Some of America’s most successful reality shows, including American Idol, Big Brother, and The Masked Singer, are adaptations of hit global competitions. So CBS decided to return to that lucrative well for its new show, Love Island, which premiers Tuesday. But the original Love Island isn’t just any reality TV success—it’s one of the biggest shows in Britain. Here’s what the fuss across the pond is all about, and what we can expect from its American adaptation.
How does Love Island work?
Much of the premise is familiar—a passel of preternaturally toned twenty-somethings are let loose on a villa in Majorca, pairing and unpairing and rejecting and reshuffling until one victorious couple emerges with £50,000 between them.
But the brilliance of the show is that it updates the love shack reality format for the Tinder generation. Whereas the pool of contestants narrows with every elimination on shows like Big Brother and The Bachelor, the Love Island villa receives regular, seemingly random injections of new blood throughout each season. Every few days, a brand-new beefcake or two, or three, enters the house, giving the existing couples the chance to scramble their pairings at will. Over the course of the most recently completed series of the show, 38 contestants appeared in total—about twice as many as take residence in the Big Brother house each year.
Each season, a handful of couples take things past the standard make-outs and have sex, with the cameras ready to capture villa-mates doing the deed. But, fitting for those who came of age in the era of swipe-right romance, every couple is well aware that a more attractive option could appear any minute. Anyone left single at the end of a “coupling ceremony” is shown the door. The audience also has opportunities to evict people by casting votes via the Love Island app.
In between new arrivals, departures, and nights largely spent in a giant dormitory in which each couple occupies a single shared bed, the contestants work out, chill by the pool, and play very stupid, nominally sexy games. (Female contestants in the fourth series, were, for example, challenged to see who could crush watermelons with their butts the fastest.)
Being a fan of the show is no small commitment—it airs six nights a week. “It’s a crazy amount of television to be consuming,” Fionnuala Jones, an Irish journalist and Love Island commentator, tells me. But along with the nightly broadcasts comes robust and addictive social media discussion. “The conversation and the memes,” says Jones, make the show “way more enjoyable as a viewer.”
But is it any good?
Love Island is definitely not Chernobyl, but it was never trying to be. For what it is, however, it’s great: far livelier than The Bachelor, less aggressively raunchy and depressingly booze-soaked than Are You the One. Contestants have also given the world some charmingly inscrutable slang in terms like “prangy,” “mugged,” and “chirpse.”
And despite the fact that Love Island contestants are (spoiler alert) far more likely to find C-list celebrity and Instagram influencer status than lasting romance, most approach their villa courtships with an almost touching degree of sincerity. Even with the frequently-rearranged sleeping arrangements and the promise of new singletons on any given day, earnest tears are shed over pairings only a few hours old.
“I think for me, and people always laugh when I say this, there’s that possibility of people finding genuine connections,” Jones says. “There’ve been marriages and kids that have come out of it, so it does happen. Not often, but it does happen.”
How popular is Love Island?
The show is certainly a hit with UK audiences. It’s the most watched series ever to air on its network, ITV2, and more than 85,000 people applied for the chance to appear on the show’s current series.
But the show is not without controversy. As on many American reality shows, questions of racism have dogged the competition, which has for most seasons assembled a largely white cast and in which women of color have sometimes struggled to find male contestants to partner with them. And there’s been some concern over the effect that this relentless parade of sculpted, swimwear clad bodies might have on the show’s younger fans. A survey pegged to the show found that watching reality TV made nearly a quarter of young people polled feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Plastic surgeons have used the show to promote procedures marketed as making people look more like the slim, pouty contestants.
Most tragically, three deaths have been connected to the show. Former Miss Great Britain Sophie Gradon, who appeared on the series in 2016, died by suicide in 2018. Less than a month later, her boyfriend took his own life as well. Another former contestant, soccer player Mike Thalassitis, died by suicide this spring. In response to the deaths, the show announced that it would offer therapy to all its contestants.
What will the American version be like?
For every American adaptation of a hit British as well-executed as The Office or Shameless, there’s an Inbetweeners or Skins. So it’s hard to say if the American version will be able to capture the magic—or the ratings—of the UK original.
But so far, we know that the American adaptation will be hosted by former Vine star Arielle Vandenberg and it will air five nights a week, from July 9th through the August 7th finale. Parting slightly with the lighthearted raunch and casual foul mouthedness of the British version, CBS will of course be bleeping swear words and likely taming a bit of the raciness. Judging by the cast bios, the 11 initial contestants will be just as buff and beautiful their British counterparts, though they appear in the trailer to be slightly more clothed. And American viewers who would rather stick with the original have do have the option—all the seasons are streaming on Hulu.