"Love Island": The Walden Pond of reality TV

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 3:34pm

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Designed by Kate Glad

TV has always moved too fast for me. I was too busy running track and selling books in high school to participate in my nuclear family’s “Breaking Bad” bonding routine, I gave up on “Twin Peaks” after distractedly missing too many plot points and I figured that everyone else knew enough about “The Office” and “Game of Thrones” for me to ride on their collective coattails. Last spring, my roommate and I vowed to get through season 1 of “Killing Eve”, only to abandon ship in the middle of its finale, broadly complaining that television demanded too much from our specific brand of attention span. We preferred reading. Crossword puzzles. Knitting with the cat on the lap. Things that were … slower.

So I went through a bit of an identity crisis when, at the end of last semester, I found myself watching the 2015 British reality dating show “Love Island” for five hours straight with my skinny musician friends, people who usually put on something between high cinema or the short film they shot and edited themselves earlier that day. How or why it started playing remains a mystery, but we were inexplicably hooked from the first lens flare and dramatic muscle shot. 

The premise of “Love Island,” especially to a group unacquainted with reality television, is inane. In the season opener, ten sexy-ass Brits are separated by gender and essentially paraded in front of each other one by one; a pageant that ends with the awkward and cheeky heteronormative “coupling” of birds and lads that express varying levels of mutual interest upon first impression. They are (ironically) isolated from reality for nine weeks on a luxe compound in Mallorca known fondly as “The Villa” to test, temper, break and re-break the bonds they initially formed — almost none of which last more than a week. 

Couples sleep side-by-side in an open-room line of king beds, summer camp-style. They have no phones, computers or means of connecting with the world outside the Villa. There is a pool, an open bar and a few dumbbells thrown on a makeshift workout lawn. If you’re single by the time of the next (dreaded) “recoupling,” you’re out. A relationship means survival, plain as day. Let the cameras roll.

Alyssa Schmid, a senior studying sociology in LSA, doesn’t know why she likes it either. 

“There isn’t even really a plot it feels, most of the time they’re just sitting in their bathing suits around the pool,” Schmid told me last week in the back corner of Espresso Royale State Street. She got into “Love Island” through her roommate, tackled the first three seasons and successfully converted her sister to the cause. She follows multiple previous contestants on Instagram.

“... and this doesn’t make any sense to me. They put them in a situation where it’s obviously not reality, and then it’s just them being themselves ... but you can’t talk to anyone (from the outside world) so I guess it kind of makes sense,” she added. “Like, you have a totally different life now, you have to make friends and build relationships because you’re not going to have anyone else to talk to for however long you’re there. Literally nothing else to do.”

Ayat AL-Tamimi, a senior in LSA studying political science, finds that these interactions-by-necessity often challenge what you’d normally expect from “love”-seeking reality TV like the infamous “Bachelor.” In fact, it’s what excites her about the show.

“The goal is to be in a relationship that goes to be the couple that wins the money, and so maybe you have to find people that you can vibe with, just on a platonic level, to be paired up with for a little while,” she explained. This is where “Love Island” makes its major break from the norm: the premise isn’t to land one specific relationship with one specific person. It’s multidimensional in the Villa — a relationship, a person. You could, in theory, win by spooning with a friend.

Earlier in our interview AL-Tamimi used the term “strategic coupling” to describe this common Island-phenomenon: coupling with a pal to the mutual interest of evading elimination. Social symbiosis.

“What I really appreciate is how a lot of them will come to mutual understanding of, ‘we don’t like each other that way, I fully support you going to find someone that you think you might be romantically invested in.’ But it’s not killing the friendship, so in a way it’s much like the antithesis of other dating shows where it’s a cold, one-track, have-to-be-in-love sort of trajectory, which statistically is not realistic at all,” AL-Tamimi said. 

The lines indeed blur. There’s a moment in season three where contestant Montana, strategically coupled up with Marcel, invites Marcel’s new flame Gabby into their bed to surprise her man with a good-night kiss. Three people end up sharing this moment: Marcel, surprised; Gabby, literally crawling over Montana to smooch him and Montana herself, smiling supportively next to her friends. This seems more organic than the rigid, elimination-controlled monogamy of “The Bachelor.” This seems like something that has happened on the couch in my living room

“So technically yeah, your worth is determined by whether you’re coupled or not, but that plays with it in a lot of ways,” AL-Tamimi explained. “It’s not like you have to be romantically coupled to share a bed with someone. There are a lot of hot men and hot women sharing a bed and nothing happening … And I think that’s kind of subversive.”

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In the spring of 2017 I, like many confused writers before and after me, departed Ann Arbor in the direction of New Hampshire and the New England Literature Program (NELP). NELP is one of the more unusual experiences available at the University of Michigan: six weeks, forty strangers, upwards of twenty literary texts and something around five overnight hiking trips in the woods of the White Mountains. NELPers dwell in a boys’-camp-made-commune on the picturesque Lake Winnipesaukee, cooking and cleaning for each other in scheduled work shifts. There are  no phones, computers or means of connecting with the world outside the camp — all NELPers have are Emerson, Thoreau and each other.

