nakia gives her wristband to an fboy contestant
Photograph courtesy of Cortez Vernon/HBO Max
Entertainment

The Creator of ‘FBoy Island’ Explains How to Make a Self-Aware Dating Show

“We’re not inventing the wheel or reinventing the wheel; we’re putting a new rim on it and making it go up and down.”
Kate Dries
Brooklyn, US
July 30, 2021, 6:16pm

What connotes a successful date or a successful dating show is in the eye of the beholder, but in 2021, both most certainly require at least one foot firmly planted in self-awareness and participants with a sense of humor. And whether you are a connoisseur of the reality dating show genre, or just an entertained passerby, it has been hard not to notice the glut of dating shows in recent years trying to work those features in, many of which have taken the relatively simple premise of boy-meets-girl-on-television show made most famous by The Bachelor and added about a thousand new complications.

One outsized figure in that universe is longtime reality producer Elan Gale. Fans of The Bachelor universe, or of culture writ large, will be familiar with Gale, who produced the show and its spinoffs for dozens of seasons. Gale left the franchise a few years back, and has since moved his focus to new projects, including producing a new show, FBoy Island, which began streaming on HBO Max Thursday. The premise is yet another “reality dating show with a twist”—this time, we have three beauties trapped on an island in the Caymans surrounded by “nice guys” and “fboys” and they must figure out which is which. The final couples will receive money, of course, and by the end, the women and the audience get the satisfaction of knowing who is who. 

Showrun by Sam Dean (who developed last year’s hit Love Is Blind), FBoy Island is as tongue-in-cheek as its name, full of the Instagram influencers that have spread into all aspects of the reality-genre jockeying for attention on screen and in real life. If anything, FBoy Island is a real testament to how far the genre has gone—everyone involved seems to be very much aware that they are on a ridiculous show, and happy to poke fun at that. (Take one scene, when one of the women, CJ, is seen wearing all black, right up to the fascinator on her head. “I’m mourning,” she tells host Nikki Glaser. “Did you lose someone?” Glaser asks. “I lost hope,” CJ responds, playfully pouting.)

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Gale has seen it all, and in advance of the show’s release, I spoke with him about what it takes to make a successful dating show (during a pandemic, at that), how cyclical the real life to reality dating cycle has become, and, of course, the appeal of the name FBoy Island itself. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

VICE: When did you all start working on this show?

ELAN GALE: We started working on it a little over a year ago. The idea was, how do you make a show that is more reflective of dating culture young people are in now—ghosting culture and swipe culture and endless choices culture. On top of that, whenever I would talk to people about their dating life, it felt like the two most common terms I heard were, “oh, he was nice!” Or “he was a fuck boy.” 

That just kept playing over and over in my head. We started talking about it and realized that one of the things that dating shows often do—and this isn’t a slight—it’s, here’s a bunch of people to date, and they’re all gonna be great, and you pick the best one for you. When, I think in real life, over the course of a dating cycle, you meet a bunch of people, and some are really great, and some are total pieces of shit, and it’s very hard to know the difference. Usually that’s the kind of question you ask yourself after a good date is, did this date go well because we really bonded or is this person maybe a player? So we thought, well, that seems to be what people are asking themselves after they go on a date or two—so let’s make a show about it. 

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And, of course, you say the words ‘fuckboy island’ once, they never leave your head. It’s just a fun thing to say. We would just say “Welcome to... FuckBoy Island!” And yes I acknowledge that sounds a lot like a 30 Rock sketch.

Even so, I’ve got to imagine that having to call it FBoy Island for advertising purposes was disappointing.

It was one of those things where you go, will anyone on earth let us make a show actually called FuckBoy Island? HBO Max is the closest anyone would ever come. But at the same time, there’s a little bit of a blessing in there, which is that I do think a lot of people might not be that familiar with fboy culture. They might not tune in for a show called FuckBoy Island. And so it feels like letting people get their feet in and start to really understand that there is a cultural movement—not a good one—behind fuckboys. But listen, the fact that we got FBoy Island across the board—that’s a Christmas miracle.

I’m interested in what you were saying about the show iterating on dating. Obviously you produced The Bachelor for such a long time and were so integral to its development and that’s the prototypical dating show. It seems like this show is really fitting in with a new rash of dating shows that are trying to be a little more wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and trying to play with the audience's expectations of that format.

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I’ve been very gratefully out of the dating market for awhile. But I only had like two experiences dating: they were either tragic, or they were hilarious. And I feel like whenever I had a first date, it either went really well, or astonishingly, hilariously badly. So I think that trying to approach it from a comedic point of view allows you to investigate that part of dating even more. I think that it’s just acknowledging that dating is funny and it’s fun and it’s a kind of a weird thing we do. The way that most of us do it in real life is you sit in front of a movie screen for two hours where you’re not allowed to talk, and then you go to a restaurant where you have to keep your mouth closed because you’re eating, and then you go home. The only thing you were supposed to do was get to know the person and you went to two places where talking was difficult. 

