Love Island is a reality show like no other. (Well, it’s actually quite similar to America’s Bachelor in Paradise and the 2003 series Paradise Hotel, but it’s also quite different in very essential ways.) And it’s been a balm for a summer of suffering here in London. Not only has a record heat wave dried up all of the typical greenery and left people sweating profusely in their non-air-conditioned homes, but the English are still getting over having the World Cup snatched from them in the quarterfinals. Add to that the ongoing anxiety of Brexit and Teresa May’s inability to form a plan that will make literally any single member of Parliament happy, and it’s been a rough few months. But that’s okay, because we have Love Island. It seems like it might be the only thing keeping the spirits of the nation afloat.
The show starts out with five single girls, all in their 20s and all incredibly attractive in the basic sense (or “proper fit,” in the local parlance). They are then introduced to six guys who spend as much in a month on protein shakes and muscle supplements as Melania Trump spends on security and jackets with troll-y messages on the back. The five guys then couple up with the girls—it should be noted here that this show is, by and large, incredibly heteronormative—and the one guy who is without a mate at the end of a certain period is kicked out of the luxury villa in Spain where they’re housed for the duration of the show. This goes on for two months, until a winner is crowned and the couple gets to share 50,000 pounds, which, thanks to the sinking value of the post-Brexit pound, is worth about $65,000.
But things are not as simple as all that sounds. New boys and girls are introduced to the villa seemingly at random. Sometimes they come in groups of twos and threes, and sometimes they enter solo. At any time, two girls in tiny dresses covered in cheap lace (all of the clothing is provided by the unironically named MissGuided) might show up and say, “Hiya, boys,” and suddenly the hard-fought momentary ceasefire in the villa is thrown into utter turmoil as everyone scrambles to either start a new relationship or protect the one they already have.
Eliminations are carried out in a similarly random way, and are at least in part judged by the public. Sometimes it’s the one without a mate who is sent home, like a sexed-up version of musical chairs. Sometimes the Islanders get to choose based on which people are least popular with the viewing audience. Sometimes the couple is selected by the Islanders or voted off by the audience. There is no set schedule and no predictable method for when, why, and how this might happen.
The only constant is the genius—some might say utter cruelty—of the producers. At one point, in the most recent, fourth season (or “series,” as the Brits call it), which just concluded this week, the show gave the loving couple Sam and Georgia a Sophie’s choice: Either leave the show or break up and stay in the house, never able to get back together again. After initially staying, they decided to leave later that week with their love affirmed.
The cruelest twist of all is an annual tradition called Casa Amour. With six stable couples in the house, the producers told the boys they were going on a day trip. Instead, they went to the neighboring villa, Casa Amour, where there were six new girls waiting to tempt them. Meanwhile, six new guys turned up in the original villa to try to steal the “birds” away. At the end of three days (during which everyone was forced to share beds), the guys returned, some with new mates and some without, leading to at least a little bit of heartbreak for everyone involved and dropped jaws all over the nation.
What makes this show incredibly compelling and totally insane is that it is on six nights a week. Yes, you heard that correctly: six. It is on every night but Saturday, when there is a weekly highlight show that runs in its stead. On Sundays, following the episode, there is also an aftershow, à la The Talking Dead, featuring interviews with departing contestants and panelists discussing the chaos that just transpired. That means there are eight hours of Love Island a week. It becomes all-consuming, like a soap opera you tune into every day to see if super couple Jack and Dani are still together and if villainous Adam—who slagged off three girlfriends in a row when new recruits showed up—hasn’t been murdered yet.
This is English television, though, so there is something a little Great British Bake Off about it. All of the kids in the house really are “mates,” and while there are flare ups and a little bit of yelling, nothing ever gets to the level of fighting you see just at an average hungover breakfast on Jersey Shore. And there are no stakes, really. The prize money is a joke, and we all know that these relationships will last as long as a premade sandwich at Pret a Manger. But still, their lives and courting rituals are enchanting, prompting essays by popular critics like Caitlin Moran, explanations from a father watching with his teen daughter, and speculative diagnoses of the show’s allure by top academics.
Love Island is incredibly popular, clocking almost 3 million viewers an episode (in a country of only 65 million), making it the most watched show in the history of the broadcaster ITV2. This should translate into big bucks for the cast, whose Instagram followers now all hover near the one million mark. One study found that making it to the final episode could earn contestants more over the course of their lifetime than attending either Oxford or Cambridge.
Being cast on the show also gives Islanders a second life in the reality television arts and sciences, much as those who appear on MTV’s Real World graduate on to The Challenge. But reality TV in the U.K. is an entirely different and much weirder landscape. Kem Citaney and Chris Hughes, two popular dudes who had a bromance on Love Island, have had two shows of their own on ITV2. In the latest, You vs Chris & Kem, the audience comes up with challenges for the two bros, like waxing the bodies of rugby players, eating a dozen donuts faster than a champion eater, or wrestling a farmer.
There is also Ex on the Beach, in which reality stars think they’re on a dating program only to find out that the other eligible singles are all of their exes. (MTV just made a version of this in the U.S., which did acceptably well.) Some might turn up on Evil Monkeys, a show that premieres this month, in which “celebrities” (by which they mean reality show stars) are given crazy challenges by a group of actors dressed up as nefarious gorillas who are observing them. Sadly, no Love Island alums were cast on Bromans, an insane show that saw couples forced to live like ancient Roman gladiators, including making them strip entirely nude in the first episode. Maybe next season Bromans will decide to get all Love Island, when the United Kingdom needs to get over some other trauma.