The golden age of Love Island is over, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I mean, there is something we can do (getting all-bisexual contestants and unleashing a scale of chaos not seen on British television since they sent the original cast of Geordie Shore to Cancún), but it won’t happen. And so: Love Island is dead. Long live Love Island.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, Love Island has not been good for a while. The premiere of the current season was watched by the smallest audience since 2017 – the summer that solidified the cultural cachet of Love Island as we know it, elevating it from a relatively unpolished dating show among many (Naked Attraction, Meet the Parents, The Magaluf Weekender) to the behemoth we came to love and dissect in neurotic detail. Between 2017 and 2019, ratings were at an all-time high, and it was genuinely producing some of the biggest personalities in the UK – Olivia Attwood, Kem Cetinay, Megan Barton-Hanson, Molly-Mae, Amber Gill, Curtis Pritchard (for his sins).
Sure, a portion of this year’s viewership was lost to the Euros, Wimbledon and the fact that people can go to the pub for the first time since December, but even after bouncing back from a slow start, this season has been defined by an overriding sense that something just… isn’t working.
Whether it’s all the wet covers of Kerrang! Top 100 songs being played over everyone’s deep chats, or the fact the stars aligned to deliver some of the most boring men (and Toby) available, Love Island 2021 has been a struggle to watch. Uneventful at best and actively stressful at worst, the “biggest” moments from this season have been largely negative: Faye blowing up at Teddy; Casa Amor shining a floodlight on the worst aspects of the show’s gender dynamics, which felt more noticeable than ever; Hugo not fancying a single human woman.
According to Ofcom, only 15 programmes across the whole of commercial TV and radio received more than 50 complaints in the past five weeks – and 11 of them were episodes of Love Island. In retrospect, the fact that Twitch streamer and fan favourite Shannon Singh was sent home within 24 hours for no apparent reason set the tone for the rest of the season.
A part of the problem is that everyone is now too wise to the format. The point of going on Love Island, as with all reality TV, has always been transparent: money, fame, opportunities outside the everyday realm of car dealerships and real estate. This year more than ever, though, it seems the show forgot to cast people so entertaining that we don’t notice or care that we’re essentially watching them do business.
While it’s important to have couples to emotionally invest in, we know that the vast majority don’t go on Love Island looking for a romantic connection. They go on there to secure the PLT bag. And we’re fine with that when what we get in return is, say, Maura Higgins stomping around the villa saying, “I’M [BLEEEEP] RAGING!” When we get, say, Jake – a man who apparently tricked the producers into thinking he’s a laugh because he has a West Country accent, and then spent two months playing a calculated game to win – going on about how his entire house is grey and white, it’s not so good.
Things have been on the up recently, thanks largely to Chloe and Toby treating the villa like a sexy crèche, but six-and-a-half weeks of exhaustion is a lot to sit through to get to the goods.
Perhaps it’s bad luck that some of the islanders who generated the most banter ended up leaving too soon (Lucinda, Aaron, Chuggs in name alone) while others coasted on fumes for too long (HUGO), but the more Love Island has established itself as a guaranteed pipeline to the influencer 1 percent, the more its appeal has taken a hammering. Ultimately, no one watches Love Island to feel like they’re being marketed to. That comes afterwards, once contestants have charmed us with their personalities and breakfast platters that look like hospital food reimagined by Charlie Bucket. (Although in a wild feat of reverse engineering, ITV recently announced plans to implement shoppable TV, allowing viewers to discover and buy items from its programmes directly on screen).
A meta-narrative of understanding that reality TV is designed to entertain above all else has been woven into the fabric of Love Island since the beginning – particularly through Iain Stirling’s commentary, which centres the tone around the British belief that in order to express your fondness for something you must take the piss out of it. As writer Jael Goldfine put it in an interview with Stirling for GQ, the show is “one big inside joke with the audience [...] You don’t have to buy into any of it to enjoy it.”
That transparency has always been part of the fun with Love Island, but problems arise when it starts to tip into cynicism. As viewers, we’re very willing to sacrifice our disbelief at the altar of amusement, but what happens when a programme whose popularity relies on its audience setting aside so much to begin with isn’t actually fun to watch?
The winter edition probably spelled the beginning of the end for Love Island. Two seasons a year felt like overkill to begin with, but it ended up running just as the pandemic began to loom internationally, and also found itself reckoning with the tragic loss of Caroline Flack while still on air.
With so much darkness surrounding it, Love Island is demonstrating in real time how difficult it is for reality TV to be both ethical and entertaining on a mass scale. Improved aftercare for contestants, reminding audiences to “be kind” and running adverts for mental health programming during the breaks is certainly a step forward, but ultimately a bit pointless when the content of the show still relies on misleading and provoking their most insecure contestants to get a reaction. When someone responded to the ongoing lull this year and said “we need to spice things up”, 24,000 complaints to Ofcom probably wasn’t what they had in mind.
Mind you, it’s on us too. What we want is perhaps impossible. We want drama without pain, villains without anything actually bad happening. We want to meme-ify and characterise the contestants because that’s part of the fun of watching it, but we also want their humanity to be recognised. We want drinking without the hangover, and now we’re at an impasse.
“I genuinely think it’s often a pretty interesting exploration of the human psyche,” Stirling said in response to Goldfine’s observation in GQ. “I find it so interesting to watch these people, a lot of whom have built their entire personalities around the fact of being the best looking person in their school or work. And they go into the villa and that’s just taken away from them. They’re like, ‘What’s my thing? I don’t know what my thing is.’”
The same is now true of Love Island itself. What is its thing now? After five years and six seasons of dominating reality TV, fast fashion, British pop culture at large, what purpose does it serve? There’s only so much room in the ecosystem. Where can it go from here without changing what it is at its core?
Ultimately, our relationship to Love Island has become forced. We’ve found ourselves searching for things to enjoy. It’s telling that people have been running away with even the slightest crumb of comic relief this year – generated mainly by TikTok users making it their own (see: Chloe’s “I’m not gonna let someone take me for a prick, NO WAY” speech) – which was bound to happen.
A show this big cannot not go bust. It’s the natural order of things. Just like the chemistry between Toby and Kaz and Toby and Abigail and also Toby and Mary, the magic was there, and now it is gone. The UK’s most beloved programme has officially entered her flop era, but we had a good run.
Will that stop ITV2 from renewing it until at least 2025? No. Will it prevent me from tuning in six nights a week and, silently gazing upon a plate of Quorn Roarsomes and beans, asking myself: ‘What am I doing with my adult life?’
Probably not, no.