By February 2020, it looked like we were witnessing Love Island’s death rattle. After airing its first ever winter season – a move that was widely criticised – viewer numbers started to plummet. The winter debut episode (12 January) was the first in Love Island history to receive fewer viewers than the season before. Its finale (23 February) lost a staggering 1 million viewers compared to its summer season.
A Love Island in the dead of winter fundamentally misunderstood why people watch the show, but its fall in the ratings appeared to be due to something bigger: fatigue with the franchise. The spike in “sponcon” (sponsored content) in the villa gave it an air of being nothing more than an islander-to-influencer pipeline; the show felt increasingly hollow. In 2019, I even called that year’s series the worst season ever. By the time it was announced that it wouldn’t air in summer 2020, it was hard to tell if the decision was because of pandemic logistics or if ITV needed time to figure out the problem.
For the last year and a bit, we have been living in something akin to a sensory deprivation floatation pod. Our pleasure synapses have shrivelled during this pandemic; depression levels have soared. We have tried our best to tough it out and follow lockdown rules without our usual comforts. Our need for some form of release has never been higher, and so: the prospect of spending six hours a week living vicariously through a hot, responsibility-free summer? With all this pent-up desperation, it seems like a fever dream. This year’s Love Island is going to be feral.
On the day the new season was announced, fans went wild on social media. Listening to the synthy hook of the theme tune brought on chills. Even hearing less-than-beloved-narrator Iain Stirling’s voice again brought on a pang of pre-pandemic nostalgia. On Twitter – the show’s spiritual home – fresh tweets appear multiple times a minute commenting on the delicious torment of waiting, after all this time, for another season to begin. While there is the planned Love Island PR frenzy ahead of each new season, this time it is old clips and nostalgic tweets that are going viral – not tabloid articles about the new islanders. The atmosphere online is similar to the days before a World Cup, or teenage jitters before a dance. It’s an anxious, spring-loaded excitement – full of hope that whatever is about to come is the most intense experience of the year.
It’s not just the audience who are feeling the effects of the pandemic. The particular anticipation for this season is also thanks to the islanders having been through all this, too. Their VTs are distinctly post–pandemic: displays of the kind of rusty social skills that can lead to overly open admissions (unlike the manicured, glitzy first clips we’ve seen in years past). One islander, Liberty, described her type as “commitment issues”; another, Aaron, spoke about ripping farts. Kaz referred to herself as “a little bit toxic”, while Jake opened with “I like sucking toes”, describing his type as “… little feet, because I have a massive foot fetish”.
All this throws the ethical considerations that surround Love Island into a new light. When we last had a season of Love Island, the show came under heavy fire. Until the 2018 season, the production appeared to have very lax aftercare for its ex-islanders, and two contestants died by suicide – Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis – in the space of a year. The winter season of the show was darkened by the death of ex-presenter Caroline Flack. While significant improvements seem to have been made (2019 runner-up Molly-Mae Hague regularly complains on her YouTube channel that she still get weekly calls from the aftercare team), it’s hard to see how a show that deliberately breeds conflict can ever say it truly has its stars’ best interests at heart.
A new ethical problem may present itself as this season rages on: that viewers are more online than ever, watching a show already notorious for its brutal fans. It’s a cliché to mention how a lack of face-to-face interaction in the pandemic has eroded our compassion and kindness online, but our first pandemic Love Island may take this into genuinely new territory. Love Island commentary, throughout the show and even after airing, has always been known for its particular brand of cruelty. With fans already feeling more excited than they ever have for a new season, it’s likely that emotions will be higher, creating a merciless digital space.
Of course, all of this excitement may come crashing down once the show begins. The first few episodes are often the most boring; new viewers may be left disappointed if the reality doesn’t live up to the overwhelming hype. But part of what makes Love Island reliably engaging is that the producer’s “invisible hand” will likely move the narrative to suit the audience’s wants, even if it’s a twisted version of reality.
For years, we have lamented Love Island as commercialised and insincere: full of manufactured plotlines and islanders faking it to score brand deals. Maybe, in 2019, that was a reason to stop watching. But after the past 15 months: who actually cares? Does it matter if it’s real, when you’ve been kept from experiencing the highs of freedom, carelessness, or drama without global, life-threatening consequences? We have now recognised there’s value in trash for the sake of trash. And after a year of being so good, shouldn’t we get to enjoy something a little bad?