[5 June 2012]
In the summer of 2011, NBC’s Love in the Wild started with the kind of second-rate premise usually reserved for E! and VH-1’s low-rent brand of reality shows. Namely, “What would happen if we combined a dating show with the exotic locations of Survivor and scavenger hunt challenges of The Amazing Race?” In fact, VH-1 beat Love in the Wild to the punch with the execrable Wedding Wars, which debuted earlier that spring. That show featured a cast of uniformly trashy, unlikable people and a “primitive” setting in Hawaii that looked like the woodsy backyard of a luxurious resort.
Love in the Wild wasn’t as bad as all that. For one thing, the show made no bones about the fact that it takes place at a posh resort—a resort in Costa Rica, with rainforest all around and plenty of options for visually striking challenges. And for another, no one pretended the cast was anything other than a decent mix of likeable people and camera-mugging jerks, as well as that middle ground of reality show contestants who are mostly just there.
For all its visual advantages, and there were many, the show was falling flat by about the third episode, mostly because it never found a way to combine its two genres effectively. The challenges were almost all too easy: watching the hunks and babes blunder and whine their way through tasks that were at most mildly taxing was tedious fans of reality competitions. It also failed as a dating show because nearly all of the contestants had paired up by the second episode. Even when producers tried to force people into choosing new partners, they inevitably slid back to their previously chosen mates as soon as the rules allowed. With no surprises in store for the audience, there was rarely any tension in the end-of-episode elimination ceremonies.
Even if Love in the Wild wasn’t particularly creative or fun, apparently it did well enough (by the exponentially diminished standards of being summer programming, on NBC to boot) to warrant a second season. So the show returns with an all-new group of contestants and a new location in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps the most visually arresting change is in the host: bland and innocuous Darren McMullen is now replaced by Jenny McCarthy.
Obviously, McCarthy brings name recognition, but the woman who is most famous for breaking up with Jim Carrey and claiming childhood vaccinations cause autism may not bring the most effective type of name recognition for this show. Worse, McCarthy is pretty terrible at her job. She seems actively condescending to the contestants from the moment they arrive, and she does it all in a pseudo-valley girl tone of voice that makes her incredibly aggravating. Plus, every sentence she speaks is punctuated by odd hand gestures, as if she thinks throwing pretend gang signs makes her seem cool. That kind of aggressive behavior might have worked when she hosted MTV’s Singled Out in the early ‘90s, but here she just looks silly.
Apart from McCarthy, most of the other aspects of Love in the Wild have improved in Season Two. Tweaks to the formula are instantly visible in the 5 June premiere, which begins by giving all the power to the seven female contestants. They have 14 different men to choose from, and so they form groups of three. The structure does create some wonderful tension within the groups and makes for entertaining viewing.
The teams of three are immediately tasked with a physical challenge, one that is already harder than most of the “adventures” during the first season. One teammate must swim out into the ocean to retrieve a large backpack that contains a map. Once back on land, the teams set out on a journey that includes a pit full of snakes, a difficult coconut-throwing task, and a trek in a leaky canoe. One of the women, Summer, decides to take charge of her team physically as well as emotionally and does the swim herself. She acquits herself well against her all-male competition and immediately positions herself as one of the season’s top contenders.
Even better, this season the teams’ accommodations degrade depending on how they finish. The top finishers spend the night in a luxurious house, the middle teams sleep in cozy cabins, the lower groups end up with tents, and the last-place team is stuck in an open-air lean-to. The whining over being subjected to tents and worse is predictable but a lot of fun to watch. The unfortunate woman stuck in the lean-to has a big crying fit about having to sleep outdoors under mosquito netting and wails about wanting to go home on the first night. The next morning, she complains about having to put on her makeup in a beautiful outdoor vanity with a fully lit mirror.
Once ensconced in their various homes, the contestants have two full days of downtime to get to know each other before the Couples’ Choice Ceremony. With so many people on the resort, the extended length of time makes sense, although one hopes that future episodes will reduce that period to a single day. A few contestants manage to make impressions during this process. Tara, for instance, stands out as an airhead, as when she says of one of her mal partners, “He seems like a nice guy, but I’m not into that.” Mike gives the impression of being a smooth operator, making time to talk to as many of the women as possible in order to hedge his bets. His teammate, Ken, comes off as a weird combination of good-natured and self-aggrandizing, as he moans about Mike monopolizing their female teammate, Yanina, while also confidently declaring himself the frontrunner for her affections.
When McCarthy returns to adjudicate the Couples’ Choice Ceremony, it’s a stark reminder how helpful it can be when a reality show host is personable, if not quick-witted. Veterans like Survivor‘s Jeff Probst and The Bachelor‘s Chris Harrison know how to push the contestants to make eliminations dynamic and engaging. McCarthy’s questions are generic and occasionally borderline insulting, making the entire final segment a chore to watch. In its first season, Love in the Wild was thoroughly mediocre. But any improvements this year are sadly negated by the presence of McCarthy. That leaves the second season stuck in the same mediocre place as the first, but for different reasons.