The Glorious Depravity of the British “Love Island”
In the sixth episode of the final season of “Orange Is the New Black,” the steely prison warden Natalie Figueroa settles down, after a long day at work in a corrupt immigrant-detention center, to watch the U.K.’s most popular dating show, “Love Island.” “I want the hot, glistening bodies to zap away my brain and my day,” she says, lying, despondent, on a brown leather couch, the screen before her playing the first episode of Season 4 in which a wedge-chested personal trainer from Newcastle sets his sights on a svelte retail manager from Blackpool.
The moment, a nod from one cultural phenomenon to another, was a tribute to the feral pleasure of “Love Island,” in which ten singles—five men, five women—are dispatched to a sunny villa, where, goaded by a lack of Internet and single beds, they set about finding true love. Around forty potential islanders, including some contestants’ exes, or the exes of their exes, wait on standby to be dispatched to the villa during the course of the season. In the U.K., the show has become both unprecedentedly popular—its recent episodes attracted more than six million viewers, a record for its broadcaster, ITV2—and bitterly controversial. In 2016, a former contestant, Zara Holland, was stripped of her title as Miss Britain for having had sex on the program. In 2017, concerns about the contestants’ heavy smoking made it to the House of Lords. “What message does that say to young people?” Lord Storey asked his peers. The charity Women’s Aid spoke against the treatment of female contestants by their “controlling” and “abusive” male suitors. Criticism of the show became more sombre in tone after two former contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, separately died by suicide, joining a troublingly long list of reality-TV alumni who have taken their own lives. In May, the British Parliament announced a committee to investigate production companies’ duty of care to participants.
Meanwhile, Americans have been tuning in. Millie Bobby Brown, Amy Schumer, and Lena Dunham have all praised the show; in the Guardian, Dunham recently described “listening to every murmur, the particularities of these regional accents, the smack of lips under the duvet covers.” Online, fans on both sides of the Atlantic have circulated memes featuring Michael Griffiths, a firefighter, brandishing a plastic wineglass as he calls Amber Gill, a beauty therapist, “childish,” in a thick Liverpool accent. Americans’ passion for the show appears to have benefitted from the stereotypes of British people as drunken, outspoken, and eccentric. By similar standards, British people see Americans as nice but tame, and a little fake.
This dichotomy did not bode well for “Love Island U.S.A.,” which premièred on CBS in early July and ended this week, with little fanfare, after being dismissed as “boring” and lacking in the “depravity that makes the English version so enjoyable.” On the first episode of the American show, filmed in Fiji, torrential rainfall prevented the contestants from frolicking in the garden, where, traditionally, most of the action happens; the downpour continued for much of the week. A grocery-store cashier from Chicago shaved a heart into his chest hair, to express his adoration for a New York advertising executive (they remained together for the whole season and eventually won). A marketing student from Los Angeles overreacted to everything. On day three, as if suddenly aware of the need to perform, the contestants resorted to playing spin the bottle with a pineapple.
As David Eilenberg, the executive producer of “Love Island U.S.A.,” recently explained, broadcasting regulations prevent sex from being shown on American television. Producers had intended to rely on “artful bleeping” to disguise what, in the U.K. show, would have been a stream of expletives. In the end, no such censorship was required; the American contestants were uniformly chaste and polite, their speech sanitized psychobabble cultivated to convey self-awareness, depth, and respect for women. “I’m very much a vibes-based person,” Cashel Barnett, a musician from Sacramento, said, about his ideal partner. “I’m interested in what people have to say. I’m interested in a girl that’s open.” (Compare this to Anton Danyluk, a twenty-four-year-old Scotsman, who, in a clip advertising this year’s U.K. show, said, “I usually go with blonde girls with fake boobs. That’s usually my type.”) There were no meltdowns, no showdowns. “I hope I don’t step on anyone’s toes,” Katrina Dimaranan, a beauty queen, said, on being sent into the house a week after the season began, apparently having misunderstood the show’s premise. There were none of the rampant displays of sexual desire that abounded on the U.K. show, on which a joyfully irrepressible Irish ring girl, Maura Higgins, repeatedly referred to “fanny flutters” when surveying the male islanders. “I can hear myself screaming his name,” she said of the boxer Tommy Fury. “I want him to eat me.”
