Love Island loves its surprises – and that has never been truer than in the latest series.
The first elimination occurred a mere two days in, as Shannon Singh departed in a shock early recouping. Less than week later Oliver "Chuggs" Wallis was out on his ear when, in a Hunger Games-style denouement, newcomer Rachel Finnie was required to give the boot to one of two unpaired males (only to be herself shown the door last week).
And now there is a countdown to the latest recoupling, in which another fresh arrival, human tattoo Danny Bibby, has first dibs at choosing a female partner (thus breaking-up pre-established couples). Don't pop out to put on the kettle just yet – you might miss something.
Lots of drama, then, as Love Island hovers around halfway point. Yes, it’s true – we’re roughly 50 per cent the way along. One of the quirks of the show is that the date for the finale is not revealed until more than a month in. However, the expectation is Love Island will conclude on Sunday August 8th. If the end is not nigh, it is certainly nigh-adjacent.
So perhaps it’s a good moment to take stock. After 18 months in which we’ve all reassessed our attitudes towards life and how to live it, what lessons are to be gleaned from Love Island? The obvious point to make is that, bombshell expulsions notwithstanding, this has been a kinder, cuddlier iteration of the ratings slayer. One where feelings matter, even if the English language does not (islanders still speak in a parallel patois, their conversation sprinkled with lingo such as “graft” and “shoot your shot”).
It is no shock that this should be so. Even before the death last year of former presenter Caroline Flack, Love Island had been criticised for not doing enough to shield islanders. Two former contestants, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, have died by suicide. These tragedies led to the accusation that Love Island represented the toxic logical conclusion to the deal with the devil offered by reality television.
"It's an instant fame machine," former contestant Jonny Mitchell told the New York Times in 2019. "But everyone also thinks they're going to be rich and that life is going to be easy … If this kind of show is still going to happen, it has to be done properly," he added. "We can't be sacrificing people's lives and their mental health for the sake of seven weeks of TV."
Amid such controversies, Love Island has taken steps to ensure the volunteers are not thrown to the wolves after the sun goes down on their 15 minutes of quasi-celebrity. Prior to filming, they underwent "thorough psychological and medical assessments" with independent doctors. Plus, producers have pledged to "manage cast expectations" and provide a structured aftercare programme, including multiple counselling sessions.
An argument can be made that the results of that shift in emphasis are already up on screen. Until a few years ago, it was clear reality TV was selecting contestants on the basis of how much disruption they were likely to cause. This wasn’t specific to Love Island – wherever you looked, shows arrived with pre-installed heroes and villains.
In the case of Love Island that is no longer the situation. One of the enjoyable facets of Love Island 2021 is that participants are easy-going and do not appear desperate for celebrity. Sometimes they don’t even seem all that interested in the love aspect of Love Island – leading to the phenomenon of the “friendship couple”.
This is exactly what it sounds like – duos pairing off but not because they're madly attracted to one another. Or even mildly attracted to one another. This year, for instance there was a platonic alliance between Aaron Francis and Kaz Kamwi, while previous examples include Dr Alex and Samira (series four) and Michael and Co Meath's Yewande Biala (series five).
Friendship couples work because they take the strain out of the viewing experience. Love Island is a fun watch – but it’s hard not to squirm when islanders try too hard to conjure romantic feelings out of the dry Majorcan air. All that “grafting” can be a grind.
With friendship couples, by contrast, the islanders get to chill, as does the audience. We’re all just sitting by the pool, basking in the banter. And that is what Love Island has ultimately become in 2021 – a nice place to hang out at the end of a long day.
It’s a strange turn-up for a franchise once regarded as reality TV at its most exploitative – but, judging by the season’s solid ratings, nobody is complaining.