Love Island: dystopian breeding camp or romantic TV idyll?

Craig is in love with love island and he doesn't care who knows it. Here's why he thinks it's the best thing on TV...

Yeah. I know what you’re thinking already. I have to admit, I never thought I’d watch Love Island either. I knew the premise and it sounded weird. Creepy even. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a reboot of the cringe-tastic Celebrity Love Island show from the mid-2000s, but with regular people. It’s recently started its third season and its popularity is at an all-time high, rising from 0.46 million viewers in 2015 to 1.96 million last week.

The idea is simple. They take a group of beautiful young people, stick them in a Majorcan villa for a few months, film them daily and encourage them to “couple up”. Each week, they “recouple” (often not with the same person they were previously with) and a contestant who is not “coupled up” will be “dumped” and sent home from the island. New (equally young and beautiful) contestants are brought in regularly  to increase the temptation to uncouple but, to make it more dramatic, even those who stay in their pairs remain at risk of surprise dumpings based on viewer votes or democratic decisions of the other islanders. The couple that survives a whole summer of this and stays loved up will win the game and a £50,000 prize.

It sounds bad, right? Like some kind of ruthless dating Hunger Games or, at worst, a dystopian breeding camp designed to weed out the weak and ensure only the strongest, most popular couple can procreate. I kind of wanted to hate-watch it, just to see how sinister it would be, but far from being the Orwellian porn ordeal I expected, I was instantly hooked. Three episodes in and I was at the point where I actively wanted to cancel plans so I could stay in and watch it. Several weeks now into the season and I’m not even feeling guilty about it being the best time I’ve had with a television set all year. Quite simply, I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.

The premise is a blend of three tried and tested reality formats, with the classic Big Brother model providing the foundation. This is the ultimate in compelling voyeurism and the summer-long runtime ensures they soon forget the cameras are even on them (an innocence that’s been lost in this post-TOWIE “scripted reality” age). Adding the thrills of a dating gameshow takes it to the next level. I freely admit I’m the kind of hopeless romantic who even watches something as cynical as Take Me Out in the hope that they’ll find The One and there’s an undeniable excitement when those initial sparks fly. Everyone loves to be in love and it’s great to watch it happen. But the final, crucial ingredient is, of course, the scenery. There’s a long-running genre of sun, sex and sand shows, from Ibiza Uncovered to Ibiza Weekender, and it’s hard to resist blue skies, shimmering pools, cocktails in every hand and, of course, perennial swimwear. Especially if you’re from Britain, where these things are all rare and exotic.

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Still, no format is foolproof. A show is only as strong as its characters but Love Island is full of great ones that you want to spend time with. In the wake of the notorious torture of I’m A Celebrity, humiliation and Grand Guignol extremity has crept into reality shows and this has killed the appeal of just enjoying people being people. They push the contestants so hard with claustrophobic conditions or gruelling tasks where they’re gargling fish-guts that you end up with a house full of broken souls screaming at each other, which is exhausting to watch and makes them all seem terrifying. Love Island’s not like that. There’s inherent drama within the game but they allow it to just evolve organically and the majority of this year’s Islanders, I’d happily go for a drink with.

Like many viewers this year, I was initially drawn in by Camilla (27), who works in explosive ordnance disposal, which is one of the coolest jobs on the planet. She’s erudite yet shy, posh in a self-deprecating way and basically the People’s Princess. She had instant mutual attraction with Jonny (28), a globe-trotting company director, and all looked set for a fairytale ending… until they came to blows over, of all things, their interpretations of gender equality. It was a weird, wonderful moment, watching Camilla confidently school an entire nation on the tenets of feminism while Jonny simmered, realising the error of his ways but letting pride stand in the way of an apology. Still, after two awkward days of blanking each other, it was hard not to be moved when Jonny then saved now-single Camilla from being dumped off the island by recoupling with her instead of his other option, a perky Brummie student with the craziest name on the island – Tyne-Lexy (20). Such is the emotional rollercoaster. They’re now tentatively back together for good and, somehow, it’s adorable.

The big storyline so far though is the love triangle between motorsport grid girl Olivia (26), “golf clothing ambassador” Chris (24) and pro footballer Mike (24). Chris and Olivia were developing something but then newbie Mike walked in and suddenly her attentions were all on his six pack and dreamy eyes. Mike then “mugged off” Chris by coupling up with Olivia, earning himself the nickname Muggy Mike. In a shocking twist, the mugger ended up the muggee as Olivia then spent the next few days ignoring him and sneaking off to see Chris. Muggy Mike was having none of it (especially when Olivia’s excuses got so bad she blamed “the small corridors” for why she had to “accidentally” bump into Chris and start kissing him) but he had no chance to couple with someone else as he was voted off in a surprise dumping session that meant his stay on the island lasted only a few days. Still, his professional Wikipedia entry has already been changed to include “Muggy” under “full name” so I have a feeling he’ll remember it for a while…

While all this is exciting soap opera stuff, some of the biggest characters are the ones with the least drama. Marcel (31) is an ex member of Blazin’ Squad who could be best described as an “absolute boy”. Everyone needs a Marcel in their life to be their best friend and I wish he was mine. He’s super-chill all the time, never lets himself be riled by anything that’s going on around him, is always there with a hug for anyone feeling blue (you can bet his arms feel like duvets) and he’s from the Derek Zoolander school of being really, really ridiculously good looking. He’s currently coupled up with fitness instructor Gabby (25) but, just between you and me (and don’t tell anyone I said this), I’m not sure it’ll last…

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Of course I do love a good gossip, as you’ve probably noticed, and that’s one reason why executive assistant Chloe (22) was my favourite Islander. Unfortunately, she got dumped on Monday night, leaving me bereft and more emotionally wracked than a dozen Red Weddings ever could. She’s a gossip queen and while Twitter haters may have branded her a “snake” for this, it’s never malicious and she was always loyal to her friends in the villa, taking everything in her stride. Her occasional delight in schadenfreude (shown with a sly smile that’s already launched a thousand gifs) was nothing if not relatable and, while she wasn’t able to find a man on the island (I blame the quality of men), she was easily the heart of the show. The fact that she was saved from dumping multiple times, with both Marcel and Jonny saying they “couldn’t live without her as a friend” on the island speaks volumes about her place in the show and it’ll suffer without her. As the eye on everything that’s happening, she was more or less Love Island’s one-woman Greek chorus and always there with a whipsmart, hilarious quip. If I’m honest, I have a little crush on her myself.

But that’s the thing with Love Island – there’s so much love in the air, you’d have to be a monster to not find it a little contagious, and the online fandom confirms this. Every night when the show airs, the Twitter hashtag bursts with declarations of undying love, outrageous indignation and hysterically funny memes. The show has developed its own lexicon, from the hilariously persistent employment of youthspeak like “mugged off”, “pied off” and “absolute melt” to the bizarre eggs-in-baskets euphemism that’s grown and grown (“Let’s just say, I’d put maybe seven of my eggs in her basket and maybe keep three spare”), it’s all prime material for memes and gags. There’s even a Facebook page (Love Island Reactions) devoted to them.

As a reality show, it’s unflinchingly honest sometimes and often defies the expectations of gender stereotypes. Here, you’ll find men openly talking about their feelings and admitting, like careers advisor Dom (26) did when his glamour model partner Jess (23) got voted out, that his family won’t be surprised to see him cry “because they know I’m sensitive”. None of the boys are shy about opening up emotionally but coming from a hulking beefcake covered in tattoos, it’s unexpected and refreshing. As is the candid sex talk from both men and women. It’s great to see it discussed openly, frankly, with good humour and in a positive way.

And that’s Love Island all over. Far from being the gross and sordid thing I’d expected, it’s a super positive show. It makes its contestants look for the best in one another, because the idea is not to judge, but to fall in love. To look at the people you’re with and think “what do I really like about them? What do we have in common? Can this work?” Sometimes that’s a challenge. Just witness student Montana (20) trying to see the best in oil rig worker Sam (21) even though he’s quite gropey and covered in questionable body art (“he has a tattoo of a woman crying tears of his blood on his leg for no reason! He just thinks it looks cool!”)… But isn’t it a challenge for all of us sometimes, seeing the good in people? Choosing love over hate? And maybe now more than ever, this is the show we need. I’m very much feeling the love. Now let’s all lean in for a great big sensitive Marcel hug.