Consider it the Love “Hunger Games.” On the set, everything is amped up to get the most drama. The producers consistently set up scenarios to mock the Islanders, making them look stupid, presumably so viewers can feel superior. For example, last year after a group of female contestants got confused about Brexit, a clip of one asking, “So does that mean we won’t have any trees?” went viral. Not only did it make her look like an idiot, but it gave viewers (most of whom are probably just as confused about Brexit) something to laugh at.
The Islanders frequently swap pairings, sometimes several times in a single episode. They sleep in the same room, so there’s no privacy. Everyone is required to wear barely-there swimsuits and their hair and makeup have to be continuously perfect. The clocks are all set to different times, purposefully, and access to the mainland is cut off, so the contestants have nothing to do but get involved with each other, often in ludicrous ways like exercising for hours or discussing issues they know nothing about. Any contestant who isn’t paired up at the end of an episode is evicted, essentially because they couldn’t keep someone interested. Viewers at home feel invested in what unfolds on-screen because they get to vote on who comes and goes and which couple gets a date, using the official app. The winning couple take home 50,000 pounds.
The current season of “Love Island” is averaging 4.2 million TV viewers in Britain, according to ITV, the network airing the show, with an additional 1.4 million viewers watching on non-TV devices, up 700,000 viewers from previous years. Britain’s population is about 66 million, so that means more than 8 percent of the country is watching.
“Love Island” has a dark side, too. Two former Islanders, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, committed suicide after appearing on the show. Since those deaths and after pressure from the media, ITV has changed its policy on mental health support. The network now mandates that Islanders attend at least eight therapy sessions after filming and “proactive” post-show contact with the Islanders for at least 14 months. Member of Parliament Damian Collins recently launched a formal inquiry into the relationship between recent deaths and British reality TV, which will involve ITV executives testifying in Parliament.
Honey Langcaster-James, who acted as the resident psychologist for the second season of “Love Island” and is currently the director of services for the consulting firm On Set Welfare, says reality TV does not pay enough attention to cast members’ mental health. “We need to think about the psychological welfare of propelling people into the limelight,” she noted.
Still, Langcaster-James says there’s some merit to the show, especially since it can reveal what positive and negative relationships look like. (Current Islander Joe Garratt has come into the spotlight for being overly controlling and emotionally manipulative of fellow Islander Lucie Donlan.) That lens into the lives of others can be helpful for viewers, says Langcaster-James, who adds, “People who go on a show like ‘Love Island’ often talk about their personal lives and their own insecurities and their own difficulties — and that can also be hugely validating to young people.”
The mental health effects don’t end after the cameras stop rolling. Former Islander Chloe Crowhurst, who was cast on “Love Island” at 22, says she lost sight of herself in the aftermath, which can involve a lot of alcohol-driven nights out making public appearances.
“It got to this point where I was thinking, ‘This isn’t even me. What am I actually doing, going out five nights a week and partying? This is not fun. This is not what life’s meant to be about,’ ” says Crowhurst, who’s now 24. In 2017, shortly after she was on the show, Crowhurst was arrested and charged in connection with drunken driving. “I think I can say honestly that I didn’t even recognize myself and I had to change my life and my lifestyle to find myself again and make myself in a much more happy place, which I am now. It can have a really ill effect on your mental health.”
Is she glad she went on the show? “Yes and no,” she says. “I would say it was a really good experience for me, but I think it had quite a negative impact on me as a person.”
On the surface, there are a lot of reasons the show has been successful. The compressed, real-life format of the show is part of its appeal. “Love Island” airs five nights a week, with each episode airing only a day after it’s filmed, so there’s a sense of immediacy. The stakes feel higher because viewers know the footage hasn’t been sitting around in a studio’s editing bay for months. Similarly, the U.S. version will air five nights per week for five weeks.
“Reality shows have become very regimented, and therefore the experience of certain shows has become very predictable,” says David Eilenberg, executive producer of the CBS series and chief creative officer of ITV America. “ ‘Love Island’ really blows that apart.” The story is dictated by what actually happens, rather than a specific format. “It’s really produced like a soap,” he adds. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen in any given episode, or even in any given act.”
Erin Riley, who watches in the United States via Hulu, says she’s not usually a fan of reality TV, but she’s hooked on “Love Island.” “I feel like I’m going through the contestants’ journey along with them — seeing challenges, re-couplings and breakups almost in real time instead of three months later after producers have chopped up the footage to edit the story lines. It seems a little bit more realistic than other dating shows.”
There’s also an aspect of getting away from an increasingly negative news cycle. “It is extremely easy and entertaining watching,” says Edward Morris, a fan from London who has watched every season. “It is an escapism from what is a pretty depressing time: Brexit, austerity, Trump, to name a few.”
Like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” “Love Island” is often dinged for its lack of diversity. Contestants represent only a small subset of society. They’re typically tanned, skinny and blonde, a look that doesn’t quite translate into real life. (Crowhurst is quick to acknowledge that the Islanders spend a lot of their time in the villa working out.) Earlier this year actress Jameela Jamil tweeted at British “Love Island” host Caroline Flack that “the show would be even better with diversity.”
In Britain, ITV has defended its choices. In May, creative director Richard Cowles told the press that diversity is “not at the front” of the studio’s mind when casting. “We’re not saying that everyone that’s in there is how you’re supposed to look,” he said. “We’re saying here’s a group of people that we want to watch for eight weeks, and we want to watch them fall in love.”
ITV America says it’s focusing on regional diversity, as well as physical, racial and socioeconomic diversity. The initial U.S. cast, announced July 1, includes 11 contestants ages 21 to 29, with some level of racial diversity, although not a lot of different body types appear to be represented.
“The people who come on the show should represent what America looks like and what it’s going to continue to look like,” Eilenberg says. The CBS version will remain true to the British version, with a few tweaks to deal with U.S. broadcasting content parameters, which presumably means less skin.