There’s something oddly poetic and strangely redundant about a stateside spin on ITV2’s feverishly compulsive hit Love Island. It’s an American remake of a British dating show modelled on a dusty American blueprint, making it the televisual equivalent of translating colloquialisms before then translating them back. After an ambitious marketing blitz, this week has seen the malformed Franken-product finally lumbering its way on to US screens, and, so far, it’s looking like it could face a particularly cold summer.
Launched on CBS, America’s biggest network, and the same one that still scores solid ratings for Big Brother, it’s the tried-and-tested formula of challenging tanned twentysomethings to fall in love and win cash, sponsorship deals and Instagram followers. Ever since the UK’s “celebrity”-free reboot mutated from a ratings hit to a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, US networks have been rehauling the 00s shows that led to its inception: Temptation Island and Paradise Hotel.
But both reboots were met with minimal ratings and a buzz-killing lack of memes. So how will Americans react to being spoonfed the reheated food they so recently barfed up?
Love Island’s USP is its increased intensity with an hour-long nightly recap that edges the well-known superficiality of the structure closer to reality. It’s been said often that the show represents a microcosm of the dating world (most depressingly in how women of colour are often cast aside) and it’s in Love Island’s exhaustive nature that this really rings true. Contestants, like any of us, might initially present prospective partners with their best selves, a performed, idealised vision of who they want to be seen as, but with increased, five-nights-a-week exposure, the mask inevitably slips. On Love Island, it can slip with frightening speed.
The original became something of a boutiquey hit stateside, episodes launched on Hulu to a smaller yet ebullient audience, with the New York Times calling it “a riveting human rights violation” and “a cross between The Bachelor and the Stanford Prison Experiment”. The US version has made a few tweaks, at least aesthetically, with some noticeably better lighting and a major upgrade in location, because rather than placing the contestants in the middle of a dead field, a solid hour’s drive from the beach, they’re now being treated to an oceanfront Fiji villa.
Those familiar with the format will spot the same font, same theme tune, same gaudy colour palette, same snarky meta-narration (from confusingly accented celebrity interviewer Matthew Hoffman) and same string of nauseating one-liners, such as “If I’d gone to college, I’d have a degree in women”. The first episode introduced the intimidatingly toned contestants with gusto and that aforementioned falsity: gorgeous and gregarious 21-year-old Caro called herself nerdy, goofy and humble, while six-packed Yamen claimed his best quality to be his “genuinity”.
We also saw male model Michael complain that being “this good-looking” was “a gift and a curse” while drummer Cashel admitted that although he does like to talk about “silly stuff” he also, like, really likes talking about, like, philosophy as well. So far, so Love Island.
And while inane semi-clad chats about following one’s gut continued into episode two, there was also some conflict introduced as a newly introduced female contestant was forced to take away one of the men from the established couples.
But this is where Love Island might struggle on US primetime. The British version can be tumultuous, but it rarely ramps up to full-blown arguments. Drinking is minimal, shouting even less so, and the housemates tend to treat each other mostly with respect. At least so far, this more laid-back approach seems to have carried over to the US with the heartbroken new singleton indulging in just one passive-aggressive chat with her love rival over anything more extreme. The show’s biggest competitor, at least with regards to how it’s embedded within US popular culture is The Bachelor, a show that eliminates at least one contestant every episode.
And while it’s hardly Terrace House, on Love Island, the dramatic highpoint of some episodes is that someone might see someone else look at someone they like in a way that implies that someone is someone they also like. This doesn’t make it any less entertaining (in fact, I’d argue it makes it all the more fascinating) but it does make it a show that could be hard to sell to a wider, unfamiliar, network audience.
Love Island USA has cannily retained its British counterpart’s rough-around-the-edges feel along with its sense of humour in a way that could help distinguish it from the slick, stomach-churning sentimentality of The Bachelor. It’s presented very much as a show made by people who watch the shows it’s based on and know that you have too. It’s the Scream of dating shows: the narrator and the presenter (social media influencer and actor Arielle Vandenberg) recycle and ridicule the cliches of the genre. So far the contestants seem less self-aware, but then that’s always been the appeal of the show, as the attractive, camera-craving wannabes gradually become less conscious of the cameras around them. It’s hard to tell this early how the cultural differences will come into play when it comes to how they flirt, date and fornicate, but signs suggest that the influence of Tinder and Insta-culture has blurred the lines between how twentysomethings from the two countries operate in this regard, at least under such a specific lens.
Early signs also suggest that the show could be a tough sell for CBS. The first episode premiered to just 2.69 million viewers: a damp start for a network that averages a primetime audience of around 9 million and far behind ITV2’s record 3.3m kick-off for the current UK season. The second episode fared no better, and while it’s a mercifully shorter season in the US, finishing in just five weeks, CBS, the channel that’s aired ratings megahits like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS, will be praying for a major uptick.
For steadfast fans of the UK iteration, intrigue remains, and I’ll be cautiously cracking on with the show, eager to see what happens when the masks slip further while continuing to enjoy an ocean view over a vista of dead crops. Whether or not the rest of America will want to couple up with their Love Island, though, remains to be seen.