Love Island, the new CBS version of the popular U.K. reality franchise, is much like the other entries in the long history of inescapable fictional islands (Crusoe’s island, Lost’s island, Gilligan’s Island). Maybe you were trying to get to the island on purpose. Maybe you washed up there by random chance. Regardless, once you’ve arrived, it seems like it should be relatively easy to leave, especially because life on the island is often stultifyingly boring. And yet, somehow, leaving is hard. The island pulls you in. You may be stuck there for the duration.
This is more true for Love Island’s audience than for its participants: Viewers must stay with Love Island seemingly eternally because it’s a nightly reality format, so committing to the show requires committing to hour-long episodes every weeknight. Participants are not stuck for quite as long. They’re all trapped together in a villa on Fiji, yes, but they’re also sometimes kicked off the island, especially if they fail to be in an officially designated couple by the time a “recoupling ceremony” rolls around. Eventually, the couple who makes it all the way to the end wins $100,000.
But the timing of recoupling ceremonies, and the structure for how one actually works, are designed to be a bit of a mystery. In fact, all the rules of Love Island are purposely vague. Games happen sometimes, a format the cheeky announcer readily admits “is just a reality-TV mechanism designed to reveal the islander’s deepest and dirtiest secrets.” Occasionally the islanders receive text messages informing them of things like an upcoming game, or that they get to go on a date with someone, or that a recoupling ceremony is nigh.
On the first week of Love Island, after two new male participants arrived to shake up the early established couples, they received texts informing them that America had voted: Dylan would go on a date with Alexandra, and Cormac would go on a date with Caro. Then, in the middle of that date, Dylan and Cormac received another text informing them that Alexandra and Caro would be shuffled off back to the villa, and they should each pick a new date for the rest of the evening. There was no way to know the texts would be coming when they did (although viewers did vote for the initial dating couples), no idea that the dates would be broken up midway through, no meaningful understanding of what these dates would accomplish that just hanging around the villa together wasn’t already accomplishing, and little way to predict how soon a recoupling might be coming. On the island, there’s not much to do except give yourself up to the whims of the mercurial producer-gods.
While participants wait for those whims to arrive, they do what comes naturally to a dozen hot singles trapped together in a tropical villa with plenty of alcohol but no access to the outside world. They … work out. This is not a euphemism. The trouble with the U.S. Love Island, at least so far, is that, in spite of all the pressure from unknowable producers who insert dramatic twists whenever they can, in spite of the inherent drama of being trapped together in a villa, and in spite of the most effective Love Island premise — which is that couples have to sleep in a bed together even though they barely know each other — nothing interesting happens. The betrayals are low-key. The participant who was kicked off in the first week did not seem upset. The relationships currently forming seem mostly friendly, with very little sexual tension. Every time a camera catches two people having a potentially fraught conversation, it mostly fizzles. And meanwhile, the background scenery is almost perpetually full of contestants lifting weights. That’s fine, of course — the dress code for Love Island is tiny bathing suit plus hilariously visible microphone pack, so it’s hard to blame any of them for wanting to look their best. But it adds to the sense that, like Robinson Crusoe trapped on his island for weeks on end, the real challenge of the experience is just filling the time.
Still, there is something about it, something about the insularity and banality of it all, that makes the show hard to quit. Maybe it’s the unknowability of it, the refusal to outline how any of the rules work, or to even commit to the existence of rules at all. Maybe it’s that the hot singles are all new faces, bringing with them none of the exhausting personal histories that preload the drama on Bachelor in Paradise, a similar “singles in bikinis” reality format. Maybe it’s that none of them have yet been revealed as villains. It’s boring, sure, but also after the first week no one hates each other. That’s a surprisingly rare commodity on love-based reality TV.
That may change as people get to know one another better, as feelings get stronger, and as the producers start to inevitably double down on the dramatic twists. For right now, though, the appeal of Love Island may just be that, for a show about people trapped together on a villa and forced to share beds with strangers, it’s surprisingly comforting. Are there more interesting things to watch? Sure. But is it nice to watch an unexpectedly gentle reality show about hot, superficial singles just trying their best to get along while wearing bikinis and not (as yet) being embroiled in messy, unsubstantiated sexual-assault allegations? Strangely enough, for right now, it is.