Love Island: the show that’s fake and knows it

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I have inadvertently watched most of Love Island. It’s not something we have watched before, but Ruth wanted to give it a go to see what the fuss was about. My former self would be extremely disappointed with this decision. But then my former self had not yet enjoyed the sugary emotional hit of a perfectly engineered reality game show.

It’s addictive, compelling. The morning after each episode, I tell myself not again tonight, as if I’ve been on a drinking bender. I won’t do it again, I say, but inevitably I once again take to the metaphorical bottle.

What I could not have known before watching the show is that it would be so fascinating, such a rich source of material. Though I am ashamed to admit I have consumed so much of this trash, if I can still get a half decent reflective long-read out of it and maybe a couple of poems, then it will have been worthwhile. So here goes.

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the personalities and the romantic ups and downs of the show. Is Michael all snake? Are Maura and Curtis actually suited to each other? Will Molly-Mae and Tommy make it last on the outside? How can Jordan have his head turned two days after asking Anna to be his girlfriend? These are not the questions I will answer, just so we’re clear.

I’ll start where everyone starts: it’s all fake. Even ardent fans of the show will point that out. Recently, there has even been suggestion that producers have taken cast members aside and encouraged them to speed up certain storylines or stir up the conflict. This piece from the Independent reveals just how unlike reality the villa really is, with no reading material, no television, cooked dinners, and certain topics off limits. The extent of this constructed reality boggles the mind.

We know it’s fake, that the entire show is set up and manipulated to give us the interpersonal drama that we crave. But audiences have been watching reality TV for decades now. Just because it’s set up doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. Think of the Kardashians or Made In Chelsea. Whenever I’ve caught a glimpse of these, the clunkiness of dialogue and supposedly natural interactions makes me cringe, like watching amateur stand up comics that just aren’t that funny. This doesn’t seem to affect the shows’ popularity.

Well, not everything is faked. Most of it is, but the real reason we come back time and again is for that tiny shard of what is real: how people react, their emotions, their feelings. That’s what we watch for, because that is all that remains once you have built the physical environment, confined them to it, sent them on set up dates, provided them with challenges to keep the action moving along. The aim is to get real people to do real things under controlled circumstances.

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I’ve noticed in the past few months that advertisers are getting into new kinds of savvy. Adverts draw attention to the fact that they are adverts. They incorporate the physical space where they appear into the meaning they create and project. “This is an advert”, plastered black on white across a double decker bus was promoting the Postmodern IPA from Brewdog. Or Subway’s new campaign about the number of ingredients that you can add to your sub, which is supposedly longer than the bus on which the advert appeared.

In doing so, advertisers are disarming our previous exposure to hundreds of thousands of adverts. We’ve been living in the heyday of consumerism for quite some time now, and companies know that. They include a hyper-reflexive attitude into the advert itself. These are not just ads, but ads that know and show that they are ads.

It seems that Love Island has taken on the same kind of reflexivity. The narration from Ian Stirling regularly draws attention to the fakeness of the show. He de-glamourises the show in commenting on the use of particular stock footage. An image of a swollen moon through some palm trees was reused from the second season, he tells us off-handedly.

This is the kind of nudging and winking that keeps the show alive, despite the widely accepted knowledge that there is hardly anything authentic about Love Island. The producers find increasingly more subtle ways to say, “we know you know this is a show, but don’t let that put you off. Don’t worry, we’re not trying to trick you.” It operates as a new authenticity, where the producers accept and openly acknowledge the unreality of the world the have created in order to side with the viewers. Those little moments when we are permitted to look behind the curtain, to see the workings or be reminded that we are watching the television, those are the faux-authentic moments that help us suspend our disbelief. “Hey, we know this isn’t real either.”

Real or not, genuine or inauthentic, it hardly makes a difference considering the millions of people who regularly tune in. I may watch ironically or with a view to writing an intellectualised blog piece, but as far as the ratings matter I show up just like any other sucker watching Love Island.

Perhaps one of the most absurd narratives of the show is that it’s fundamentally about love. The £50,000 cash prize is almost entirely glossed over, as if the individuals aren’t part of a massive game show. It makes you wonder if the producers have banned contestants (euphemistically called islanders) from talking about the money.

In any case, the set up of Love Island is not to help individuals to find love, or to give them the opportunity to win a jackpot. The point of Love Island is to keep you hooked and keep you watching adverts for as long as possible. For the first episode of this series, 3.7 million viewers tuned in live and a further half million watched on ITV hub, which amounts to 18.5% of total TV viewers at the time. Uber Eats paid £5 million to be the official sponsor, and the show is littered with product placement.

Should the islanders not find love or even win the cash prize, there is the world of endorsements, branding, sponsorship, and a stint in the lucrative limelight of instant celebrity waiting on the other side. It is as if the show never really stops. The stories, the drama, the public scrutiny, the press interest all continue after the winners have been announced.

The line between television and reality, between fantasy and life is blurred to the point that real life is tainted. Love Island and shows like it have in some way come to replace reality with television. After all, it is what it is.