In a recent episode of “Euphoria,” HBO’s teen drama series, a 17-year-old named Rue (played by Zendaya) sums up what people want from reality television.
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“People are always telling me about great TV shows — how I just have to watch this show — but the truth is I don’t want good TV,” she says. “I don’t want a novel or a slow burn or anything that feels like work. That’s why I love reality TV: It’s funny, it’s dramatic, and I can focus on it.”
A mummified Rue narrates all this while wrapped up in blankets and staring at her computer screen, where “Love Island” has been streaming for “22 straight hours” — the U.K. original, not the U.S.A. adaptation. Despite the superficial similarities between the two versions, as well as the robust efforts of CBS, there aren’t that many Rues cozying up to binge “Love Island” USA. Ratings are low, buzz is minimal, and, while there’s a lot of finger-pointing as to why, it’s really a number of factors that all come back to the production’s rampant indecisiveness.
Reality TV has to make choices so viewers don’t have to — and I’m not talking about the somewhat surprising decision to renew “Love Island” for Season 2, which CBS announced Thursday morning. Decisions have to be made within the series itself: Producers have to stir the pot, contestants have to be pushed to reveal intimate emotions, and the series itself has to choose which moments add up to the most enticing narrative. It’s not that this version is bad; plenty of reality TV is supposed to be bad. But “Love Island” is boring.
It has been from the start, and the producers, including David George, Adam Sher, David Eilenberg, Simon Thomas, and Mandy Morris, have taken very few measures to heat things up, which could explain why the series, which is airing five nights a week for five weeks, averages just over 2 million viewers per night — the lowest of any CBS summer shows — and its rating in the 18-49 demo ranks 19th out of 23 unscripted broadcast series this summer.
This Is a Bad Batch of Contestants
Let’s start with the basic premise: A remote beachside villa in Fiji houses 10 single men and women, all of whom are looking to find the love of their life and win a cash prize. In the first episode, contestants immediately coupled up, before an 11th member (Kyra) was dropped in and forced the first of many re-couplings — dramatic ceremonies where either the men or women choose new partners or recommit to their current partner, and the leftover contestant usually gets booted from the island. In the first re-coupling, Kyra had to steal a “boy” away from a “girl” after they’d already partnered up, taking Cashel away from Caroline (aka “Caro”) in what was meant to start building discontent amongst the Islanders. (Caro wasn’t kicked out, and yes, for some ungodly reason the men and women of “Love Island” are always referred to as “boys” and “girls.”)
Sounds pretty juicy, right? Well, there’s more. Each couple has to sleep in the same bed together, even if they just met, and all the beds are in a big communal room where night-vision cameras creep on cuddling couples. Guys and girls get ready for each day’s events or each night’s parties in communal bathrooms, and while the “villa” offers workout gear, custom water bottles, and a giant pool, there’s very little privacy — unless, that is, you win the chance to spend a night in the “hideaway,” which is basically just a private room with a bed in it.
So far, no one has admitted to boning down in the love shack (or elsewhere), but with all of these opportunities for romantic frisson, it’s remarkable how unexciting “Love Island” has turned out to be… until you look beyond the set-up and examine the structure. Sure, reality TV can thrive with a simple premise — “Big Brother” and “The Real World” prove this pretty well — but only if it’s got the right contestants being given enough motivation.
There’s your first problem, and one for which producers are only partially to blame: The original batch of Islanders is extremely bland. Elizabeth, Alexandra, and Mallory all blend into a harmless blob of niceness; Zac, Michael, and Dylan were similarly boring beefcakes, so it’s no surprise four of these six Islanders are still coupled up. (The other two left the island.) Yamen and Alana suffered from a dull relationship dynamic that the producers tried to conceal as long as they could, but it was always obvious he (24) thought she (21) was too young.
Then there are the oddballs: Cashel and Caro. The former — and I’m sorry for being blunt, but there’s no other word for it — is an idiot, who can’t even remember Caro’s name when he chooses to partner up with her. (“This girl right here,” he says, complete with an awkward, ill-timed pause.) Caro, meanwhile, has bounced between more men than any other contestant, which is absolutely fine… except that she falls so hard, so fast with every one of them that it’s impossible to believe she’s ever found the “true connection” she so often claims. Worse still, they’re not malicious weirdos. Neither’s wacky moments are targeted enough to mess with any of the other couples or create fights in the all-too-calm villa.
Is “Love Island” a Soapy Competition or a Love Story?
The newcomers who show up every other day are way too obvious instigators — how many people called out the dark-haired, tatted-up Cormac for being a commit-o-phobic bad boy right away? — but the producers don’t do their players any favors because “Love Island” doesn’t know what show it wants to be. Is it a reality competition series or more of a love story? Are fans supposed to enjoy the cutthroat melodrama of contestants fighting one another for their one true love, or fall for the couples who appear to share a genuine connection?
