A truly successful reality television format is like a train wreck or an open bag of potato chips. You simply can’t look away - and despite your better judgment, you keep going back for more.
That’s how the television industry has gotten the masses to tune in week after week to watch people consume snake brains and dried spiders on “Survivor,” see how a homophobe and a drag queen co-exist cooped up in a house with no escape for months on end in “Big Brother,” or watch feuding relatives try to navigate their way across the Great Wall of China in “The Amazing Race.” In short, the masses are tuning in to see how far people are willing to go and to what extent they are willing to expose themselves to public scrutiny and ridicule in exchange for fame and fortune.
And that is why the latest Israeli reality format, “To the End of the World,” which incorporates numerous proven successful elements in these hit shows - and adds its own twist - grabbed high ratings in its debut Tuesday night. The ratings were the highest that the struggling network Channel 10 has achieved in the past two years and the show seems very likely to be a big seller in the burgeoning international marketplace of trashy television.
The premise - a group of good-looking and often scantily-clad young and middle-aged adults is fake-shipwrecked on an exotic island in the Philippines (Survivor-style), where they compete in pairs (Amazing Race) in a series of challenges (again, Survivor and Amazing Race) and survive elimination votes (Survivor, Big Brother) in order to win a pile of cash.
The big twist - the couples who compete as a team in the show are couples who have failed to function as a team in the game of life - all of them are divorced. They come to the island carrying lots of baggage, both literally and figuratively. In the literal department, the first task they are asked to accomplish is to open their suitcases and pack their stuff into a small trunks, leading to squabbling between the exes on such issues as to whether it is more important to have his flip-flops or her shampoo.
They must, of course, unpack their emotional baggage in front of the cameras and we are treated to backstories of how they met, fell in love - or fell into marriage - and then how it all fell apart, complete with finger-pointing and occasional regret. Among the tales - the husband who is bisexual and feels like his marriage could have survived if his wife had just been a bit more open-minded, or the couple who are both divorce attorneys and had to dissolve their divorce practice along with divorcing each other, a couple who met and wed as an ultra-Orthodox arranged marriage (after only five dates and a three-month engagement) and a couple whose union didn’t survive the transition to life in secular Israel, because the wife, Natalie, said, “The relationship was never about true love and I wanted to know what it was like to fall in love with someone.” The casting and storytelling is well-done - the potato chip bag is wide open and it’s going to be difficult not to check the show out again to see where the production is heading. It was cheap and unnecessary, in the first episode to resort to the worn-out “Survivor” cheap trick of showing one of the contestants faint and fall and telling the viewers to tune in to see if they stay in the game or get helicoptered home.
The other twist that sets the show apart, as it repeatedly reminds us - this is the first reality show in which people compete for money that they will never get to spend. The million shekels ($250,000, approximately) prize goes into a bank account for the couple’s child or children - to which they will gain access at age 18 (after taxes, of course). It’s a clever move for several reasons - even the most selfish and vain of the couples seem more sympathetic and human, since, after all, they are doing something to benefit someone other than themselves. It makes the couple’s interaction much more interesting, and it is an intense microcosm of divorce as they struggle to overcome their desire to distance themselves from their ex-spouse and from the pain associated with their failed relationship, with their desire to work together for their child’s benefit.
It is also a rather crafty manipulation of the relatively tough restrictions of the use of children on Israeli reality shows. Productions have been recently hampered by a society and a government that has laid down the law in order to protect kids from being used as pawns by self-promoting parents - there are no “Dance Moms” in Israel, where kids are repeatedly shown having onscreen emotional meltdowns week after week.
In “To the End of the World” the children are both central to the action, but essentially invisible, except for the photographs that the parents place by their bedside or when one of them is hanging from a rope yelling to their ex: “Remember! We’re doing this for Sagiv! Think of him! Don’t look down!” One can be fairly certain that as the season progresses, they’ll be loaded onto a plane for a tearful island reunion.
The premiere episode this week was a successful debut for a production that at times seemed cursed by - well, reality. While it was filming in the Philippines, the entire production team - cast and crew - had to be evacuated from the island as Typhoon Haiyan approached. Luckily for them, the sets they constructed survived the deadly storm, which spared their area.
Then, last month, the high-budget promotional video for the series launched. The theme was inspired by “Lost” with a huge broken jet pictured stranded on an island and the host, Aviv Aloosh, leading the contestants dressed in ragged eveningwear through the sand as a particularly creepy version of the song “Once Upon a Dream” plays in the background. On the same day - the Malaysian plane went missing and the video went from appearing intriguingly eerie to seeming in rather bad taste - even by reality show standards.