Love Island: the tired TV behemoth that’s lost its magic

As another series of the reality hit comes to an end – complete with a boring win by Liam and Millie – are its contestants merely going through the motions in search of Insta-fortune?

In recent years, Love Island has become as ingrained in the British calendar as April showers in spring, and that sludgy stuff that appears in the road when cars drive over fallen leaves in autumn. Love Island is summer, summer is Love Island and – as all seasonal phenomena must – it drew to a close last night. Deflate your novelty doughnut-shaped rubber ring; hang your bikini over a chair to finally dry.

The thing about events that come around every year, however, is that while they’re sometimes comforting, they can also be boring. Last night, denied of the banter outcome (that is, a win by Chloe Burrows and Toby Aromolaran, a couple with the delightful, fizzy energy of two Beroccas dissolving in the same glass), we instead looked on politely as Liam Reardon and Millie Court were crowned the winners of Love Island 2021, the prosaic prom king and queen of the villa.

As usual, the couple shared the £50,000 prize money, and Love Island 2021 ended with the whimper of predictability in its ears. It has been a problem throughout the season, from the challenges (if fans are moaning that a task wherein contestants spit sauce into each other’s mouths has become par for the course, surely there’s something wrong), to the fact that contestants themselves are now all too conscious of what awaits them in the outside world – valuable brand deals, celebrity treatment – if only they can stay on TV long enough.

Self-awareness on reality TV can be a good thing – it can provide storylines and humour – but it can also take away the authenticity and spontaneity that makes the medium so exciting (the nation raised its collective eyebrows this year, as Jake Cornish asked Liberty Poole to be his girlfriend just under four weeks into the series, giving her a bracelet he’d brought into the villa with him.) Coupled with the fact that unlike its antecedent Big Brother, Love Island’s format rarely changes, there was often a strong sense that everyone in the villa was just going through the motions.

‘The rightful winning couple’ ... friends Liberty Poole and Kaz Kamwi.
‘The rightful winning couple’ ... friends Liberty Poole and Kaz Kamwi. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s a shame because, at its best, Love Island is still compelling viewing, reflecting heterosexual mores through the funhouse mirror of the impossibly attractive. It is still frequently entertaining to watch contestants spend all day talking about their relationships despite only having been in them for a week, while wearing elaborate swimwear and showing off abs that look as though they’ve been painted on. When the cast give themselves over to the experience (which to their credit is often), it’s there that pockets of magic are found, even this year.

There was the aforementioned Toby as the world’s most confused philanderer, winner Liam roleplaying as a dad during the baby challenge by asking everyone “How’s your mother?” like he’d just bumped into them at Tesco and – of course – the deep and tender friendship between Kaz Kamwi and Liberty Poole (the rightful winning couple), the latter of whom left the villa with days to go, announcing that while her relationship had broken down, she had found real love – self-love – in the villa.

Viewers are perceptive – we want to invest in the contestants and their relationships, and it’s instances like all of the above that help us to do that. But we too are so aware of Love Island’s behemothic status and everything that surrounds it, that the show can seem like a victim of its own success.

That said, don’t expect to see Love Island going away anytime soon. When a programme has achieved cultural phenomenon status, it’s tough for execs to wave goodbye to it, even when it’s no longer at the height of its powers (look how long Big Brother ran past its prime). And, despite the issues that have plagued the show, ITV seems determined that Love Island will ride again. For years, there have been consistent concerns around race and diversity during casting, plus the sustained harassment of contestants (including racist abuse and death threats) via social media. Add to this a record 25,000 Ofcom complaints this year, declining viewing figures, and the growing, irksome sense that the show’s makers want things both ways, telling viewers to “be kind” via online posts – while courting and stoking controversy on camera – and there are plenty of factors that would derail any other reality series.

However, they don’t seem likely to stop the Love Island train from leaving the station, at least for now. Indeed, host Laura Whitmore announced during last night’s final that applications for next year’s instalment are open on ITV’s website. Let’s just hope that next time, the show’s makers nurture its magic.


Lauren O'Neill

The GuardianTramp

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