Season 1 has tried to split the difference, satisfying neither camp. The games have zero stakes (as the increasingly desperate narrator Matthew Hoffman readily admits during his campy segues), and producer manipulation is nonexistent. One game required Islanders to guess who was being targeted in fans’ insulting tweets, but that barely spurred any insecurities, let alone relationship problems. None of the meaningless competitions have tried to do anything more than make the contestants look silly and make out. That’s not enough to actually stir up drama, unlike the U.K. version, which subjects contestants to lie detector tests, sends real-life ex-partners to the island, and sends misleading texts to start fights between couples.
“Love Island” could work without them, coasting on the sincerity sparked by each Islander’s earnest search for love, but it’s clear producers don’t care about investing in anyone. The show barely spends any time with Zac and Elizabeth, a couple so head over heels for each other that when the group is asked to decide who among them gets to go to the hideaway, they all immediately shout for Z&E to get some alone time — clearly, there’s enthusiasm among the Islanders for this couple, but none of that is felt by the audience. Instead of swooning over their young love, the producers make them background players; their trip to the hideaway is covered in under a minute, and their other escapades are overlooked in favor of scavenging for drama with more turbulent residents.
But, as mentioned before, there’s no drama to be had! The producers often try to build romantic tension where there isn’t much, and the lack thereof is only exacerbated by how many episodes there are: “Love Island” is airing five nights a week, for five weeks. That’s in line with the U.K. original, which is up to six nights a week now, but what’s killing the drama is also one of the few things CBS can brag about. In the renewal announcement, CBS stated “Love Island” is the network’s most-streamed show and continually trends on social media during each night’s broadcast. That sort of digital engagement is coveted by a network with a very old average audience (65 years old, or, you know, retirement age) and encouraged by the “Love Island” app, where fans can vote for couples to go on a date or get ousted from the island.
“Love Island” Is Meant to Attract a Younger Audience, But It’s Not Made for Streaming
Still, the everyday demand for narratives is killing the quality of the program, and the low ratings aren’t enough to justify the split. Either CBS can’t dig up enough drama to drive daily viewership or doesn’t think it needs to. That last point might seem illogical, if not insane, but it actually points to a problem in applying the old CBS business model with a show meant to attract new viewers. The Eye is built on episodic programming like “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS,” where if you miss one episode you’ll be fine watching the next one. But more and more audiences, especially younger audiences, are watching every episode of their chosen shows. Like “Euphoria’s” Rue craving an unending binge, they will watch from start to finish so long as it holds their interest. If it doesn’t, they’ll tune out altogether; instead of skipping to the next episode of “Love Island,” hoping it’ll get better, they’ll skip to the next show in their queue.
“Love Island” is meant to attract those viewers in the key demo, not a mass viewership of any age, and yet it’s still made from the perspective of someone who’s tuning in for the first time. So much information is repeated. Minute-long recaps cover what happened last week quickly and completely. Teases that lead into commercials are repeated in full, making for an exasperating experience when watching commercial-free via CBS All Access. Many of the contestants repeat their points to different people, but why do we have to watch them say the same things over and over again?
Part of this may point to CBS All Access’ ongoing strategy of developing content that runs constantly in the background of the streaming app, including the news service CBSN, CBS Sports HQ and ET Live, in order to retain subscribers who have a tendency to bail when “Star Trek: Discovery” and “The Good Fight” end their seasons. Each of these outlets are programmed in hours’ long chunks that are repeated over the course of 24 hours; “Love Island’s” repetition could be intentional to serve this same need and in an attempt to get AA subscribers in the fold.
For anyone who claims “Love Island” isn’t meant to be watched every night, that’s a problem, not a plus. In the U.K., it’s on seven nights a week, and the soapy structure is meant to hold just enough interest that you’ll want to watch it all, without punishing fans who miss an episode or two. Maybe that works with an established phenomenon, but it’s a fine line to walk with a freshman series, especially in an oversaturated TV market. If fans don’t feel like they have to watch every episode, how far are they from feeling like they don’t have to watch at all? And if they actually do want to catch up, why isn’t the streaming audience taken into account when cutting episodes?
That leaves “Love Island” as a bad fit for CBS broadcast and a slightly worse fit for CBS All Access. Nightly viewers aren’t properly motivated to tune in, and anyone thinking about a binge will be too bored or frustrated to keep going. By trying to make a show that appeals to all audiences on any platform, the producers are handicapping the show for everyone, everywhere.
No matter what direction “Love Island” wants to skew — heated competition or romantic discovery, broadcast or streaming — it needs to pick a lane. That’s the only hope for future seasons, and the only real hope to save the franchise here in the ol’ U.S. of A. Making a big, five-nights-a-week bet on a popular reality show is a good idea. Just think about all the hours of programming only available on CBS platforms! But if they want teens to pay attention, CBS has to make more choices. Teens may not need a great TV show, but they need to feel something while curled up in front of their screen.
“Love Island” airs new episodes Monday – Friday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. The Season 1 finale airs Wednesday, August 7.