In an act it seemed to consider benevolent, ITV2 decided to launch the latest, ninth series of Love Island on ”Blue Monday’’ – supposedly the most depressing day of the year. Because who couldn’t have their frosty January woes soothed by committing the next 62 nights to observing a dozen twenty-somethings with bronzed 18-packs lying around drinking from personalised water bottles and pretending to like each other in order to win a brief career as a social media influencer? Truly, it is the Elizabeth Arden eight-hour cream of reality TV.
The last time the Love Island circus took itself to South Africa for a “winter” series was 2020, and as was the case then, it’s temporarily disorientating to hear that theme music – for better or worse, a fixture in the British summer for the past eight years – when it’s dark outside. It’s a little like having a winter World Cup. But just like in Qatar, it only takes a few minutes for us to forget the very valid ethical reasons why the entire spectacle shouldn’t be going ahead at all, and accept that it is, well, what it is.
And what it is is… the same as ever, even if there’s a new “villa”, a new presenter and a raft of new “duty of care” rules. The villa’s an enormous pad in Franschhoek, near Cape Town (no, it’s not even on an island, but “Love Gated Mansion In A Valley” presumably doesn’t scan as well in hashtag form), and the host is Maya Jama, last seen on Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star, who takes over from Laura Whitmore. Remaining arid voiceover duties, meanwhile, is Whitmore’s real-life husband, comedian Iain Stirling. We must assume he was locked in his recording booth from the outside when she negotiated a departure.
The litany of new care measures are thorough, as you might expect from a show that has seen the deaths of two previous contestants, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019, as well as former host Caroline Flack in 2020, not to mention Islanders becoming victims of revenge porn and death threats, and exhibiting such controlling on-show behaviour that the charity Women’s Aid has released statements to condemn it.
So no longer will Islanders’ friends and family be able to post on their behalf on social media, and all contestants have received guidance and training on “mutually respectful behaviour in relationships”. This is all in addition to a minimum of eight therapy sessions after the show, and explicit “managing [of] cast expectations”. Anybody who saw Channel 4’s Life After Love Island: Untold last week will know that last part might prove particularly useful.
On it goes, then. And on this evidence, Jama is a good choice. Easily cooler than all the contestants though without being unsupportive, she is capable at handling annoying men and excellent at slow-motion walking, which is largely the entire job. In some ways, hosting Love Island is the presenting equivalent of a non-executive directorship, or a peerage: you only need to turn up four or five times a year, mostly to remind people you exist and deliver bad news, otherwise you’re free to have a lovely holiday.
As for the Islanders? They’re there to work. Jama introduced the first clump with a pre-filmed VT that appeared to show them all doing their jobs. So there was Shaq, who does airport security, scanning bags; Haris, who sells TVs, selling TVs; Will Young (not that one), rolling around in some hay with a woman, because apparently that’s what farmers do. Then, variously, we had a teacher, a hairdresser, a bloke with a corporate job, and a woman whose job as a biomedical science student is depicted by her throwing a man’s clothes out of the window.
While they waited for the girls, we got to know the boys. Ron Hall, a name you’d think was attached to an Accrington Stanley goalkeeper from the 70s, is the one with a corporate job. He is also blind in one eye. Shaq, meanwhile, says things like, “It’s Shaq time” – which, depressingly, proves he’s surely too young to remember the X Factor contestant Chico Slimani, or else he wouldn’t say it. Will looks like the love-child of Sir Keir Starmer and Kevin De Bruyne. And Haris’s simply will not consider women with feet larger than a 5. Does he carry one of those measuring slides with him? We didn’t find out, but we did find out that Jama, who they all clearly fancy, is 1.5 sizes out of his league.
The men, buffed and burnished, lined up on the side of the pool to be presented to the girls, who arrived one by one and were always labelled “unreal”, which was meant as a compliment. This set included Olivia, whose claim to fame is that she worked as the body double for Michelle Keegan on the actress’s campaign for Very. It was a claim so tenuous, so niche, that you could not help but respect her for it. She tried to steal Kai, the teacher, from a nice-seeming girl from Swansea, but ended up being swapped herself when Kai chose a Londoner named Tanyel. In the end, Olivia had to settle for Will, the farmer, who is described three times as “funny”. In Love Island terms, this is a fate worse than death; he might as well quit now. Otherwise, they all fancy Kai. Though this may be because he’s the only one who looks old enough to drive.
Once all neatly paired up, Jama left us to watch sparks fly, such as Ron and his partner, Lana, discovering they both like Harry Potter, Tanya describe Shaq as “very easy to speak to”, as if she thought his first language might be Mandarin, and all of them dance in slow motion, because it that killed an extra few minutes and this went on for 95 of them.
By the time Jama came back to introduce another man, one who looked so similar to the others that for a moment I thought he was already in there, some plotlines had been seeded, for all that future tension that producers will so desperately need, whatever the cost, over the next two months. So: Is Kai untrustworthy? Is Olivia a little quick to throw stones? Is Tanyel a real name? How can Will get out of the friend zone? And, ultimately, why are we doing this again?