Everything about dating is strange to me. Dating on a TV show, dating anywhere in the world—it’s all kind of made up and changing all the time. This show, I think, hopefully reflects a swath of what dating looks like. But I also hope that it evolves as it grows. I think dating is going to change, and if this show exists for five, ten years, the show will have to change too. Trying to be more reflective of the society and the dating structures and the dating cultures. I have a feeling, if we’re really lucky, that there will be a bit of a recursive nature to it, where people start using fboy verbiage as a way of expressing part of their dating life. And then people come into the show as contestants having acknowledged that this is a part of their normal lives now. I think that will actually make the show, over time, actually more authentic and real, as the culture hopefully absorbs it.

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I think there was a time in which dating shows were their own sort of separate microcosm experience, and now in how many there are, it feels like they are just another way to date. And I’m curious to hear what you think about that—you’ve been on the frontlines of that for so long.

I think that aspirational dating shows have it covered. They’re incredibly fun to watch and they’re a great escape. And they represent a really particular part of dating and part of romance, and that’s great. But I also think that there’s a lot of different types of relationships, and a lot of less serious relationships. As the age of marriage goes up, people in their 20s and maybe even early 30s are less focused on the end result of dating sometimes, and more interested in the process and the growth that comes from introducing yourself and opening up to new people. You’re there for the experience, you’re there to meet people. And listen, you could always have something unbelievably meaningful and important happen to you. But at the end of the day, trying to explore parts of dating that aren’t so goals-oriented gives you a lot of room to play and to allow people to not fit into a single kind of narrative thrust in a way that you would with a more straightforward dating show.

It also seems like there’s a real acknowledgement of the tropes of the genre in this show. It’s set up on the idea that there are people who are “not here for the right reasons.”

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Right. That’s part of the culture; people use that in real life. It’s such a big thing. And I think to pretend that other dating shows don’t exist 30 years in is not treating your audience fairly. I think both the people that are on the show and people watching the show, they know: this is a dating show, there are many others like it, and we have a twist on it. We’re not inventing the wheel or reinventing the wheel; we’re putting a new rim on it and making it go up and down. [laughs]

Great analogy.

I’m not sure I’m not proud of that one, but I appreciate it.

I thought, for example, when the show checks in with the men that are rejected, only to show that the “nice guys” are in a beautiful villa nearby and the “fboys” are next to them supposedly living in a shack on the beach, that seemed like an acknowledgement of what a close watcher of reality knows, which is that people who are kicked off these shows don’t get sent home from production right away—and a way to play with that fact.

That actually came about kind of accidentally. A lot of dating shows, especially, have reunion shows, and oftentimes, in reunion shows, the information that is conveyed to the leads is something that the audience, quite rightly, says, oh, it would have been cool if they knew that before. So the intention was to have our reunion show while the women still had choices to make. We wanted to have all the information that was available presented prior to the final decision. It ended up being an option of, since we didn’t know when the men were going to get sent home, we would have had to fly them back and forth in order to do that. A pandemic absolutely made that impossible with an over two week quarantine for every contestant and every participant.

We thought, okay, well they’re all going to be on FBoy Island for a few weeks, waiting for this reunion, let’s give the fboys an interesting and strange place to spend their time. Let’s reward the nice guys, even though they got eliminated early. And let’s also weirdly see those friendships. Because like, for me, even though they’re little moments, watching the guys hang out and just be people is a fun way to get a little bit more of a relationship as a viewer with them. They’re a little more rounded out. They’re joking around, creating gyms, and building mermaids in the sand—the kind of things we actually do when we’re bored, which is what they were. For me, even though they’re silly, some of those were the more relatable moments of the show—just getting to see people outside of the confines of dating. 

Well it also seems like a real testament to the fact that, as we’ve seen, all these shows kind of create their own universes. Who knows if the relationships last, but if you follow any of them on Instagram, all these people stay in each other’s lives the way you would if you worked with someone or if you went to college with them or whatever the case might be. Which just, as a viewer, has always been very fascinating to me.

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It’s an incredibly bonding experience for all the contestants. Most people, with very few exceptions, make a great deal of friends when they come on a show like this, whether they’re there for a day or a month, whether it be other contestants, producers, or PAs. Especially on a first season show like this, there’s a tremendous sense of, this is crazy, and we’re doing something weird, and we’re all doing it together. There’s this, say, month and a half of time that exists in a place that, let’s say, only these 30 contestants and 100 some crew members have access to, and then that moment in time is going to be projected out into the world. They’re the only first-hand witnesses. 

