After 18 months off the air, Love Island UK was poised to make an impressive comeback. Yet somehow this year’s season managed to be an almost grueling viewing experience, rather than a lighthearted summer binge. From the beginning, the show was a lot for viewers to commit to: every night for eight weeks, ITV promised an hour-long episode filled with lust, drama, and (allegedly) love. While this prolonged runtime made massive success unlikely, it ended up being a hit; over its six year run, the show has managed to carve out an impressive spot in the reality TV landscape, spawning several international versions. At its best, Love Island is truly great, if utterly chaotic. The format allows for every imaginable romantic trope to unfold simultaneously, and the extensive runtime fosters complicated character arcs and what feels like an intimate window into relationships, both romantic and platonic.
As the season geared up, the initial batch of Islanders seemed promising, complete with all the typical archetypes: Faye was the hothead, Hugo was the nice guy, Aaron was the player, and Liberty was the lovable ditz. In many ways, the villa was the same as ever. However, the first three weeks of the program were fairly uneventful—even the recouplings, which drive the series’s plot, felt increasingly like a formality. Going into Casa Amor, usually the dramatic climax of the series, it seemed like the season would continue at the same slow pace. Instead, the production team sent a postcard to the villa that sent many of the girls spiraling. While the Casa Amor postcard is a hallmark of the show, it’s usually used to tip off the girls about their partner’s infidelities. Instead, this year’s postcard deliberately misled the girls, causing unnecessary breakdowns. Both Kaz and Faye, who had been openly smitten with their partners before Casa Amor, immediately partnered up with other boys to avoid the humiliation of being left alone at the recoupling. While this move briefly helped the girls save face, Kaz tearfully confessed that she felt “stupid,” like she “should have known it was too good to be true.” Faye, too, revealed her true feelings upon partner Teddy’s return. After choosing not to recouple, Teddy proved himself to be a loyal partner—an embarrassing moment for Faye, but one that most other contestants could have moved on from with a simple apology. Faye had made it very clear in previous episodes that she lashed out at others to protect herself, so her next move—doubling down on her mistake, then attacking Teddy when producers gave her the opportunity—was an obvious outcome. Of course, Love Island is no stranger to emotional manipulation, but this year felt particularly uncalled for, as it targeted the most insecure Islanders, and it resulted in episodes filled with dread, rather than excitement. While Casa Amor set up the two main relationship arcs of the season (Millie and Liam’s redemption and Chloe and Toby’s return), it clearly highlighted how emotionally taxing the show is on its contestants, a concern that had been building for years.
Following the suicides of Sophie Gradon, Mike Thalassitis, and Caroline Flack (in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively), the series was reframed as a dangerous social experiment rather than harmless fun. While ITV, the producer and distributor of the show, was adamant about enhanced mental health protocols going into this season, it was often hard to watch as producers preyed on contestants’ insecurities, not just in Casa Amor. Challenges like “Making Mad Movies,” where scenes from private conversations were played for the entire villa, produced some of the most genuinely distressing parts of the season. Clearly viewers felt the same: in response to “Making Mad Movies” and Faye’s subsequent berating of Teddy, UK communications regulator Ofcom received nearly 25,000 complaints, breaking the show’s previous record of 4,330 complaints. Still, Faye’s explosive reaction set her up as an obvious villain, and viewers were all too eager to condemn her. While Islanders’ behavior ranges from childish to bizarre to downright cruel, the total condemnation of Islanders that happens on social media leaves no room for understanding of the incredible pressure inside the villa. In an environment where physical attractiveness and desirability are prized above all else, insecure young people understandably lose control, and their reactions are quickly dissected and viciously criticized.
Unfortunately, as long as Love Island brings in massive viewership and lucrative sponsorships, the show will inevitably trudge on, with contestants willingly sacrificing their mental health for entertainment and fame. Though the chances of diehard Love Island fans changing their ways are slim, this season may have been a necessary reminder to viewers of how toxic the show and its fanbase really is. The show has taken some good first steps, like getting rid of Twitter-based challenges and instituting social media and finance training for contestants, but in order to fully redeem itself, the manipulative challenges and artificially imposed “tests” like Casa Amor need to end. While this would make Love Island more of a pure reality show than a game show, it wouldn’t make it less exciting to watch—anyone who’s been to summer camp (or college for that matter) knows that if you get enough young people together, relationships will naturally form and break in interesting and dramatic ways. Love Island is at its best when it allows couples to gradually develop and take their own strange turns, as evidenced by couples like Chloe and Toby. While it will never be high art, Love Island can still be a fascinating deep-dive into romance culture that both viewers and contestants enjoy—producers just need to remember what makes the show great and value their contestants as the complex human beings they are.