There was a lot of fuss about Love Island arriving on CBS and CTV on Tuesday evening. Tons of promotion and much lip-smacking anticipation from people who follow reality-TV shows obsessively.
The first reaction one felt – that’s me – after watching the opening episode was fear; fear that these people would be released from that resort in Fiji and allowed back into society. When that happens, the continuing anxiety about the death of our civilization can be put away. It’s just going to happen. We will be left with nothing.
“Brace yourselves, America, get ready for love, lust and some very tiny swimsuits,” narrator Matthew Hoffman said as the wretched thing began airing. Right. Well, the giddiness of CBS and the Canadian carrier CTV about the series is understandable. In a business context, anyway. The show has been a big hit in Britain every summer for five years. People are glued to it. It’s a national pastime apparently. Like Brexit, Boris Johnson and the popularity of the “sport” of darts, some things about Britain just beggar explanation.
Thing is, nobody in America cared much. It didn’t brace itself. It just shrugged and watched something else. The initial overnight ratings for Love Island on CBS are abysmal. At 8 p.m., the show was third, with a dismal 2.9 share, well behind America’s Got Talent on NBC and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Fox. By 9 p.m., viewers had fled. The upshot was just 2.7 million total viewers and a 0.6 share. A week earlier, in the same time slot, that old reality-TV warhorse Big Brother had 4.5 million viewers. On Tuesday, NBC’s America’s Got Talent had 9.6 million.
Phew. Love Island will continue every weeknight on CBS and CTV for a month, but it seems nobody will care. And I’ll tell you why.
First it reaches a level of obnoxiousness that is too close to what the United States knows as actual “reality.” It’s Trumpian in its juvenile viciousness, posturing and shallowness. Sure The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are shallow, too. So is Big Brother. But Love Island turns shallow escapism into a repugnant fatuity that all too eerily echoes its political culture.
It all hinges on the way the cruel fandango starts. Female contestants are introduced and paraded in swimwear. Alana, Elizabeth, Alexandra, Mallory and Caroline (known as Caro). Oh, that Caro, a 21-year-old marketing student. She told us she has “recently just started loving my hair.” Mallory has “saved photos of my wedding dress, the venue and the rings on Instagram,” she explained. “I have it all planned out,” she said. “I just need a guy.” And what kind of guy is ultraprepared Mallory looking for? “Ideally, with John Mayer vibes.”
Along came the guys, alas not one of them giving off a John Mayer vibe. They are Cashel, Yamen, Michael, Weston and Zac. Abs galore, these chaps. All six-packed and coiffed for a night at a club, yet posing in a beach setting. The ladies line up, in swimsuits and high, high heels. When a guy is introduced, a woman attracted to him steps forward. The guy then announces which woman he is attracted to. It’s humiliation central.
The kicker is the introduction of the spoiler figure. Up stepped Kyra. (Actually, she flounced in slow motion up the beach.) The group was told that Kyra would have the opportunity to “couple up” with any man she chose in the villa. This means she steals a guy from one of the other women. Kyra started flirting with several guys. The other women began whispering and shooting dark looks at her.
It’s all so crude. Both women and men used the phrase “not my type” often. That’s what Donald Trump says in dismissing a sexual-misconduct allegation by a woman. Like Caro, Trump is in love with his hair. In the context of the contemporary U.S. culture, it’s all just creepy.
The appeal of reality TV has been evident for years now. Rough-hewn people, filled with assuredness and not much else, can be compelling on TV. They stand in contrast to fictional figures played by actors. Their “realness” is dubious, anchored in bluster and bravado, and sometimes just in their cockeyed opinions. Just as opinion-spouting populist politicians can stand in stark contrast to more sophisticated figures. Thus the reality-TV phenomenon infected politics and eventually led to Trump, a reality-TV star from The Apprentice, being elected.
With Love Island a circle is completed. The obnoxiousness of those people on Survivor and The Apprentice, from a decade ago, was galvanizing. Love Island heightens the awfulness to a level where the crudeness is starkly illuminated for all to see. Viewers just aren’t comfortable with it. It too brazenly approximates a Trumpian culture. And if viewers are repulsed and not watching, maybe civilization is saved.