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W TV Club: Love Island UK Is Not Your Average Reality TV Binge-Watch

Senior visuals editor Oona Wally sets the record straight about “Love Island UK”—which is much more than a frivolous reality TV show.


Photo by ITV/Shutterstock

Welcome to the W TV Club, a spin-off series of W Movie Club, in which W magazine’s editors pick a season of a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch while in quarantine. This week, senior visuals editor Oona Wally sets the record straight about Love Island UK—yes, it can be perceived as a frivolous television show with the usual thrills and spills associated with reality TV. But beneath the surface, it’s much more than that.

I was introduced to Love Island UK by my good friend and fellow reality TV aficionado. We regularly debrief about 90 Day Fiancé and the Teen Mom franchises and other reality shows we watch…it’s a lifestyle, really. She relayed that Love Island UK was entertaining to her, and most importantly, that there were nearly 40 episodes per season—perfect for binging.

I was looking for a show that could either be playing in the background while I scrolled Instagram on my phone, or required my undivided attention, so this recommendation seemed to check all of the boxes. After watching a couple of episodes, I liked that this was a seemingly traditional reality show, but it wasn’t overdramatized or overproduced to create unnecessary conflict between the characters. (I find American reality to be over-the-top in this way). The complications on Love Island UK are built into the overall structure of the show; as a result, it feels like the players have more agency because they know what they’re getting into from the jump. Plus, the general idea of strangers dropped into a faraway, luxury villa and forced to date is the perfect storm for some good TV.

The idea behind Love Island is to “couple up,” whether that means finding love or creating a strategic partnership to stay in the game. The couple that wins Love Island is awarded 50,000 pounds (about $68,000), so there are both financial and emotional incentives to this game. Twelve men and women choose a partner to “couple up with” upon arriving in the villa, and they’re given opportunities as time goes on to “re-couple” if they decide they like someone else or don’t have a connection with their current mate. Meanwhile, shake-ups are frequent: new players are brought in, couples are voted off the island by the public watching and voting online, as well as their peers inside the house, the men and women are moved into new villas, and it’s all brought on by a text from some mysterious, nameless puppet master (anytime someone receives such a message, they cry out, “I’ve got a teeeeext!”).

After watching a few episodes, you can’t help but become invested and play favorites. Even after a few seasons, my overall favorite couple is Paige Turley and Finley Tapp from season six. Turley and Tapp are still together—I know this because I have a really bad habit of ruining the endings of each season by looking up players on Instagram while I’m watching the show to see what they’re up to, current-day. The fact that this pair remains “coupled up” “on the outside” is a testament to their genuine connection, forged early on in season six. Granted, Turley and Tapp were typecast from the beginning as both looking for love after living out their party days—so no dramatic shocker there—but it’s a fairy tale I can believe in. Not everyone is painted to seem earnest and playing the game for the right reasons, aka finding love. Certain characters are demonized, either by editing or by their personal downfalls and decisions. One such case is Megan Barton-Hanson, from season four. She seemingly has strong connections with a few people, going back and forth and in-between. She was being painted as sneaky, when in reality she probably was just overwhelmed and confused. I was made to see it as her being manipulative, calculated, and insincere.

Another part of the show I appreciate is the communication we see happening among the players. It’s established within the first dramatic instance in each season that since everyone is “living together in the villa,” they need to be able to talk out every conflict and squash beefs rather quickly for the sake of the whole household. I see this level of maturity when handling drama as a refreshing change to the more dramatic usual blow-ups and all-out brawls that some reality shows facilitate in one way or another (though, don’t get me wrong, I love a flipped table or a “who gon’ check me, boo” moment).

The way the players work out their differences by “pulling someone” to “have a chat” is refreshing and a more realistic approach that appeals to me. This open and sometimes brutally honest communication style reminds me of another international reality show that I love, Terrace House, which takes place in Japan.

Love Island UK is a complex show that, on the surface, seems simple and pretty basic, but once you get into a few episodes, you quickly realize there’s an interesting structure and flow to it. Plus, there’s an entire culture, language, and large fanbase surrounding it. In the UK, Love Island airs on ITV nightly—for us Americans, that means lots of episodes of this unique kind of reality program to binge-watch.

Related: W TV Club: The Real-Life, Fascinating Horrors of 90-Day Fiancé