Love Island may have fled to the sultry south for the winter but an unmistakable chill has nonetheless gathered around this previously indomitable ratings Lothario. Viewership has sagged lower than an ill-fitting pair of speedos. The launch night audience was down 800,000 on last summer whilst companion show Unseen Bits struggled to hold its own against The Voice – wait, that still exists? – and Channel 5’s How the Victorians Built Britain. We’re more interested in satanic mills than romantic thrills.
But that isn’t the real problem. It’s that the hormonal dynamics the series could once take for granted – a perpetual motion machine of heartache and low-key lust – no longer seem to quite fire on all pistons. As the great contemporary philosopher and 2019 Love Island contestant Lucie Donlan might have said, things are very much not “bevvie”.
Friday night’s surprise re-coupling underscores the point. By rights, we should be in for an epic throw-down in Cape Town. A male islander is about to be eliminated courtesy of the female contestants. Cue: puffed chests, twitching pecs and enough testosterone to fuel a stretch limo on the way to a Conor McGregor fight as the blokes try to hold on to their partners.
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But no. Amiable Connagh from Wales is dumped by Rebecca and booted out – and doesn’t appear all that bothered. He packs his wheelie case and off he shuffles, somewhat deflated, certainly not devastated. Week one rejects on The Apprentice have displayed more anger. Perhaps he’s secretly/ not so secretly relieved to be getting off an “island” – in actuality a mildly blinged-out mansion in the hills – where the biggest challenge isn’t finding love but negotiating the stifling boredom.
Love Island has from the start struggled with a slightly creaky premise which lacks an inbuilt mechanism for conflict. There are no tasks to make a mess of, no sarcastic judges to woo. Participants lounge around the pool enjoying “banter” and waiting for a text message from ITV2. But they do so without context (aside from Iain Stirling’s increasingly indigestible voiceovers) . Oh for a quick cut to Karren Brady looking nonplussed, or David Walliams trying to wind up Simon Cowell.
What used to push the story forward were the ticking libidos and duelling egos of the islanders. But the class of Winter 2020 is, with one potential exception, entirely sensible. “Sensible” being another word for “crashingly dull” on reality TV. Tellingly all the excitement has unfolded outside the villa. First came the social media apocalypse over posh farmer Ollie Williams’s secret history as a big-game hunter.
Now all the Twitter hate is coming at over-caffeinated coffee bean magnate Connor Durman, whose paranoid petulance has sets him apart from the rest of the house. On Friday, he once again goes full incredible sulk with partner Sophie Piper. That is after she teasingly comments on the chiselled features and big blue eyes of the two new entrants to the house (including Luke, a dead-ringer for Justin Bieber). He stomps away, smoke almost literally issuing from his ears and nostrils.
This is Love Island, of course, so it is in the production suite that reality is shaped. Perhaps Connor has merely been edited to look like a controlling grump. Either way, his double-take when Sophie suggests that maybe he is mildly on the sensitive – i.e. scarily controlling – side is worrying. Has nobody ever told him that before?
The issue for ITV2 is that a reality television juggernaut cannot survive on one sulky boyfriend alone. It needs an entire deck of outsized personalities. This year’s crop are, however, an almost uniformly amiable bunch. And does anything kill a television show stone dead quicker than a group of strangers all getting along together? Imagine the X Factor if Cowell loved every audition or an Apprentice where Alan Sugar didn’t have the heart to fire anyone.
This is where we are with Love Island, despite producers’ attempt to spice things up by having the lads ogle twins Jess and Eve. There is also the theory that bringing Love Island back in the depths of winter was a mistake. Summer Love Island does so well, according to this hypothesis, because we’re all about to jet off somewhere sunny ourselves. Of course we’re amenable to seeing shallow good-looking people larking by the pool. Next week, we could be larking alongside them! Presented with the same scenario in the bowels of January and February, our positivity is replaced by a nagging resentment.
Ultimately, though, it is probably down the islanders. Where’s the bad egg, the snake in the grass, the villain quietly twirling his or her moustache? This year’s Love Island doesn’t have one. Instead the show has told the story of a group of flawless physical specimens idling on sun loungers, trying not to look as bored as they are feeling. More than once you can see the contestants switching off and just trying to make it though. Is it any wonder we, the lumpy, bumpy, un-tanned public, would follow their example and reach for the remote?