First came Next, the MTV dating show most notable for the great care participants take in crafting casually cruel brushoff lines. Then followed Parental Control, the MTV dating show on which adults set up their children on rendezvous with prospective new paramours and trade insults with their current ones. And then MTV Exposed spurted onto the air, a lively little number featuring daters secretly monitored by lie detectors. Taking cues from each of these uplifting programs—and also from Fantasy Island, Brian De Palma films, and police stakeouts—The X Effect marks a logical step downward. This one combines a dating show and a divorce complaint.
We're watching people watch their romantic partners rekindle things with old flames. Consider the case of Flavia and Ryan. They used to go out. Now Flavia is seeing Patrick, and Ryan has pledged parts of body and soul to Steff. Some pretense—a pretense both unstated and, the show being blatantly half-phony, doubtlessly thinner than Flavia's blouse—brings each couple to a resort hotel in Miami. Patrick and Steff are soon herded into an SUV, and Flavia and Ryan—the exes, referred to here as "the X's"—are instructed that they'll be spending the weekend together. They see their current lovers ferried away. The vehicle drives around the block, and the producers install Patrick and Steff—"the O's," as if love were a battlefield, and they were on defense—in a bungalow offering the comforts of an unmarked surveillance truck, plus continental breakfast and, for down-time amusement, a Jenga set.
A person named Natalia functions as a hostess, a concierge, a dungeon mistress. She hands Patrick and Steff a guide that explains the spy game they've been drafted into. The O's always read this aloud—a welcome contribution to atmosphere and also handy proof that they are literate. Technology introduced at the outset of each episode includes a "touch sensor" (a vaguely tiki-inspired lamp that glows red whenever the skin of the X's meets as they exchange friendly hugs or desperate embraces or 100-proof body shots) and a "transaction log" (which tracks the purchase of Long Island iced teas).
The weekend unfolds at precisely the same pace in each episode. The form is rigid. The rules governing the composition of a villanelle are comparatively lax. After the O's have fretted about the red light for a little while, Natalia troops back in—only the faintest hint of sadism in her service-industry smile at this point—to tell them that they must send the X's on an activity. The choice is always between some pastime so wholesome as to constitute a weak punch line (croquet, chess, badminton) and something explicitly skanky (the "sexy swimsuit photo shoot," the chocolate spa). Of course, only the salacious option offers the chance for further eavesdropping. Of course, the O's always indulge the opportunity. Similarly, they never decline Natalia's offer to send their lovers further treats, such as a make-your-own-s'mores kit with a listening device in the mini-grill.
Matters escalate. The X's fall—but, more frequently, leap—into old habits. The O's grow tormented, with the boys tending to adopt slouching postures in their misery—deep, disconsolate slumps, spines parallel to the floor—and the girls preferring to curl up into the most adorable little fetal balls. The O's make statements to the camera: "I thought they were gonna have a good weekend together as friends, but the licking was uncalled-for." In due course, the X's receive a complimentary upgrade to a sprawling suite—Villa de los Amantes, it is called—and the O's learn about a new feature of their in-room entertainment. Natalia shows them how to access a TV channel displaying the layout of Villa de los Amantes, with a pink X and blue X onscreen to represent their significant others and their positions in the room. "Or," she adds, taunting now, "you can turn off the TV if you don't want to watch." With numbing predictability, the pink X and blue X make straight for the shower. The touch sensor goes twirling across the room. The Jenga tower tumbles with a clatter.
Episodes end with confrontations, ultimata, decisions. The sound editors do sterling work with face-slapping, not only enhancing the noise of aggrieved palm on stubbly cheek but also introducing the whoosh of the wind-up. The show otherwise has a flat affect. It's as jaded as a private detective. It's not here to shock you. Shows like The X Effect don't lead the culture; they follow it, discovering, in this case, a new mutation of the soap opera and its themes— jealousy, betrayal, trust, lust, Jacuzzis. You can turn off the TV if you don't want to watch.