All reality television competitions are slightly dystopian. Beautiful, tanned young people are huddled and secluded together in a beach house, deserted island, or black box studio, stripped of their phones and a connection to the outside world. They fight and fuck for money or a shiny new husband, while anything existing outside the edges of the show seems to disappear, not just for contestants but for its viewers.
Watching Love Island—the English reality dating show that recently got an insufficient American update—feels especially claustrophobic. The show is a dating competition with so many twists and turns, it can feel as if producers are making it up as they go along. A handful of girls and a handful of boys arrive in a luxurious Spanish villa and are instructed to pair up with one another, sleeping in the same bed every night. This makes for awkward introductions as the group tries to assess each other based on buff physicality alone (a criteria later expanded immensely to “good banter” or “good chat,” various UK-isms for “nice sense of humor” and “easy to talk to.”) As the couples figure out if they’re really into one another, they’re subjected to weekly elimination ceremonies, during which contestants are allowed to pick new partners, the group continually mixing and matching like a game of R-rated spin the bottle. The show airs every night in the UK, and often viewers are instructed to vote for their favorite couples, leaving the unpopular to pack their bags.
What exactly is the goal of Love Island? Surely the show and some contestants would say that it’s to fall in love, to find that elusive “one.” Of course, anyone who has seen even 15 minutes of reality TV can say that this is bullshit, as most contestants are likely in it to advance their personal brands as models/boxers/Instagram famous pharmacists, etc. The couples who stay together the longest, who appear to have the most chemistry, are the ones who advance in the eyes of the voting public. But Love Island is not a show about falling in love as much as it is a show about breaking up, and the numbingly commonplace ways in which partners betray, cheat, and burn out on each other.
Much has been written about Love Island as the type of reality that reinforces and magnifies compulsory ideas of romantic performance in happy couples. “Looking happy is part and parcel of being happy,” Valerie Slaughter wrote of the show for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog. The show is like a lab experiment for heterosexual monogamy; Love Island simply doesn’t recognize a world in which couples are open, let alone one in which women date women and men date men. Pairing up for the long term is not simply an option, it is a means of survival. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, writing in the Guardian, compared Love Island to Yorgos Lanthimos’s creepy film The Lobster, in which it’s illegal for people to be single. “Winning is about moving from the apparent purgatory and pain of being alone to the virtuous delivery of partnering up.”
But you could make this same argument for all reality television dating shows, in which everyone is faking it—“it” being everything. Most reality TV dating shows, from the Bachelor to Are You The One?, culminate in coupledom as a sign of success, but contestants (Islanders) couple up from the start on Love Island. In starting the Islanders off where most shows culminate, Love Island reveals its true intentions not in the smiling faces of its performatively happy couples, but in how most of the pairs deteriorate. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually in love, couples will go far if they just don’t fuck it up.
Despite being an incubated respite from the outside world, teeming with strangers to sleep with, the show is a conservative obstacle course designed to make couples cheat and break even the flimsiest of bonds by introducing new prospects at random. One night, two models might walk into the villa. Another morning, contestants might wake up to find a gorgeous hunk swimming in the pool. During the shows most famous “Casa Amour” episodes, the couples are abruptly divided into two houses by gender: the boys wake up to find a whole crop of new girls to date if they wish, while the girls meet a group of new boys to play with, and a dramatic ceremony a few days later reveals if the couples have cheated on each other. Because of the timely episode broadcasts, new contestants arrive in the villa always familiar with the current drama in the house, with eyes already set on who they want to date no matter if they’re coupled up.
Love Island makes it extremely difficult for contestants to remain monogamous, even in a system that rewards monogamy. You don’t watch love blossom so much as you watch couples endure each other, like when two of the hottest people in Season 4's villa, Haley Hughes and Eyal Booker, break up after Hughes says that kissing him makes her feel “physically sick.” One day while deep in a binge-watch I couldn’t break away from, I told my equally Love Island-obsessed friend that watching the show felt like “being friends with a group of couples who you know should all break up.”
So why exactly is the show so popular, if that’s an apt description? Love Island can be frustrating because you invest in relationships that are built to burn out on television, but I wonder if a big part of its appeal for viewers is a sense of catharsis in how it depicts the worst of straight dating, from the incel-like entitlement to the disposable ways men treat partners. I’m reminded of the rhythms of the now largely dead commercial rom-com and how Love Island appears to take us on a similar, uphill romantic journey, only to have couples tumble backward in Sisyphean style, rewarding the cynics.
But while the smiley, lovey-dovey seriousness of the competitors may be performative, the pain contestants seem to feel when they’re broken up with or cheated on—as good girl Amy Hart does when the goofy “dad” of the household, Curtis, begins to have feelings after Casa Amour in Season 5, or when Laura Anderson is blindsided by a break-up in Season 4 by Wes Nelson—doesn’t feel fake. “Why can’t I be the girl who comes in here and finds someone who really likes me and wants to treat me well? Why do I have to be the girl that comes in here and gets tricked into a relationship?” Anna Vakili cries in Season 4 after catching Jordan Hames chatting up another girl, just days after they solidified themselves as “boyfriend and girlfriend.” “Why can’t I be the other girl?”
Despite the villa’s beautiful, pastoral setting and the breathless I love yous whispered four weeks into a relationship, Love Island doesn’t project and promote a romantic fantasy the way a show like The Bachelor would. Instead, the show reinforces how relationships fail all the time in the real world as contestants jump to and from relationships out of pure boredom, incompatibility, or the realization that they can do better, hotter, than what they have, this time under the surveillance of the Love Island cameras. Does Love Island gamify dating, or does it just reflect how gamified dating can be? While the show isn’t “real” in the same way carefully edited and curated reality TV can never be authentic, the expected failures of its couples feel depressingly authentic.