Got a text. Crack on. Get pied. It is what it is.
If you haven’t been watching Britain’s hit reality TV series “Love Island,” you may be forgiven for not having a clue what we’re talking about.
But for those who make up the millions tuning in six times a week, those words and phrases should have crept into your regular vocabulary by now.
That’s because “Love Island” is a smash hit like few others. It boasts viewing figures of up to 6 million – unheard of for a show not aired on the UK’s five main terrestrial channels. The five series of the program have inspired online debate and water cooler conversations, and turned participants into overnight celebrities.
The ITV show’s popularity has meant a winter edition will be filmed from South Africa next year. There have been attempts at a US version of the show, but that project hasn’t yet found the same levels of success.
At its core, “Love Island” is a dating show. A number of contestants spend two months in a Spanish villa, with no connection to the outside world, trying to find love (or some version of it). There are break-ups, fights, re-couplings and dumpings – and a near-constant commentary on social media about each contestant’s character and motivation – before a winner is crowned. The final, on Monday evening, is expected to again draw huge audience numbers.
But while the show’s aspirational setting features bright sunshine and blue skies, its format has existed under a cloud since two former contestants died by suicide in the space of 12 months.
Then, the death of a guest on fellow ITV program “The Jeremy Kyle Show” led to that show’s cancellation – and the fallout added to questions about the welfare of reality TV stars, prompting many to ask why confrontational shows are so popular.
Eyal Booker, a contestant from “Love Island” season 4, told CNN that being on the show can be dangerous. The 23-year-old described his experience as “crazy” with “lots of ups and downs.”
Booker says he wasn’t fazed while he was on the show, being “consumed” by the action in the villa. But he admitted that the months after leaving “Love Island” were challenging. “When you come out [of the villa] it’s definitely a shock to the system.
“You have to reintegrate into society in a different way as you’re a recognized face. People think they know you – they stop you and talk to you in a way that is sometimes quite difficult to come to terms with.”
The show encourages a culture of judgment, he added. Several contestants have felt the wrath of social media for their choices in the villa – to the extent that one, Joe Garratt, reportedly was placed into a safehouse after being dumped from the show.
“You’re on a TV show so people are only going to see elements of the person that you are – their opinions and thoughts don’t define you. They don’t know the full you,” Booker said.
‘Everything about you is exposed’
The dual controversies tackled by network ITV in recent months have led some to pose questions about the welfare of reality TV contestants.
Booker acknowledged that the nature of the show doesn’t encourage much behind-the-scenes support; with contestants being filmed 24/7, show producers and support staff try to “stay out of it,” he said.
But there is “always support there if we need it,” Booker said, adding that the duty of care from the show is “high.”
“Love Island” is a good reflection of how modern love works, he believes, and the show enables a positive place to find it. “It’s a dating show that can reveal how fickle relationships can be or how amazingly strong they can be.”
But if entering the villa can be a life-altering moment for contestants, leaving it can be even more challenging.
“It’s a transition to a new life,” said Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist who advised the show in its initial series.
Ex-contestants invariably see their social media follower count skyrocket into the millions. Calendars are booked up with sponsorship events and well-paid appearances at night clubs. Tabloid newspapers follow every twist and turn of the newly formed celebrities’ private lives.
That can put added pressure on those who leave the villa as a couple. Last year’s winners, Jack Fincham and Dani Dyer, captured the hearts of the viewing public, but public appearances have dwindled since the pair split up months later.
“Everything about you is exposed,” said Zoë Bailie of the mental health support charity The Mix, which has worked with contestants after they leave the show. “People expect you to be the same person you were on the show. But how do you get back to being the real you, instead of the TV you?”
In a statement, ITV said it has boosted its duty-of-care processes for this year’s show. It said changes include “enhanced psychological support, more detailed conversations with potential Islanders regarding the impact of participation on the show, bespoke training for all Islanders on social media and financial management and a proactive aftercare package which extends our support to all Islanders following their participation.”
‘A genius format’
Equally difficult to grasp is the impact “Love Island” has on those watching – but Bailie has concerns.
The show “gives ITV an opportunity to have influence over younger viewers, who are perhaps watching relationships develop for the first time,” she said.
“But there’s a prize at the end of it, so how can you tell whether these are real feelings or not? Should anybody aspire to build a relationship so intensely and quickly? That’s probably not a healthy relationship behavior,” she added.
As well as frequent couplings and dumpings, the show features a series of X-rated challenges and its format encourages contestants to switch allegiances on a regular basis.
“They are real people, but are they living out real people’s relationships? Probably not,” Bailie said.
But the show’s enduring popularity cannot be denied. For one last time on Monday, social media will be flooded with memes, jokes and judgments as millions tune in to see a winner crowned.
And its success is easy to explain, Langcaster-James believes.
“The format of Love Island is genius,” she said. “It takes what all the other reality shows do, in terms of giving unprecented close access to people’s behaviors, people getting up and getting dressed – but it also really highlights an aspect of humanity that we’re all fascinated by – relationship twists and turns.”
And many of the conversations started by the show – even those prompted by unhealthy relationships – can have a positive impact on young viewers, she believes.
Noting the criticism of contestants “gaslighting,” or psychologically manipulating, their partners, she said: “If people behave in a way within their relationships on Love Island that isn’t healthy, there will be a big discussion about it in the media – there will be an opportunity for education there.”
And the show’s central themes – love and heartbreak – provide further education for viewers, she added.
So despite a period of uncomfortable questions and a new public reckoning about the virtues and vices of reality TV, it seems certain that “Love Island” will continue to “crack on.”