A cruelty-free Love Island? Impossible

The reality show struck gold by appealing to viewers’ worst instincts. Now it wants to protect contestants’ wellbeing. Can it do both?

Love Island is finally back – and this year it’s fair trade and cruelty-free. The ITV dating show returns to our screens on Monday after a hiatus occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, and producers are promising that this year’s run will be the most ethical ever. Some doubted the show would ever return after the tragic suicides of presenter Caroline Flack and former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis.

The bikini-clad babes and shirtless hunks entering this year’s villa will have undergone stringent checks to assess whether they are emotionally and mentally resilient enough to take part in the show, while infographics aired on-screen will remind viewers to “think before they post” about the stars on social media in the hope of discouraging trolling. During filming there will be a welfare team on set, while contestants will also be offered comprehensive psychological support on exiting the villa, in addition to social media and financial management training.

It is laudable that Love Island bosses are seeking to improve the support packages they offer contestants on such a high-profile (and profitable) show. But their efforts ignore one fundamental truth: you can’t make reality TV ethical and entertaining. Trying to make Love Island responsibly is like enlisting PETA to run a bear pit: they’ll do it, but it will be a snoozefest.

We watch Love Island because it appeals to our worst instincts. Chiefly: a desire to mock people, cringe at their dating mishaps, gawk at their overfilled lips and grimace in revulsion when they profess undying love for each other. (The last episodes of Love Island are always boring because the contestants are loved up.) Love Island is all fire and rage under a beating Balearic sun. It is women lustily splashing cocktails in their love rivals’ faces and men in white jeans gaslighting their ex-girlfriends on patio decking.

All of this is to say that, regrettably, Love Island is doomed. As a longtime fan and scholar of the show, I take no pleasure in this. Love Island has given me both a personal repertoire of in-jokes (I like to impersonate Curtis Pritchard when asking for a coffee), and some of the most fulfilling and inane journalism of my career. But doomed it is.

The formula of Love Island has ever been thus: a lovelorn romantic sobs into her Russian volume XL full set after being mugged off by a topless man in shorts that stop mid-thigh; a woman with terrifyingly voluminous hair smirks on a beanbag with the aforementioned man in thigh shorts; a semi-professional footballer barks “I just want to get to know you” at a woman in a kaftan and cork wedges; said woman simpers back at him through gritted veneers, thinking of the charcoal toothpaste deal. On and on it goes, each year a new cohort to be ejected into Z-list celebrity status.

Like a medieval morality play, Love Island demands unambiguous villains (the beanbag smirker; the thigh-short-wearing mugger) and heroes (the lovelorn romantic, the semi-pro footballer). It does not require that we pause the show’s 15-second edit of a two-hour argument to appreciate both parties’ point of view. What, is the British public meant to embrace nuance now?

Moreover, Love Island now carries such a tragic history that any misstep risks mass-condemnation from concerned viewers. The producers know this, which is why they’ve been heavily briefing the press about their safety measures, in the hope of staving off the inevitable social media backlash that will take place when one contestant is moderately cruel to another, as reality TV contestants are wont to do. Already the show has come under fire for failing to cast a more diverse range of body types. (This seems unfair — I spied men with both six-packs and eight-packs in the lineup.) Further criticism seems inevitable.

As a result, what we can expect from Love Island is a complex game of 4D chess, in which producers try to pre-empt every conceivable negative outcome on social media. Where every argument is flattened by producers careful to be fair to both parties. Where sober contestants respect each other’s opinions instead of screaming at each other across a fire pit, five cocktails deep. In other words, what we can expect is for Love Island to get boring.

In all honesty, I think it’s for the best. I feel conflicted about my consumption of reality TV, in much the same way that I feel guilty about eating meat. I’m just not sure you can make the sausage ethically. And a meat-free reality TV burger – well, it’s just not the same. Because no matter what safeguards you put in place or how fair you are to people in the edit, there’s very little that can truly prepare a previously unknown 21-year-old for the experience of exiting the villa as a national celebrity. In a recent interview, Sophie Gradon’s mother Deborah said as much. “They don’t understand how much the overnight fame and the trolling can affect them,” she told the Sunday Mirror. “They should walk away, before it’s too late.”

I suspect this season of Love Island will be one of its last. For a while, it was the best thing on TV. But there’s too much painful history now for us to ever enjoy another epic mugging off. Kingdoms rise and fall, and perhaps one day producers will evolve an iteration of reality TV that truly is cruelty-free. But until then, we’ll always have our Love Island water bottles, to remind us of the good times.

Love Island returns on Monday at 9pm on ITV2


Sirin Kale

The GuardianTramp

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