My introduction to Love Island began with a parody I didn’t understand. It was August of 2019 and I was engrossed in the Mindy Kaling-produced adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which imagines, as one of its finer details, a world in which all of Britain (including the Queen!) appears to be watching a reality TV show called Love Chalet.
When the secondary character Zara joins Love Chalet’s perennially swimsuit-clad cast after a breakup, I thought the reference was nothing more than a timely joke, a cheeky nod to the show Love Island, for which I’d seen enough Hulu ads to know that it probably wasn’t for me. When Zara’s ex-boyfriend Craig begins watching the show obsessively over what I thought to be the course of a few weeks, the joke expands into a cleverly crafted thread of the rom-com. But when Craig manages to crash the chalet, in skimpy firetruck red swim briefs no less, to declare his love for Zara in real time, I was as shocked as his friends who hadn’t heard from him in a few days only to see him reappear on TV during one of their Love Chalet watch parties—but more by the logistics than anything. It was bewildering, one of those breath-catching moments that appear to defy the constraints of referential parody. I had assumed that like many reality series I’ve seen, episodes were filmed in advance, carefully edited into a narrative, and aired months later. How had Craig pulled it off? Was I just supposed to suspend my disbelief? Was Craig’s ability to interfere a fictional convenience or a real possibility of the actual Love Island? Curiosity demanded I find out.
I began watching Love Island (UK) season five a few weeks later, well after filming was underway in Mallorca. From the opening credits—closeups of rippling abs and barely-there bathing suits—I gathered it was the kind of trashy show that should be relegated to background binge watching, and only if it happened to be airing on cable TV at the precise moment your laundry needed folding. Surely, people didn’t choose to watch Love Island so much as have it thrust upon them. I expected to watch an episode, maybe two, to get the gist and move on. To my disbelief, I watched all 50 episodes on demand. When season six a.k.a. “Winter Love Island” aired, I watched that too, and then mid-pandemic in 2021, I went back to enjoy season three. On purpose. Because although the show is overtly superficial and silly, it’s also a fascinating and stunningly self-aware Hunger Games-esque series that pits contestants against each other in a goldfish-bowl purgatorial paradise all in the name of finding love (and, somewhat less importantly, winning 50,000 pounds).
The seasons of Love Island I’ve seen have all begun with ten young and fit contestants, five men and five women, who roll into a swanky villa in a remote location—Mallorca for summer Love Island and Cape Town for winter Love Island—prepared to couple up with each other on first impressions alone and play the game for up to two months. Many are models, beauticians, construction workers, or semi-professional athletes—the kind of people who look good in the swimsuits they seem contractually obligated to wear all day and can also take a few months off work without significant consequence. The contestants are nearly always half nude on the show, and their brazen nakedness renders them ironically sexless in a plasticky Barbie and Ken playing in a dream house way. It’s gimmicky and provocative and only disguises some of the more intriguing parts of the show.
If the concept of coupling seems very forward, as it did to me at first, it’s worth mentioning that coupling on the show defines nothing more than the person with whom you share a bed in the communal bedroom. Though of course, the contestants hope that a bedfellow will turn into more, and often they do. To survive on Love Island, you must be part of a couple or risk getting dumped from the villa. Whether the couple is based on love, friendship, or strategy, the selection of partners at elaborate recoupling ceremonies, where the contestants finally swap their bathing suits for evening wear to make long-winded speeches about their choice in front of a fire pit, creates the show’s core drama. The men and women alternate picking their counterparts, so the power to save and eliminate each other constantly shifts. Amid the surviving couples’ tears and protestations about how the villa will never be the same, the unclaimed singles are sent off, wheeling their glossy white suitcases behind them.
Beyond the drama of recoupling, which often seems pointedly primal, it is the constant surveillance of dozens of cameras in the villa that distinguishes Love Island from other reality romance TV, because it is only with that much footage that the show is able to air new episodes almost daily. (After season three, episodes began airing six nights a week instead of seven.) Between filming and airing, there’s a lag of a few days, not the weeks or months I had imagined as I watched Craig watching Love Chalet. In fact, Craig’s appearance on the fictional version of the reality TV show highlights two of the show’s most compelling features—the real-time, near-live quality and the producers’ introduction of new islanders at unpredictable intervals. It is the constant arrival of outsiders that disrupts the status quo and provides the impetus for recoupling.
Although survival on Love Island is not a matter of life or death as it is for the tributes in the Hunger Games, especially since the contestants lounge around an infinity pool overlooking the countryside and get two catered meals a day, there is a concept of winning or losing. For some, winning means finding love. For others, it’s the cash prize. Whatever their goals, they want to last in the villa as long as possible, and their ability to succeed, to weather temptations, recouplings, intra-island drama, and challenges introduced by producers (i.e. game makers), depends largely on how the contestants present themselves to the public and to each other.
Maybe that seems obvious for most reality TV, but it’s especially apparent on Love Island because of how the public can participate as the show unfolds in near real time. In addition to dropping new islanders into the villa every so often and developing absurd challenges like “The Hole Package,” a game in season three that asked the women to blindly grope the men through a perforated wall and rate their muscles, the producers introduce twists by involving the public and the islanders themselves in a vote. For example, the public audience is often called upon to decide who of the islanders goes on a private date with a newcomer, a ploy that gives viewers a real stake in deciding the outcome. Those watching the episodes live have a window in which they can vote via the show’s app. I’ve never done this myself, but the sheer possibility for the public to dictate the islanders’ actions from afar affords the show the thrilling, somewhat twisted, manipulative video-game like quality of The Sims.
