Love Island: Reality TV contestants are extremely 'savvy' about self performance
As reality TV turns 20, one show rules them all - a bunch of horny men and women are invited to an island to couple up and find love. It's cheap, it's nasty but above all it's gripping television
What goes on in it? Is it not just people shagging on telly?" So goes the poor, ignorant battle cry of those who have thus far failed to succumb to Love Island's charms.
The ITV 2 show (broadcast a day behind in Ireland on 3e) has built an almost feverish following this year, with its 9pm air time frantically anticipated each night. Yes, it's on every single night. For two months.
The premise? A hoard of tanned, attractive, single twenty-something strangers enters a Mallorcan villa in the hopes of finding their one true love, or at the very least hoping to catapult themselves into that elusive sixteenth minute of fame.
They couple up and 'recouple' at the whim of the producers, as people are 'dumped' from the island and replaced with a new set of tanned abs. Ultimately the winning pair will share a prize of £50,000 or one can opt to take the whole lot, leaving the other empty-handed. Gotta love a last-minute twist. Love Island is heterosexual to a fault, preposterous in the extreme, and some of the most gripping telly I've seen in a while.
Critics may call it the final frontier in reality TV, and say that by placing singletons in a house together with the sole aim of getting them to rub up against each other for millions of sitting room voyeurs we have reached the end of the line when it comes to good taste. But what Love Island is doing is succeeding in a saturated market where everyday Joes and Josephines are willing to sing whatever and take off whatever in order to get some screen time.
The Love Island action swings from couple to couple, their plotlines lasting a day or two before a new drama overtakes the villa. Major happenings from a week ago are already forgotten. Islanders who got the boot early in the series are now but a distant memory. Of course, there are a dozen dramas happening at any one time, but we only get to see the ones the producers have weeded out and shaped for us, distilling 24 hours down into one delicious nightly episode.
We've been through the many ups and downs of the coupling of diminutive Essex hairdresser Kem and his 'pocket rocket' partner Amber. He's a puppy dog, a clown and he's never been in love before. Sure, we're eating out of his hand. Then there's Montana, a self-assured beauty and a favourite to win, who took her time in coupling up but is now solid with her six foot something beau Alex. He's boring but we're rooting for Queen Montana, so he can stay. Villain Jonny, one of the latest casualties of the villa, went quickly out of favour when he dared to mess with Disney princess Camilla in favour of Tyla, who was more "his type". Camilla once went out with Prince Harry, don't you know? Her heart has since been mended, with the salve coming in the form of Christ-like Calvin Klein model Jamie.
As reality TV goes, there's nothing particularly ground breaking about Love Island. It's formulaic and exists in what Professor Annette Hill, lecturer in Media and Communication at Sweden's Lund University calls the genre's "creative stagnation". Professor Hill, who's also authored a book called Reality TV, maintains that the success of a format where "real people co-produce and perform entertainment" is also its downfall as the media becomes "saturated with people performing themselves". What Love Island has on its side though, is that its residents are performing their hearts out.
Reality TV of course has its roots in… reality. Professor Helen Wood, head of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester explains that reality TV saves money. Shows that present "ordinary people on TV" are cheaper to produce, and that money can be spent on "investment in editing teams to create narratives".
It started with larking about with the unsuspecting public on candid camera shows. Then came the BBC's The Family, America's Cops, and MTV's The Real World. In 1999 Big Brother hit screens in Holland for the first time and it was the format heard around the world. In the US Laguna Beach and The Hills saw rich kids work with loose scripts, while on Jersey Shore they were less rich and the scripts weren't the only things that were loose. More recently in the UK The Only Way Is Essex and Geordie Shore created countless tabloid stars.
We've seen celebrities eating kangaroo balls in a weird pseudo jungle setting in Australia, we've watched Simon Cowell send cameras into the homes of singing teens to glean their sob stories, we've gasped while Nasty Nick shocked us with shady antics that seem startlingly innocent in 2017.
When the first Big Brother sex scene happened in the UK it was between teens Jade and Tommy, taking part in an experimental week-long 'educational' version of the show. People were shocked. Debates raged. Knickers were twisted. And then people continued to have sex on reality TV.
And they continue to have sex on Love Island. At least four of the couples have done the deed, many of them multiple times. What we're shown, though, is carefully controlled, with producers saying they don't want sex to be the focus of the show. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said that it's had more complaints about the prevalence of cigarette smoking than any sexual activity. It doesn't stop minor furores erupting about the televised duvet diving, of course, but it goes some way to reassure viewers that they're not just watching ITV-sanctioned porn.
The Love Island sex is integral to the narrative, rather than the main selling point. When Kem and Amber scooted desperately around the villa on an amusing hunt for a secluded spot, we laughed and wished them well. Amber's mother Sue Davies has said that she has no issue with her daughter's behaviour, telling The Sun that she's "incredibly proud of her".
That comment may ring uneasy with some readers, but elsewhere, it is refreshing that nobody's being shamed for their behaviour on the show. Gabby's not having sex and nobody cares. Amber's having loads of sex and nobody cares. Montana finally had sex and everyone was delighted for her for a second and now… nobody cares.
Professor Wood points out that both audiences and contestants are extremely "savvy and knowledgeable about the modes of self-performance", even when it comes to sex. The appeal of Love Island comes when the performance unravels. The spontaneous volley of screams and whoops when Camilla told the girls about her first night alone with Jamie (they didn't have sex, FYI) was one of the most strangely heartening things my Trump-addled eyes had seen in a while. They were truly delighted for her, and by extension, so were we. She didn't get the ride on telly yet, but we're hoping she does.