I think sharing that, whether it was a good or a bad or a neutral experience, is really unique. These pivotal cultural moments—“where were you when this happened”—and believe me, I’m certainly not referring to Fboy Island as a pivotal cultural moment, but maybe for a few weeks, people will talk about it a lot, and they’ll ask questions, and they’ll wonder what’s going, and they’ll say, that’s cool that you got to be a part of it. And that’s a thing that all the people behind and in front of the camera share; that they were a part of a strange month and a half that became something that people enjoyed. I think there’s a sense of pride and ownership that I hope everyone that was involved feels, even if they were there for a day.

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I wonder if we’ll ever reach a point where a normal person understands what that experience is like, because reality has become so big, or will it always be specific to people who were there.

I think, personally, a show is made up of the sum of its people, both behind and in front of the camera, whether you want it to or not. The show is not created or made by any one person or any few groups of people; the show is really a magical potion out of the execution out of every single human—really, truly. 

Anybody at any time can say or do something that changes the course of everything. It’s just the reality. And as a result, I think that every show I’ve ever worked on—I’ve probably worked on 40 or 50 seasons of different shows—they’ve all had their own unique personality and quirks and traits. 

I feel like there’s a resurgence going on right now, a revival of TV dating. And I think that every one of those shows hopefully also creates its own unique experience. Otherwise, we’re doing the same thing over and over again. 

It definitely feels like we’re in a dating show renaissance of sorts, which I’m certainly here for.

[laughs] That’s such a generous term and I appreciate it.

On your end, how does that change casting, how does that change thinking about the show in order to make it feel unique and specific?

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Well I think that one thing that we try to do on that show is acknowledge the reality. So the show is out loud here, in a way, which is kind of exciting. We’re not pretending like they’re not on the show. That’s one of the reasons that the money component became important to us, was acknowledging that there’s a game being played on top of the dating. And the reason for that was because I think that very often that’s subtextual. On a lot of dating shows now, the audience and the leads are asking: Is this person only here for fame or to be on TV or for Instagram followers (which means money)? 

So we just took that subtext, and made it the text. I think that’s certainly a little bit of an evolution towards, possibly, the singularity, but also the nature in which the shows begin impacting themselves. I’m sure, if and when we get a chance to do FBoy Island Season 2, it will evolve to be a reflection of the way people played Season 1. Because people will look at Season 1, and they’ll say, that worked, that didn’t. Rather than pretending those conversations aren’t happening, we’ll maybe lean into them, and let people have the conversations that are authentic to the environment in which they’re dating. Because there’s nothing authentic about talking when you’re normally dating, but there is something authentic about talking about the culture of the world in which you’re dating. If you’re on FBoy Island, you’re dating in FBoy Island’s world, so talking about the rules and regulations and history of it completely makes sense. 

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I feel like that’s the success of the newer shows, the meta-ness, the reaction to the reaction.

Absolutely. I watch a lot of Rick and Morty, and to me that’s more of an inspiration than anything else when it comes to trying to be completely and totally self-aware and meta to the best of our ability.

You talked about people being here for the right reasons; was that something that you thought about both with your leads and with your contestants? Was it more of a concern with the contestants?

I think it was more a concern with the contestants, because we obviously got to spend a lot more time with the leads prior to filming. Contestants you meet for a very short time; the leads are such important, vital parts. They have to become irreplaceable in all ways. So I think that we got to know them, and we genuinely felt like, of course there’s always the other things you could want out of an experience, but there was no doubt in my mind that Sarah and Nakia and CJ all genuinely wanted to find someone to date seriously who would treat them the way they wanted to be treated. 

The nice thing about the premise here for the contestants, for the guys, was really, we don’t really need to worry about whether you’re here for the right reasons, because that’s baked into the premise of the show. Again, in so many shows, the leads trying to discover if the contestants are there for the right reasons is the subtext. It becomes a moment once in a while, but it’s a thing they’re always trying to figure out, whether it’s being aired or not. Here, we just say it out loud. Like, the question you should ask yourself every time someone says something nice to you, because of the heightened stakes of a show like this, is, is this person here for the right reasons? Which has just become so synonymous culturally here with, am I liked for who I am or am I liked for other reasons? 

It is funny how it’s become its own commentary on a commentary.

It’s not even a TV show trope anymore; it’s like a life trope. That’s the power—I think dating shows have been around for so long now that they’ve changed the way that many people date in real life. Again, we’re in an interesting spiral of dating shows affecting the way people talk about dating in real life which then changes the way they act when they get onto dating shows. It’s a snake eating its own tail, and it’s very good looking while it’s doing it.

Follow Kate Dries on Twitter.