ITV2’s Love Island, a mainstay of post-watershed broadcasting almost every single night between June and August for the last three years or so, is one of those things I never thought I would enjoy. It falls into a category of narrowly-avoided-car-crash television also occupied by such pillars of broadcasting as the TOWIE-likes and, in America, the much more glamorous Real Housewives shows and their numerable spin-offs: in essence, productions designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of what counts as entertainment, thinly-disguised scripted situations masquerading as the kind of reality we’d all sort of like to spend a day in but hate to be permanently living in.
In recent years, thanks to my fiancée’s truly distinguishing taste in television, I’ve been exposed to this peculiar little genre of not-quite-reality, and I’m no longer ashamed to say that I really rather enjoy it. Keeping Up with the Kardashians is take-it-or-leave-it for me, but the Real Housewives of Orange County and Atlanta have somehow become can’t-miss. There’s a certain freedom in enjoying something ironically from a distance at first and gradually drifting towards legitimate investment in the fabricated lives of people who always seem to possess a golden ratio of wealth, hot-temperedness and utter stupidity.
Similarly, Love Island began as almost a joke watch for me, something I started watching just to see how terrible it was likely to be and somehow found myself totally addicted to within about three episodes. I think its particular appeal is that it absolutely knows what kind of show it is on the surface, and does everything in its power to play up to those expectations while also making the whole thing seem a bit farcical. It’s a delicate balance, keeping the audience genuinely invested in the lives and feelings of the contestants – or ‘Islanders’ – at the same time as exposing the inherent silliness of the situation, but it’s working so far. In no small part, that’s got to be due to the brilliant voiceover of Iain Stirling combined with some seriously self-aware editing work; take Montana’s recent date with Alex (I think that’s who it was, but forgive me if I’m mistaken; there are a lot of names to remember), which opened with a faux-artsy shot of the couple with a lavender bush in focus in the foreground and Stirling’s quip to the effect that ‘obviously these two will want privacy for their intimate date, so we’ve gone to the trouble of hiding the cameraman in the shrubbery’. It’s a bit like staging a performance of Hamlet where all the actors are gorgeous and scantily-clad, there are a load of dick jokes thrown in and Joey Essex is playing Polonius: a study in the truest sense of the spectrum of human emotion all wrapped up in a sexy, shallow, hilarious package. (I know Shakespeare loved a good dick joke himself, but he was at least clever about it, which my vision of this monstrous performance would insistently not be.) You know, I actually think people would watch that. Coming to theatres near you soon!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some of the Islanders who make the show what it is, which is to say they argue and hump and spend a lot of time getting dressed and eat porridge and do vaguely sexual ‘challenges’ for no adequately explained reason and then the editing and narration makes it not only palatable but unmissable. Last year’s winners, Nathan and Cara – did I mention there’s a £50K prize for the winning couple? – achieved a rare feat by ‘coupling up’ in the very first episode and staying together for the entirety of the series without breaking up once (at least, not officially); this year, I think the longest-standing couple is Kem and Amber, a Jack Russell puppy in the body of an Essex boy and a girl who has so many ‘types on paper’ that she’s single-handedly keeping Staples in business. Their relationship has been up and down (and, as the legendary Iain Stirling would say over shots of bedsheet-covered banging, ‘and up and down and up and down’), recently culminating in what I’m pretty sure was an official breakup. Then Kem went to a separate house with the rest of the boys, started ‘grafting’ (there’s a whole lexicon of Love Island vocabulary, believe me) with new girl Chyna and appeared to be fully moving on, but then he came back and suddenly he and Amber are in love again. It’s the sort of show where things move very, very fast and then just as quickly go full tilt in the opposite direction; the cramped environment, where literally all the Islanders have to do for most of the day is hang out with each other, lends itself to things progressing much quicker than in the real world and exploding at the drop of a hat.
We also have New Best Couple Marcel (used to be in Blazin’ Squad, not that he’s told anybody about that) and Gabby, who are just two of the most legitimately kind and cool people ever to appear on television. Marcel wasn’t really finding anyone for a while, but the introduction of Gabby a few weeks in seems to have cheered him right up. Oh, yeah, the format’s a bit weird like that; there were eleven original Islanders, but there are periodic ‘dumpings’ and new additions to keep the lineup rotating and fresh. At least, that seems to be the theory: in practice, what tends to happen is that the originals survive every dumping because they’re the most popular – understandably, since they’ve had the most screentime – and those who were latterly introduced get summarily shafted by the fact that they only had a couple of days to forge meaningful connections with people who are (in some cases literally) joined at the hip with those they’ve known for longer. There must have been about twenty new Islanders since the start of the show, and of the remaining ten, a good six or seven have been there since the very first episode. This is all at the time of writing, by the way; it’ll all have changed to almost unrecognisable degrees by tomorrow.
Other highlights include ‘too good for this world’ Camilla, who’s become a major internet darling but who’s frankly not going to find anyone on this show (and nor, indeed, does she want to anymore, having been burned), Chris, a man so infatuated with his own excellence that I’m genuinely surprised he hasn’t just coupled up with himself, and the saga of Dom and Jess. I don’t even know where to start with that one, but suffice to say that they were supposedly in love, then Jess got booted off and Dom for some reason didn’t leave with her, leading to rumours that Jess had then hooked up with fellow dumpee Mike (a man who is apparently considered attractive, but looks to me like the brainless, satanic offspring of Donkey Kong and the Head from Art Attack), then Dom… sort of didn’t do anything for a while and eventually left as a result of a convoluted recoupling.
I think it’s a mixture of genuine interest in the people in there and a kind of pretended detachment thanks to the humour in the show’s production (I can almost feign that I’m only watching it to be ironic or something, even though that patently isn’t the case any more) that keeps me watching Love Island. Both are important: without being invested in the Islanders and their relationships, it would just be a slapstick assemblage of awkward dates and atrocious rap battles, but if it weren’t for the self-awareness of it all, I’d be committing to taking these people fully seriously as if they were real, actual human beings instead of whatever alien species people on reality shows secretly are.
In conclusion, I feel totally confident admitting that I absolutely love Love Island. Or maybe I secretly hate it and I’m just addicted to it. It’s an addiction one way or the other, but it’s either a not-too-terrible craving for oatmeal raisin cookies or a desperate need to snort a whole buttload of cocaine that I bought from a guy called Radical who ‘definitely doesn’t put talcum powder in it, honest, I promise, mate, it’s all good, mate’. I’m hooked either way, so I may as well go along with it.