In last week’s premiere episode of Love Island, the contestants are introduced to us in pre-recorded interviews where they discuss past bad relationships, ideal partners, and their hopes for finding true love. These interviews are interspersed with footage of each one, inexplicably, attempting to look sexy while laying in a ball pit that also happens to include rubber ducks. There is no discernible reason why the ball pit is necessary nor is there a way to look sultry while flailing around in one. It’s totally ridiculous, and it’s perfect.
Love Island, a compulsively watchable reality dating series, originated in the U.K. and, thanks to Hulu, has found a legion of dedicated American fans. It was only a matter of time before the series crossed the pond: last Tuesday, CBS premiered the U.S. adaptation, set to air four (!) nights a week. (CBS’ other summer reality staple, Big Brother, airs only three.) It isn’t what you call “good” television but it’s far more purely enjoyable than much scripted fare, especially because it’s self-aware enough to never aim much higher than “attractive people hooking up, arguing, and working out.” It doesn’t want to be The Bachelor, and it knows there’s more fun (and drama) to be had when all the contestants want to fuck each other, rather than competing for one person. Based on the first week, CBS’ Love Island doesn’t live up to the charm and smarm of its U.K. counterpart (especially missing are the accents, the jargon, and the gleefully groan-worthy narration from Iain Stirling) but it’s still hard to look away.
The actual conceit of the show is this: a group of “sexy singles” temporarily live in a beautiful villa and pair off into couples while attempting to find true love and/or a cash reward by the end. Frequently, new “islanders” are brought in, couples break up, new ones form, people are voted out. Every once in a while, there is a “recoupling” ceremony to shake things up. (These ceremonies, by the way, are just about the only time everyone isn’t wearing a swimsuit.) In between, they participate in “challenges” that are mostly excuses for the producers to get everyone in even less clothing than usual and to blatantly introduce drama by revealing secrets or encouraging spontaneous makeout sessions. “Truth Or Dare” is a popular game, and the producers are also fond of introducing lie detector exams. It’s all decidedly unsubtle—and slightly sociopathic—but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t. Even this simplistic description is too complex for Love Island: the highlight is watching them all interact with each other via painfully awkward flirting, immediate possessiveness and jealousy, and fumbling sex while sharing a room with about eight other people. It can be gleefully cruel but it’s so much fun to watch because you don’t have to think about anything except for the stupidity of the contestants.
The reason I keep going back to OG Love Island in between watching other shows—teen nihilist drama Euphoria, the exhausting Twilight Zone reboot that hits you over the head with political allegory, the harrowing Chernobyl that can’t be watched while eating—is because I needed something that felt decidedly less cerebral, something I could only half pay attention to. Anything that would make me temporarily more invested in horrible couples I’ll never meet than in our daily realities.
Love Island is only one of the many trashy and infectious dating reality shows this year that I’ve become temporarily obsessed with, shows that are ideal for lazy summer afternoon viewings and that provide a nice antidote to heavier scripted dramas. Back in January, the USA network debuted a reboot of FOX’s Temptation Island which originally ran from 2001 to 2003. The series, originally a source of controversy, doesn’t go much deeper than its name. Four couples who are trying to decide if they should stay together or call it quits are separated so they can temporarily live with attractive and, ahem, tempting members of the opposite gender. They can choose to be faithful or they can cheat. It’s an awful, borderline-cruel premise akin to rubbernecking a car accident, but it’s easy to keep in mind that if this is your last-ditch effort to save your relationship, it’s probably not worth saving. USA’s reboot didn’t feel as fresh as the original series, but it’s still a low-stakes way to kill a few hours—it’s strange how less stressful these real couples feel than the fictional ones on HBO.
In May, FOX rebooted Paradise Hotel, which aired two seasons in 2003 and 2008. Now hosted by Kristin Cavallari (The Hills), Paradise Hotel shares a similar format to Love Island: people are paired into couples and share a room; there is one person left over who has to pair up by the end of the week or be evicted from the “hotel.” The winning couple has to individually decide if they want to split the $250,000 prize with each other or keep it. With only seven episodes, the 2019 season was breezy and full of laughable, engaging drama between couples you will never see again.
But the best of these is Are You The One?, MTV’s needlessly complicated dating show. The producers use a matchmaking algorithm to secretly pair up couples and, throughout the season, the contestants live together while trying to figure out who everyone’s “perfect” match is. If they identify all of them correctly, they win a shared $1 million prize. There are other silly things thrown in—ridiculous dates, challenges, a relationship expert, a “truth booth”—that aren’t really worth explaining. But what works so well about this currently airing season is that all of the contestants are “sexually fluid” and allowed to hook up with anyone, instead of relying on the boring hetero couple formula that every other show employs.
The result is both scintillatingly slutty and dramatic—in the two-part premiere, Kai, a trans man, has sex with both a cis woman and a cis man in the same night—and legitimately groundbreaking. This is the first dating show I’ve seen with a trans contestant, a nonbinary contestant, and serious conversations about gender identity and sexuality. But it also doesn’t betray its lowbrow roots: everyone kisses everyone, and there is non-stop jealousy and arguing. Kai and Jenna, the most explosive couple, literally alternate between screaming at each other and furiously making out. At one point, while basically dry-humping in the middle of the floor, they yell “You’re toxic!” and “You’re more toxic than I am!” at each other. (Yet the strangest thing about Are You The One?, which I’m sure is mostly due to its queerness, is that it’s also the first dating show where I find myself actively rooting for couples to work.) You know: young love. Plus, not to be outdone by Love Island’s emphasis on sex, last week’s episode featured a fivesome!
The draw of these series is this inherent ridiculousness, the idiocy of the basic premises, the enduring garbage antics. The appeal is that they are impossible to take seriously, even when the contestants themselves are grave. Take Love Island’s premiere, where a man unironically explains that he came on the show because he’s trying to “find someone in an organic way.” There is nothing surprising about any of this: you can barely make it through an episode without someone talking about how they have “trust issues” because they were cheated on so they “built up walls” and it takes a long time for them to “let someone in.” (The “long time” is usually one to two weeks.) If you want to get wasted, take a drink whenever someone talks about putting their eggs all in one basket.
These series provide a great, welcoming break from how heavy everything else feels, both in the real world and on screen. Of course, the grimness of a show like The Handmaid’s Tale or the political world of Orange Is The New Black is important and necessary, but sometimes it’s too much, especially all at once. Television tends to respond to politics, so it makes sense why so many series lately feel both dour and dire—which isn’t a bad thing! But it does sometimes feel overwhelming; even Facebook’s reboot of The Real World has been occasionally tough to watch as the roommates discuss racism, homophobia, and immigration. There are times when you need to shut off that part of your brain in order to preserve your energy, and your sense of self. Reality television, and particularly this subgenre of it, can feel similar to unplugging or engaging in self-care. Sometimes the best ways to recharge is to tune into the dumbest thing you can find.