when the final couple wins its cash prize and trip around the world, you will be saddened at the thought of a Tuesday night without these wacky characters.
Personally, I came to Love Cruise expecting the worst. The series is an obvious rehash of almost every other reality show to date. Much like Temptation Island (whose second season just happens to air the week after Love Cruise finishes its first run), it pits men against women, framed by exotic settings and storylines that might have been lifted from Jerry Springer. And, like Survivor, Love Cruise has contestants vote each other out of the game. Apparently, after seeing the failure of the first season of Big Brother (where viewers voted people off), and the waning appeal of their own The Real World (where no one gets voted off, at least not as part of the standard format), the producers decided to capitulate to the present trend. Indeed, the only original notion that Love Cruise might claim is that the passengers have the option of bringing ousted guests back on the ship for strategic purposes (in the meantime, they are sent to an isolated “island”). Clearly, the cloistering of contestants in a confined space is inspired by Big Brother. Being forced to spend time with competitors in a vacuum is guaranteed to make someone crack.
With all that said, I have to wonder what makes Love Cruise work? How can viewers who know the formula so well be convinced to tune in each week? For me, it happened in the first ten minutes. As all the attractive men and women picked their original partners, the brainy Lisa and awkward Michael were left out. As the only two without partners, they were forced into a couple (which was something Lisa feared after having similarly painful exclusion experiences in high school). As the most “undesirable” singles, they seemed doomed to be voted off in the first round. Of course, I had to see if they could beat these odds. I was also intrigued by Laura and Anthony, the most attractive couple, who made a strong connection from the start. Because of their closeness, it was rumored among the other players that they might have a shot at making it to the end together. I had to see if they could make the cut.
This is the reason reality shows remain popular. Although the destination is always the same, the unique course that contestants choose to get there is always a mystery. It isn’t the format that keeps people interested, but the variations on it. If Love Cruise is yet another Survivor knockoff, it uses its generic strengths to the fullest. One of these is sentiment: once viewers establish emotional connections with the characters, the reasoning goes, they’ll want to come back and watch the fate of their favorites—just as I did. This happens by various means, as in Love Cruise‘s first episode, where the editing coded the primary couples (Lisa and Michael, Laura and Anthony) as good vs. bad, or strong vs. weak, when the pairs were acting independently of one another. We know that some scenes were strategically cut together, to heighten tension or establish a point that may otherwise have been overlooked. During a salsa dancing sequence, two passengers looked as though they were dancing together when they were really part of separate couples.
As a veteran of As the World Turns, Santa Barbara, and Loving, Bunim knows the power of a little soap opera magic. With 16 people at her disposal, there is no limit to the plot possibilities. If Laura and Anthony don’t look interesting after all, the focus can easily be shifted to the tension building between the women and Adrian, a chauvinist male contestant, or the friction that the brassy Toni is causing within the group. And for those not swayed by the psychological emotional intrigues, the promise of seeing attractive, scantily clad passengers romp around the Caribbean is always an option.
Maybe Fox is a little presumptuous to think viewers will embrace a show that is virtually identical to Temptation Island. But this isn’t the first time viewers have been asked to watch a plot they already know well. Personally, I could watch the Cinderella story again and again, whether it comes in the shape of Pretty Woman, My Fair Lady, or Love Potion #9. Sure, Love Cruise is not going to win any awards for originality or even taste, but as long as the identity of the winner remains unknown, people will continue to watch. At least until the next trend sails into town.