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How Britain’s Breakout Hit ‘Love Island’ Gets Reality TV Right


It’s a show where those who compete enter an idyllic villa as normal people and leave as full-blown celebrities with more than 1 million followers apiece. Its online store features suitcases, water bottles, and even an independent cosmetics line. Across the globe, it’s become the topic of group chat conversations for teenagers and middle-aged moms alike.

Indeed, Britain’s breakout hit “Love Island,” which wrapped up its fifth series on Monday after crowning fan favorite Amber Gill and latecomer Greg O’Shea as this year’s winners, is far from your average reality television program. The show has proved a ratings juggernaut for host network ITV, smashing records in its most recent installment as the most-watched program in the United Kingdom among adults aged 16-34 across any channel.

This season drew a consolidated audience of more than 6 million—nearly a full tenth of Britain’s population. Among its legions of devoted fans are celebrities like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Adele, and British rap sensation Stormzy. The franchise has been so successful that it’s spurred copycat programs in Germany, Sweden, Australia, and the United States, and ITV recently announced that beginning next year it will air two series per year.

For those unfamiliar, contestants on “Love Island” are filmed day in and day out in a luxurious villa in Majorca, Spain, where they’re tasked with finding romance, ritualized in a process known as “coupling up.” Those left single risk being “dumped” from the villa.

The show begins with five gorgeous men and women in their twenties (usually some combination of models, athletes, and influencers) who are ostensibly there to find true love. While they form loose initial couples based on physical attraction, they remain free to get to know each other as the show progresses.

The duos fluctuate via routine “re-couplings” as new contestants enter the villa and new romances develop. When they’re not lounging about the villa in skimpy swimwear, couples compete in seemingly random, sexually charged challenges, enjoy dates inside and out of the villa, and share beds with their other half each night. Rules change on a whim, and texts notify contestants of new arrivals and dreaded “dumping” ceremonies.

“Love Island” deviates from other dating shows in that it is a popularity contest at heart: while sometimes the Islanders vote on who to send home, it’s often up to a public vote and ultimately it’s the viewers who determine the recipient of the £50,000 prize.

What You See Is What You Get

The show has become such a dominant force in entertainment that many cultural commentators have wondered: What about this show captivates so many viewers, in Britain and beyond?

The most immediate draw is in the show’s utter lack of pretense. Often compared to ABC’s “The Bachelor”—or, more accurately, “Bachelor in Paradise”—“Love Island” may come across as similar: both feature hot singles who date around and “compete” for true love, surrounded by idyllic vistas while isolated from the real world. Yet whereas ABC bends over backward to portray the Bachelor franchises as wholesome programming, featuring trite, formulaic plotlines that have frankly become exhausting, “Love Island” offers no pretending.

Take this clip of a challenge from last year’s season. Here the men are made to dress up as firemen and must navigate a course to “save” the girl of their choice, all while being judged on the “sexiness” of their routines.

Every episode features narration by Scottish comedian Iain Stirling, who hilariously and frequently breaches the fourth wall by poking fun at the show’s most ridiculous bits, such as the low-budget dates and regional slang Islanders speak, to keep things light-hearted and fun rather than steeped in melodrama. Here’s a taste:

In their truest forms, these shows exist to cater to our base instincts and desires. It’s no accident that chiseled six-packs and fake boobs are practically requirements for contestants. Yet rather than papering over the obscenity with a wholesome facade, “Love Island” embraces all of the trashiness and triviality that triggers its toughest critics, then packages it in the most exaggerated way imaginable to serve up a dazzling buffet of bawdiness to its millions of hungry viewers, complete with stripped-back pop covers on the side and sexy slo-mos for dessert. Ultimately, it’s the show’s refusal to feign decency that makes it much more real than the rest.

These Celebrities Really Are Just Like Us

Unlike most reality television that airs one heavily edited episode each week, ITV puts out new episodes six nights per week, each covering events that happened only one day prior, offering fresh, unpredictable content for viewers each night.

As one fan described to a Washington Post reporter, watching the show in this compressed format enables viewers to feel like they’re “going through the contestants’ journey along with them — seeing challenges, re-couplings and breakups almost in real time instead of three months later after producers have chopped up the footage to edit the story lines,” ultimately making it “more realistic than other dating shows.”

Psychologists have hypothesized that one of the reasons people obsess over reality television is because we’re aspirational: we see normal, real-life people doing normal, real-life things and achieving things we want to achieve, like fame or love. So for eight blissful weeks, we escape and watch, thinking happily to ourselves, “We could find love and be famous one day, too!”

When combined with the urgency and immediacy of “Love Island’s” daily drama, perhaps it’s this innate tendency of social comparison that explains why viewers feel more deeply connected to these contestants than perhaps any other reality show in the market—so much so that thousands race to follow the social media accounts of the Islanders’ family members and even show up to airports to welcome home booted contestants.

We’ve All Been Castaways on Our Own Love Islands

Of course, the show’s manufactured conditions do not remotely resemble the conditions of everyday life. Most of us don’t have to share beds with people we’ve known for a week or limit our conversations to our love lives. Unlike the Islanders, we have the freedom to step away, literally and metaphorically, from our interpersonal dramas.

Despite this, the show still stands out as an opportunity for viewers to quench the thirst of another deep-seated human desire: to feel understood, or at least to know that the seemingly unique ordeals that consume our days and envelop our worlds are not, in fact, unique at all. It helps us to see that the folks who ride our buses, work in our offices, and live in our apartment buildings suffer from the very same things we do.

So for eight blissful weeks every summer, “Love Island” reminds us that we’re not alone. We witness beautiful people be vulnerable as they navigate relationships and relatable situations, and trick ourselves into feeling we’re experiencing events with them as they unfold on screen.

It’s why we all felt embarrassed and angry when Amber Gill was “mugged off” by her partner Michael Griffiths, who had ditched her to “crack on” with someone else at the first opportunity. Why we thrust our fists up triumphantly with Jordan Hames when he successfully “grafted” and won back Anna Vakili, whose eyes had wandered to basketballer Ovie Soko. And why I, along with other grown men who watch, teared up watching a heartbroken Amy Hart remove herself from the competition after Curtis Pritchard cruelly broke things off with her for what appeared to be no reason at all.

As Amber put it in this season’s penultimate episode: “In here, you could be at your highest high, and then you think that nothing. You think, ‘Oh, nothing could possibly ruin this,’ and then a text comes in. You can’t rest at all… you just wait for something to take a turn for the worse.”

Life in the villa, it turns out, is a lot like life on the outside: an uncertain, emotional obstacle course contestants just hope to get through unscathed. How could it get more real than that?