On “Love Island U.S.A.,” even the body shapes were somehow less extreme, the male contestants resembling green-juice-drinking boys next door beside the steroid-pumped, spherical-shouldered beefcakes of the British show. The American contestants, when rejected by their lovers, accepted their fate with forced grace, only occasionally pouting or weeping silently. “Please just be happy and enjoy your time here,” Kelsey Jurewicz said to Emily Salch, who had just stolen her man. By contrast, in the fourth season of the U.K. show, a flight attendant from Scotland called a former stripper a “slag” for seducing her partner, and, in Season 5, another flight attendant cried as she dressed down the male ballroom dancer who’d betrayed her. (“I was coming back here to tell you I love you,” she said, snarling.) A beauty therapist, surveying the recruitment consultant for whom she’d been ditched, declared her “a dead ting.” It was all less tasteful, and, of course, more touching.
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It may be that “Love Island” just makes more sense at home, where viewers are familiar with the national daydream of holiday behavior that is proudly foolish, unself-aware, and notoriously embarrassing. The progenitor of “Love Island” was “Ibiza Uncovered,” which first aired on Sky One in the summer of 1997, a few months after a landslide general election victory for the Labour Party. The show, produced by ITV Studios, followed a gaudy tour of British revellers visiting the Spanish party island: an inebriated football team celebrating a win, a Scottish man showing off his condom supply. Natalka Znak, the show’s producer, told me that “Ibiza Uncovered” was “about capturing that essence of what is, in some ways, a very British thing—that first summer holiday abroad where you go off to Spain and have a romance and suspend disbelief for a few weeks, pretending you’re in paradise.”
A decade later, “Big Brother” was attracting unprecedented numbers, shown on TV six nights a week and streamed constantly online. Never before had viewers watched people doing such normal things—eating, sleeping, bickering—with such sustained interest. Znak’s latest idea, inspired by her Ibiza show, was to send celebrities to a sunny island and encourage them to romance. Executives, searching for a competitor for “Big Brother,” seized on the concept. “That’s how we went from a dating show to a stripped-back, six-nights-a-week stream,” Znak explained. “Celebrity Love Island” lasted only two seasons, but when, in 2015, numbers for “Big Brother” began falling, ITV decided to reboot the idea with a new focus on “normal people”—albeit mostly very toned twentysomethings.
“Love Island U.S.A.” adopted the British’s show’s relentless schedule, airing five nights a week, but, without the swearing and the smut, it lacked what made the British series so alive: the combination of the most chaotic and most sincere elements of reality television. When I spoke to Znak a few days before “Love Island USA” aired, she described American reality TV as “very formulaic,” comparing the exaggerated red-rose-giving ceremonies of “The Bachelor” with the juvenile pool games and on-air hand jobs of the British “Love Island.” Certain aspects of “The Bachelor” seemed to have crept into “Love Island USA,” particularly in the behavior of the contestants, who, performing awe and romance, and perhaps reflecting the tropes of the reality shows on which they were raised, appeared to unthinkingly deliver on viewers’ expectations. In the first episode, a male model from Miami said, in complete deadpan, “The females are perfect. The settings are perfect. Honestly, this is a paradise.” For British contestants, likely weaned on the screaming matches and snogs of “Big Brother” and “The Only Way Is Essex,” the precedent is to be sassier, unbridled, more candid.
British people watch “Love Island” in the way we browse the Facebook pages of people we went to school with, surveying their boyfriends and babies—to analyze ourselves through comparison. Does it matter if we don’t find our partner funny, like Lucie and the near-mute George? How should we react if our partner declines to have sex with us, as Curtis did with Maura? “You can relate to them,” Dani Dyer, the female winner of Season 4, who has the effervescent personality of a friendly drunk girl in a night-club bathroom, recently told me. “It’s so addictive. Everyone loves love.”
The most moving moments of the show have often come not from the machinations of the producers—the random evictions, the “meet the parents” episodes—but from the contestants’ unrehearsed, occasionally confusing reactions to their surroundings: the way a six feet seven basketball player broke down after his “best friend” in the villa, a builder, was evicted; the way Maura Higgins, swiftly becoming an international heroine, screamed at her fellow-contestant Tom Walker after she overheard him and the other men debating what she’d be like in bed. (“You’re a follower, Tom!” she cried). Each season, around week seven, viewers enjoy the “baby challenge,” in which interactive dolls are sent into the villa, giving the couples a taste of what the future could hold. Chris Hughes, a popular contestant from Season 3, named his doll Cash. (“His surname is Hughes,” he said.) Sitting on a lounge chair with the plastic baby and his partner, Olivia Attwood, he began to weep. Attwood looked on in confusion as Hughes clutched the doll, which he’d dressed in a sun hat. “Why am I crying?” he said, pointing to his eyes. “Why am I crying?”