There is a childlike nature to the proceedings on MTV’s newest reality TV experiment, Ex on the Beach (adapted from the popular UK version). Convened in a mansion atop a cliff in Hawaii, its beautiful twenty-something stars are typically wearing bikinis or swim trunks, running around the house in next-to-nothing with the frantic energy of toddlers seeking a sippy cup or a warm body, throwing hissy fits, huffing and puffing and stomping their feet, yelling, screaming, crying, hugging, kissing. Romeo, the levelheaded host of the show, shows up infrequently, not unlike a weekend father, to chastise the contestants: I’m not mad, his tired eyes seem to suggest, I’m just disappointed.
The premise of Ex on the Beach is devious, even by reality TV standards: ten singles, culled from other reality TV shows like The Challenge, Are You the One?, Bad Girls Club and Bachelor in Paradise, are sent to live in a vacation house, in the hopes of finding a relationship. Little do they know, however, that their exes will be arriving, periodically, to disrupt whatever romantic bonds they form. At the end of each episode, the castmates cast either a single “crush” or “cut” vote; each “crush” vote cancels out a “cut” vote, and the ex with the most “cut” votes is sent home. They’re all desperate to stay, even if they don’t particularly have a reason to.
Because the world of reality TV is small, and getting smaller all the time, thanks to social media and DM-sliding, some of these exes have been embroiled in the lives of more than one castmate. Alicia, for example, got her start on Are You the One?, before taking her talents to The Challenge, a competition show that is itself a recombinant spin-off of The Real World. She is the ex of the ever-charming Cory, The Challenge’s premier philanderer, though she’s also the friend (and, debatably, lover) of Derrick, another Are You the One? castmate who washes up on the shore as the ex of Angela, formerly of Bad Girls Club. Before the show, Angela got into a physical altercation with Alicia, because of her questionably romantic relationship with Derrick. Follow?
If you don’t, that’s okay. In a strange move, the show features a cheesy narrator, who both frames the action and fills in the blanks viewers might have about this or that cast member’s relationship to this or that other cast member. Speaking in the irritating register and with the grating intonations of the male narrator for the old MTV dating show, Next, this narrator is all-seeing, yet redundant. A defter way to handle the exposition would’ve been for producers to coax it out of the cast members during interviews; instead, these revelations are spoon-fed to the audience via quick, interstitial explainers, which include white board-esque pictorials. The show literally draws love triangles. It’s weird.
Or maybe it isn’t. Ex on the Beach is intrinsically juvenile, so in a roundabout way, it makes sense for its storytelling tactics to have the whiff of an educational show for kindergarteners. A further example: on the basement level of the mansion is the “Shack of Secrets,” wherein two castmates are sent to discover truths and lies that will affect their relationship and status in the house. To be called to the Shack of Secrets, one must receive a message in a bottle—literally. Rising up from a cylindrical elevator, a message in a glass bottle materializes on the coffee table, bearing a demand for select cast members. (The shipwrecked theme is strong here; the exes don’t so much arrive as wash up on shore, in slow-motion, as the camera pruriently up-downs their wet bodies, glistening in the sunlight.)
What occurs in the Shack of Secrets varies, but through the first five episodes, most of the games feel like preschool conflict resolution exercises, adapted for sexually active adults on a reality TV show. In one sequence, Angela is prompted to look through Derrick’s phone, to either confirm or deny that he was chatting with other girls while they were dating. Angela is 27, and quite beautiful, although with all her plastic surgery (which she proudly cops to), and the makeup, and the lighting, she comes off on TV as ageless, not in the sense that she doesn’t age, but in the sense that her contingent appearance repels the entire notion of age in general. She is bombastic, loud, boisterous, quick to bestow her affections and even quicker to withhold them, to argue and escalate. In other words, she’s perfect for reality TV. At several junctures, as in the Shack of Secrets with Derrick, where her worst fears are confirmed, you can watch her watch herself process whatever it is she’s feeling or thinks she’s feeling, before exploding in tears or anger. Angela reminds me of a toddler who gets a boo-boo but takes a beat before realizing she should be crying.
In another Shack of Secrets, Chris—a lacrosse penny-wearing “DJ” whose vocab consists primarily of “it’s Gucci,” “it’s not Gucci” and “it’s lit”—enters with his ex, Chesko. Chesko must submit to a polygraph, so Chris can see whether she’s really lying or not about sleeping with his uncle. Thankfully, according to the polygraph, she did not sleep with Chris’s uncle. They leave the Shack of Secrets ready to give their relationship another go, their feelings for one another as flimsily reversed as seven-year-olds on the playground.
Elsewhere in the house and its environs, Skylar, the ex of Chase, of minor Bachelorette fame, drinks some unidentifiable juice-liquor combination out of a nondescript plastic container, while wearing a captain’s hat. Tor’i, a fitness model who has a good thing going with Angela, takes body shots off of Faith, a witty Vanderpump Rules alum who chirps “okurrr” with the frequency of a tropical bird. Cory and the new object of his affection, 23-year-old Taylor, who first expressed interest in him on Instagram, lay in a twin bed together, variably making out and discussing his daughter. Lexi, upon discovering she has the power to vote, curls up on the lap of her ex, Paulie, and weeps. Nobody in the house appears to be wearing an actual shirt. Where, one wonders, is the babysitter?
And yet, for all this absurdity, there is something pointed about Ex on the Beach. The shows from which its cast members are drafted—Vanderpump Rules, The Challenge, The Bachelor and its spin-offs—all permit the viewer a certain judgmental remove. Part of the pleasure of watching them is that hit of moral superiority: Look at what an idiot that person is being.
No such pleasure is allotted for on Ex on the Beach. With its cheeseball narrator, blatant motifs and easy-to-digest classroom explainers, it’s a show that’s so deliberately tacky, so obscenely silly, so unnecessarily dumbed-down, that it makes the viewer feel as silly watching it as the cast member must feel participating in it.
Look at what an idiot that person is being, you think, as you neglect to change the channel.