Emer McLysaght: I’m a smart and suspicious person, and I fall for Love Island every time

Warmth, humour, empathy and even love – they’re all there beneath the tans and the undulating duvets. Take it from a super fan

My last holiday abroad was in summer 2019. I went to Mallorca with two friends to have Cava with our breakfast and lie by the pool and read our books and skit. We went out for dinner every night with one goal in mind: to be back in time to watch Love Island. The time difference gave us the perfect deadline to aim for. The 9pm broadcast back at home meant that by 10pm we were lying like the three little pigs on a hotel bed with a laptop propped up on pillows and the curtain closed against the setting sun, ready to give ourselves over to the ludicrous joy of "reality" TV.

Love Island’s premise is fairly simple. A bunch of perma-tanned, super-preened, fine young things are placed in a luxury villa together. The aim of the game is to get yourself into a couple, form a believable and likeable romantic bond. Successful couples progress through the two-month – two month! – run of the show with a cash prize of £50,000 at the end. In the background, producers throw spanners in the works by organising “recouplings” in a bid to either break up pairings or force them to commit to each other for another week. Anyone who gets “dumped” is more than likely sent home.

Sexy dormitory

Couples must share double beds in a communal, sexy dormitory fitted with night vision cameras and, one would hope, a powerful fart ventilation system. Games, tasks and twists are geared towards encouraging contestants to kiss and rub up against each other, or to encourage drama and rows. Sounds like fairly standard reality TV show fare, right? A bit like Big Brother but with more sub-duvet fumbling? There is something about the Love Island formula, though, that has turned it into one of the biggest ratings-earner of the past few years at a time when streaming services and binge watching at your leisure win over traditional TV broadcasts almost every time.

You see, under the tans and the games and the slow-motion shots of a 22-year-old plasterer called Brad emerging from the villa’s infinity pool, Love Island taps into that magic sauce that makes the greatest romantic comedies sparkle. It presents us with a nightly round-up of will-they won’t-they entertainment with a supporting cast of clowns and villains. It allows us to dig through the showmances and fauxmances in search of a real spark. The contestants gallantly play along with the premise that they’re really there to find love rather than a million-pound fake-tan branding deal when they emerge and some of them really do end up head over heels. Since the current incarnation of Love Island first aired in 2015 there have been several marriages and multiple babies who will have a great story to tell at their 21st.


Ice queens

With the right casting, Love Island can be hilarious and warm and moving. Untrusting ice queens soften for enormous Labrador lads who claim to have never been in love. Inhibitions go out the window when attraction is too much and rather than the duvet fumblings seeming exploitative or crass, they’re funny and sweet. Hearts are broken, lies are told and at least three men learn how to make scrambled eggs on toast, delighted with themselves.

Even with the lacklustre storylines the regularity and routine of tuning in every night can provide a lifeline of structure and community to viewers

Just like with Big Brother, memorable characters make a splash even bigger than the show itself. Longford's Maura Higgins was the standout Love Islander in 2019, her beautiful pixie features matched with the most faithful of midlands accents. She proclaimed that lads she fancied gave her "fanny flutters" and a media darling was born.

The anticipation for Love Island 2021 was huge. The pandemic meant there was no summer 2020 series although early last year had seen the first ever winter Love Island broadcast from South Africa. There's something about the regularity and dependability of an episode every night that feels even more welcome after the 18 months we've had. Rather than turning to the news for doom and gloom we're turning to the sun.

The 2021 series got off to a stumbling start with some less-than sparkling contestants and a dearth of any real romance but as any Love Island fan will tell you, you have to give it time to get going. Even with the lacklustre storylines the regularity and routine of tuning in every night can provide a lifeline of structure and community to viewers. Viewing the show is very much a communal experience on social media and in WhatsApp groups. My own “Love Love Island” group fires up every evening as it has done every summer for several years.

Tragic link

Love Island isn't without its problems. I'm aware that calling it a "lifeline" sits glaringly alongside the fact that it has a tragic link to three people who died by suicide – former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis and former host Caroline Flack. Showmakers ITV2 have been asked to implement duty of care protocols and provide aftercare to contestants. Love Island is heteronormative to a fault and it's impossible to imagine a time when it will be safe for a fat person to be a contestant. The viewing public just can't be trusted to treat anybody outside the body norm with respect just yet. This year there is a disabled contestant in the villa which is at least a step in the right direction. It's not perfect, but at its best has so much capacity for humour and empathy and sometimes even true love.