Some days, when the producers are feeling particularly savage, they will ask the public to vote on their favorite couples and announce the results to the islanders, implying that the bottom two or three couples will be dumped. At the last minute, they might inform the islanders that it is now their turn to save one member of each couple, which scatters the safe couples to various nooks and crannies of the villa to debate, Who will make the most of their time in the villa? Who contributes more to the group dynamic? Who is here for the right reasons? Whose time is up?
In a very Hunger Games-esque manner, the producers design the game in response to the way the islanders interact with each other, and the public act as sponsors to aid the islanders they favor. Decisions depend on the narratives that the contestants construct—the bashful contestant who’s had her heart broken, the two-faced game player who can’t stop flirting with everyone. It’s a delicate balance that the islanders must strike to survive—to stay likable by giving the appearance of remaining genuine, to strategize to stay in the villa without treading on someone’s toes and stealing their partners—all too often the cause of strife in the villa. And at the end of the season, it is the public that votes for their favorite of the surviving couples to decide the winner of the 50,000 pounds.
To succeed on Love Island then, you have to both acknowledge it’s a game and give the appearance that you aren’t playing it, one of the many paradoxes of the show. The others include narrator Iain Sterling’s jabs at the show’s production details, like the need to blow out hundreds of candles after a date or the number of whipped cream cans procured for a challenge, and the omnipresent visual reminder of the islanders’ belted mic packs worn over swimsuits, which they consciously remove before showering or taking a dip in the pool and purposefully strap back on as soon as they can. Through the narrator, the producers acknowledge that the show is often ridiculous and contrived, undercutting the seriousness the audience and contestants might ascribe to it. By the same token, the islanders know they are being watched, though they try to act like they aren’t, and we the audience buy into that reality, even though we are constantly reminded of how fake everything is. The beauty of Love Island is that it doesn’t try to hide its artifice. It embraces it.
In between recouplings and challenges, Love Island assumes the staid quality of a nature documentary or a large zoo enclosure because there’s not much for the islanders to do aside from sunbathe in lounge chairs by the pool, lift weights in the outdoor gym, and assess each other’s motivations and actions. In various group combinations, they soak in the sun, barely moving, and talk strategy and possible alliances. Always, there is an understanding that you must act in your self-interest, but honestly, and without doing unnecessary harm and “mugging” someone off. “Do what you want to do. Do what’s best for you. You’ve got to be selfish, in times like this,” season three’s Montana says to Camilla when she has to choose between friend Harley and potential love interest Jonny at a recoupling ceremony.
Similarly, when Jess enters the villa late after the initial coupling ceremony and must break up one of the existing couples, however nascent, she chooses Montana’s man, Dom. “Honestly, babe, like I feel bad doing it…I can’t choose someone and be inauthentic,” she says to Montana. “It’s going to happen. We’re all in the game. I am sorry, like no hard feelings.” The islanders are resigned to the rules of the game that they have voluntarily agreed to by signing up as a contestant. Come across as playing too hard, though, as Chris does, and risk the entire villa turning against you. “I feel like he’s trying to play a bit of a game…I think he’s just doing it to sort of boost his own ego,” Montana says about Chris during her confessional in The Beach Hut, after it’s clear he’s been chatting up multiple girls in addition to his partner, Chloe. With his ego, volatile temper, and utter inauthenticity to the women he chats to, Chris quickly becomes one of the villains of the villa.
Tensions rising is to be expected as paradise morphs into purgatory and the days take on the groggy, irritating quality of a vacation that has lasted too long, of too many days spent without obligation or real work. It’s entertaining to watch a conflict blow up, but I am personally more intrigued by the constant power shifts, the subtle way that group dynamics can change in the space of hours when there are no distractions of the outside world, the quick formation and dissipation of attraction, the in-depth analyses of the strength of every couple, the bald way that the islanders gossip behind each other’s backs, knowing full well they can be overheard and will pay the price through a confrontation later on. Much of what attracts me to Love Island boils down to the tradeoff between maintaining the mask of civility and pursuing self-interest in what can be a cutthroat game. It’s in the contradictions and lies that they tell each other in the moment and recant as soon as they address the camera directly while filming a confessional. After a few days in the villa, it’s hard for even them to discern what the distorted reality they’ve created for themselves is.
Even so, the longer the islanders last in the villa, the more human and detached from the personas they created upon their entrance they become. The contestants who initially present as shallow, vapid people ready to play the game over the course of many weeks arrive at some semblance of earnestly caring about each other. They find friendships and love and want to do right by each other. They cry what appear to be real tears when their friends depart. They fight and break up and yell and backstab and feel regret and when it’s all over, though it’s hard to tell which stories have been constructed, it appears that some of the artificiality has dissolved and we are left empathizing with people who are hotter than most of us could ever hope to be, but who are just as human and flawed as ourselves. They are just people who crave good chat and genuine connections, some of which last beyond the villa in the outside world. And it is then that it occurs to me that although a lot of Love Island is fake and contrived and easy to parody, sometimes the artifice doesn’t make the emotions and experiences any less real.
Tracy Lum is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Hello Giggles, and Little Old Lady Comedy. In addition, she has a piece forthcoming in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.