Face Time: Love Is a Desert Island

People who think you can't have an online romance have never had an online romance. Speaking from my own experience, the feelings are very real. But so are the pitfalls. It's incredibly easy to project a lot of stuff on the other person that may or may not be there (emphasis on “may not”). Both parties are also only displaying a two-dimensional image of themselves, bereft of the morning grumbles, iguana-like chewing, pernicious foot fungus, or homicidal road rage that one might otherwise display.

There are some upsides — people like me who have intimacy issues are more likely to slowly get to know someone and be themselves, free from first-date jitters and pressure. Men who have a hard time expressing themselves emotionally can use the computer as a screen between their self-consciousness and their admirer. And unlike real life, when you get pissed off at the person and want to shut down, there's always an actual “shut down” option. Huzzah.

A&E knows all this and has created a humdinger of a reality show around it. Somehow, the network found couples who have never met in real life, but have been dating online for several months. The plan: Put them both in a cabin on a tiny island for a week with no TV, no radio, no cellphones, no laptops, and watch them get to know each other sans digital transmission. Call the show Love Prison and give the participants each one hour “yard time” per day; the rest must be spent indoors. Make the nautically decorated cabin as cramped as possible and give them bunk beds to sleep on. Make sure there is no shortage of booze. Install 40 cameras around the joint, recording their every move. Film, edit, air. Ta-da.

The loose tagline A&E has given the show is something like, “If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.” There's a lot of truth to that. These couples go from naughty emojis to banal, awkward silences in a space of a day. Since marriage is full of banal, comfortable silences, I'd say that's quite a litmus test. Love Prison has been getting ripped apart by critics, but for my money it's a fascinating anthropological experiment rivaled only by Philip Zimbardo's “Stanford Prison Experiment,” which put male students in a simulated prison in order to assess the psychological effect of being a prisoner or prison guard.

The show begins with both parties arriving separately by boat. In every episode I've seen, the couples are always pleasantly surprised at one another's looks in real life. Don't worry, though, because bitchiness and assholery will tear down those walls.

Things go pretty well at first. They giggle and marvel at the situation they've found themselves in. Someone opens a cold one and it slowly dawns on them that there is nothing to do but play cards and screw. And then it happens: The first real-life speed bump, an event that could never occur online. The man prepares a dinner and the woman takes forever to get dressed and come downstairs. He gets overly annoyed. Or the woman tries to probe for some deep insight and he can't stop cracking jokes.

For the most part, this show actually makes men look way better than women. These guys are patient, self-reflective, and, heck, even a little vulnerable. Many of the women, however, are harpy banshees of bile. If the guy makes one wrong move — he doesn't ask her enough questions about herself, or he deigns to choose the wrong bunk bed — she pouts and in some instances even screams. Men can be pigs, no lie … but Jesus Christ, they sure can put up with a lot.

When things are going okay and the couple may even be basking in post-coital bliss, the producers always take a deliciously cruel turn. Suddenly a TV screen snaps on and video of one of them begins to play. The footage is from pre-show interviews and always includes some admission like, “I'm sleeping with four other women,” or “Man, this guy's band really sucks.” Turmoil ensues. Strong couples can overcome this fissure. Weaker ones cannot.

At the end of the week, each person is supposed to decide if he or she will return to the mainland in one boat or two, depending on whether or not they want to remain a pair. Oh, it's indeed a delicious satisfaction to see some of those people get dumped. And unlike other dating shows, when they decide to return together, you get a genuine sense that they will make it. What a rarity.

With its sadly lackluster response from viewers, Love Prison might end up lasting as long as a typical Facebook romance, so enjoy it while you can.

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