The post-Big Brother era has descended upon us with a vengeance. ITV's Popstars is conquering all on Saturday evenings. In digi-land, Sky One's self-consciously trashy import Temptation Island is beating ER on E4 by 770,000 viewers to 414,000 on Thursdays. Only Channel 5's The Mole has failed to burrow into the nation's consciousness. You can say what you like about these programmes, half game-shows, half docusoaps, but you cannot deny that they tackle the big issues: Popstars deals with ambition, Temptation Island fidelity and The Mole paranoia. "It's mind games, 24-hour mind games," is how Channel 5 sells its show (the Belgian version is a big hit, incidentally), but the tag could be attached to them all.
Popstars has the strongest format. It is almost organic, the way it reinvents itself halfway through from a behind-the-scenes version of Opportunity Knocks into a remake - within the confines of the Monkees-style house to which the winners are confined - of Big Brother, but with talented house guests. It has thrown up five extremely able young performers, and some great characters, too - notably, the instantly unlikeable master of ceremonies, Nigel Lythgoe. As we all know that the quickest route to hell is to become famous too quickly, the slyness of this show is to present itself as a schmaltzy adventure. That a programme based inside the pop industry is, so far, as saccharine as jelly babies is an anomaly that we can confidently expect time to correct.
The Mole (8pm on Fridays and 7pm on Thursdays, too, as Channel 5 tries to win it a foothold) suffers from a much woollier format. Ten "ordinary" people have been taken to the Channel Islands and made to perform group games. The better they do, the more of the £200,000 prize money the winner will keep. But one of the ten is actually a saboteur, out to protect the producers' money. Each week - and here is where it gets fuzzy - a contestant is sent home, he or she being the one who, according to the results of a computer questionnaire, is farthest away from guessing the Mole's real identity (eh?).
The show also suffers from some very dull games (for example, remembering which French cheeses the competitors have tasted) and some pretty unripe contestants, but when real human drama broke out last week it became very watchable. One contestant, Sara, made the mistake of doing a Nasty Nick and actually began playing the game to win. During paint-gun commando, she shot her ally Zi. He was inconsolably angry, as were the others. Her rival blonde Jo said, in the show's best line: "At least I don't have to pretend to like her any more." And Zi fumed: "I'll screw someone else over now." At long last, The Mole is getting real.
Temptation Island is irredeemably venal anyway. Four couples in "committed" relationships are taken to either end of a tropical island where 13 men and 13 women are employed to seduce them (there has to be a name for such professionals). As the fake-upbeat compere, Mark L Walberg, puts it: "Who will stay together? Who will be torn apart?" Or as we viewers would say: "Who screws and who gets screwed?" The rules, it seems, are made up as they go along, but the show is so fiercely edited that the effect is impressionistic anyway: a montage of foreplay and regret. The most coherent sequences come when each contestant's other half can choose to watch a few seconds of what has been going down on the other side of the island. Riddle me this: is it better to know or not to know? (Answer: not to know.)
The main problem for a discerning viewer is not that everyone concerned has a Perfect Ten body, but that all their IQs are in double digits, too. By episode five, most of the contestants could scarcely remember that they had pre- existing relationships. Their analysis of what is befalling their sex glands can thus be divided between those who say "I have to believe what happened happened for the best" and those who think "It sucks!" - which is presumably the conversation Adam and Eve once had. There are some great one-liners, however, from "I'm losing my train of thought with this light on me" to "The most obnoxious girl there jumped on top of my boyfriend".
These formats are new, but the genre already obeys remarkably unvarying dynamics. We expect by now, for example, a confessional moment in which someone owns up not to have fully loved, honoured and obeyed the rules. The most unpleasant couple on Temptation Island have thus already been expelled for concealing that they had a child ("This is a very serious scenario for this show: I'm going to have to pull you guys from the mix"). Popstar Kym, meanwhile, has been reprieved by Nigel for secretly harbouring two children of her own, thereby allowing Nigel to get all self- righteous about employers who discriminate against single mums.
Naturally, the more upsets, the darker the secrets; the more selfish the behaviour, the better the television. You'd have to be a Temptation Island contestant not to see this. "This does not concern the show. This is my life," one of its himbos protested last week, trying to discourage a camera from following his stuttering ambulatory reverie. "Actually," it was explained, "your life is the show right now." Truman Burbank, where art thou?
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard