Dr Alex suckles loudly on an ice lolly. “I like cars,” he whimpers, a drop of sugary green juice probing its way down his chin. The girl he’s talking to smiles and nods. “Oh really?” she asks, visibly more interested in the far superior banter occurring by the beanbags. The camera cuts elsewhere. Everyone watching will likely have been on at least one end of this conversation before: hopelessly flirting with someone who regards your eager face with a coroner’s gaze, or being on the receiving end of some chat that’s so abhorrent you can feel your bones ache as they describe their favourite podcast to you.
Herein lies the appeal of Love Island: it is relatable. Not passively relatable like a tired meme, but shockingly, viscerally relatable. It cuts straight to the very core of your being as you watch the entire spectrum of romantic emotion play out between 20-something 20-somethings and, whether you like it or not, you start recognising yourself in them. Not in their already-doing-sponsored-Instagram-posts good looks or their expertly sculpted bodies, but in their unfaltering, endlessly hopeful, and often embarrassing pursuit of love.
“You can’t usually watch yourself fingering your girlfriend for the first time on your TV , and there isn’t usually a Scottish man telling jokes over the top of it”
Despite the incredibly superficial nature of the show (and some of its contestants) there are people on there who are genuinely wanting to find love, and that is a far more endearing motivation than those of participants on other reality TV shows. Of course, it doesn’t reflect the world of dating whatsoever. You can’t usually watch yourself fingering your girlfriend for the first time on your TV a month after it’s happened, and there isn’t usually a Scottish man telling jokes over the top of it, and you aren’t usually three beds away from Danny Dyer’s daughter. But, usually, you do feel similar emotions to the islanders. And for these reasons, we start to care about what happens to them.
When the producers of Love Island made Dani Dyer cry, Ofcom received 650 complaints. This kind of thing doesn’t happen often in other reality TV shows. In 2010, when Gillian McKeith went on I’m A Celebrity, the public hounded her. We rejoiced in torturing her, day after day, trial after trial, kangaroo testicle after kangaroo testicle, until she passed out in the Australian dirt. “Kill her!” the synchronous voice of the public shouted, feverishly dialling the McKeith-specific phone number. “We want this woman to literally die on live television!” Yet as soon as we see lovely Dani Dyer in tears because the producers showed her an out-of-context video, we’re typing out our emails of complaint, arguing that toying with Dani’s mental health like that is irresponsible and immoral.
“Perhaps we’d have more sympathy [with other shows] if we knew what it was like to be buried with 12 pythons”
However, this isn’t entirely surprising. We can sympathise with Dani, a nice girl who has clearly been treated terribly in the past, as she is forced to watch her partner do something which could be construed as unfaithful. A lot of people watching will have been in a similar position and know how it feels. But when we see Gillian McKeith, a celebrity, who has made her career by telling everyone to eat some more fucking lentils, we instantly want her to be buried underground with 12 pythons. Perhaps we’d have more sympathy if we knew what it was like to be buried with 12 pythons, but since we don’t, we look forward to her getting zero stars and heading out to eat some worms with Shaun Ryder the following morning.
Love Island is enjoyable for all the normal reality TV reasons: the petty arguments, the manufactured drama, the ritualistic dumping of contestants. But it’s also enjoyable because it has a heart. It may be a tiny heart, obscured by meaningless night-vision-shagging and inevitable club appearances, but by the end of the series, a handful of couples seem to have found a genuine connection, and it allows for a rare moment in the cynical world of reality television where what we’re being shown is pure unadulterated warmth.