I’ve never held NELP and reality TV in the same thought before — NELP touts itself as a deeply intellectual and introspective experience, while “Love Island” comes off as oversaturated, overstimulating sensationalism. But while interviewing for this piece it dawned on me that perhaps I vibe with “Love Island” because I did something somewhat similar three years ago in rural New Hampshire. 

Despite their aesthetic differences as an immersive academic program and a reality dating show, NELP and “Love Island” share enough of a structural skeleton to produce mirroring social effects. I mean, if you drop a group of strangers anywhere in the world, circumscribe them within a radius and sever all contact from the lives they had just left, weird things will happen. What Schmid said was true: All you can really do is sit around and talk to each other, whether that be in a bikini by the pool or in layers of thermal clothing on a rock in the woods. In the process, everyone seems to become a character, in the best and worst of ways. You have little to share aside from who you think you are and what you think is going on, resulting in what feels like constant commentary on self and selves. There’s disproportionate space for unexpectedly personal and confessional conversation, equal parts awkward and thrilling.

And it’s the born-from-boredom candor that reality TV eats up. I recently flipped through one of my old NELP journals and found an entry that read like a confession cam, a needless bitching out of two fellow NELPers who happened to be singing in the communal showers that morning. “One of them said ‘what if we sang the Jonas Brothers?’ and suddenly my temperament is irritated by the boy band songs of 2005,” I wrote. (I spent much of NELP brooding in unnecessary verbosity.) “How are they so peppy at 7 am? How do they feel that the tranquility of the showers may be improved by the hollering of songs because ‘they’re so terrible?’ ” I wrote on for a while, because I had space to make their totally harmless singing a directly personal problem. If there were a camera in one of the cabins, I would probably be on air about it. It would stream because isolation-induced vitriol, albeit unrealistic and often unfounded, is awesome to watch.

Also entertaining are the properties of relationships made under constraints, the strategic and subversive couplings — platonic and romantic alike — that hook viewers so. While Islanders float from bed to bed every recoupling, NELPers are given periodic opportunities to switch cabins, reshuffling the five-to-fifteen other NELPers they shiver next to in side-by-side cots every night, occasionally piling onto each other to keep warm or otherwise occupied. In both Mallorca and New Hampshire, participants are interpersonally unstuck: Everyone is so new to and dependent upon each other that a weak-tie community seems to spin between them all, both conducive and forgiving to regular shifts in allegiance or affection.

On top of that, my session took to the colloquial designation of “NELP husbands” and “NELP wives”: people we met days ago that we needed to deem our cornerstone friends, NELPers we could rely on to talk comfortably with in any situation thrown at us. To borrow AL-Tamimi’s language, this was strategic coupling: The declaration of companionate friend-love, the conjuring of a sense of security (and a lasting bond — I will always feel wed to both Justin and Becky). 

And then, like NELP, the enduring effects of “Love Island” end up centering on the individual. Most contestants walk away from the Villa single — only one couple can win, and out of the five that have been crowned victorious thus far, three have dissolved within months. Nevertheless, Islanders seem to internalize their experience at the Villa the way NELPers tend to incorporate their time in New Hampshire into their identity. Both populations employ their respective in-group monikers (Islander, NELPer) and often pull on their experiences in isolation to inspire later creative projects — many an anecdotal book and essays have been published about both social experiments. And each group has its own set of enduring symbols: The cover art for Marcel’s 2018 (bad) house single “They Wanna Know” features the iconic water bottle he was issued on the show, a little icon of fondness not unlike the Camp Kabeyun mug in my cupboard that I used to drink shitty coffee from every morning in the freezing, raining woods. If this isn’t nostalgia in poetic action, I don’t know what is.

But this is largely where the similarities end. Nothing about “Love Island”’s dogged heteronormative emphasis, glamorous aesthetic and contest narrative could hold up at NELP, and vice-versa for NELP’s physical challenges, daily temperatures and academic program. But the interactions produced by throwing strangers together and cutting them off from the rest of the world seem to satisfy both intellectual and sensational interests alike, questioning the line between them and drawing in an unexpected set of players and audiences to each respective experiment year after year. Transcendentalism, after all, is an offshoot of the romantic (ooh la la!). As yung Thoreau put it, “All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.” 

Perhaps that’s why “Love Island” is the television show I can watch for hours on end. “Something to be” — being — is a much slower plot development than “Killing Eve,” or anything professionally scripted to capture the contemporary attention for over twenty minutes. You can watch it lazily, you can make a snide comment without missing a major plot point (because there are none). You can participate in it to the extent that indeterminate relationships are more realistic now than ever before. It’s interpersonally unstuck: It speaks to skinny musicians, confused writers and a wide array of women on Ladies of UofM: Buy, Sell, Trade. It validates that time you climbed over one friend to kiss another, or the night you spent at their place because you were lonely.

From a grimy couch on a college campus, “Love Island” looks a little more like reality than the rest.