CBS' 'Love Island' hopes to follow in the footsteps of 'Great British Baking Show' — for romance

Unlike “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” where betrayal is in the air at all times, “Love Island” is notable for the seeming sincerity of its contestants.
Image: Love Island
Elizabeth Webe makes her entrance on "Love Island."Colin Young-Wolff / CBS
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By Ani Bundel

Reality TV’s heyday may have peaked in the early aughts with “American Idol” and “The Amazing Race," but don’t discount the genre’s longevity. From shows like “Nailed It” on Netflix to the revival of “Temptation Island” on USA, new reality shows spring up year after year in an attempt to join long-lived granddaddies such as CBS’ “Survivor” and “Big Brother.” Now CBS is adding another title that it hopes will stand the test of time — and fickle audience attention spans: “Love Island,” which premieres on Tuesday night.

Like almost every reality show that’s come to the United States since the late 1990s, “Love Island” is a European export. The original series began airing in the United Kingdom in 2005 when reality shows were breeding like rabbits, but only lasted two seasons on ITV and was canceled in 2006. A decade later, ITV tried again with a reboot of the show premiering in the summer of 2015. This retooled concept, which starred regular U.K. citizens instead of celebrities, was the sleeper hit of the summer across the pond and is now on season five (or series five, as they say in the U.K.). Almost everyone who turns up on the show becomes a minor celebrity for the tabloids to breathlessly talk about.

Within a couple of years, Hulu picked up the series and began streaming the early seasons, turning the show into a cult hit here in the U.S., not unlike “The Great British Baking Show.”

Within a couple of years, Hulu picked up the series and began streaming the early seasons, turning the show into a cult hit here in the U.S., not unlike “The Great British Baking Show.” Indeed, the secret to the success of “Love Island” is quite similar to what made “Baking Show” such a triumph in America. Unlike “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” where no one is there to make friends and betrayal is in the air at all times, “Love Island” is notable for the genuine sincerity of its contestants who do seem to be trying to find a love that lasts.

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And yet, at first glance the original “Love Island” does not look all that different from other reality competitions. A dozen good-looking men and women (six of each gender) are shipped off to an exotic locale far from home (in the U.K. version, it’s Mallorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands). These “Islanders,” as they are known, begin the show coupled up, with women picking male partners upon arrival. Said couples then get the chance to change partners at the end of the week. After this ceremonial dumping, those left without a partner are in danger of being sent home. As the weeks progress, new contestants looking for love enter regularly to fill the spots left by those eliminated and to shake things up. (And also to keep the numbers even when required.) By season’s end, three or four couples are left, with the winning couple voted on by the public.

In the first season, the couple that won the hearts of U.K. viewers was relatively new, with one half of the couple a late-entering contestant who joined the show in the final week. But since then, most of the winners and finalists have been couples who stuck it out through thick and thin since the first day. Moreover, unlike shows like “The Bachelor,” which promise a lifetime of happiness but don't usually deliver, several “Islander” couples have stayed together. The series has produced one real-life marriage and one real-life baby from the first two seasons. (Over the 23 seasons of “The Bachelor” and 15 seasons of “The Bachelorette,” 10 couples in total have made it, and one of them is with a runner-up, instead of with the original winner.)

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With a strong track record like that, and a cult following already, it’s not surprising that Les Moonves secured the rights to bring it to CBS in the summer of 2018. (It was one of his last deals before being forced out at the end of that year.) But like ABC’s failed attempt at creating “The Great American Baking Show” with host Mary Berry, the new “Love Island” may not work in the U.S.

The locale seems right — the island of Fiji — where the couples are basically cut off from the rest of society. But already it’s clear that some of the details that made the original both over the top and hilarious, like the villa’s racy décor, will be toned down to suit a more prudish American audience. For another thing, the contestants, while not celebrities, are not exactly nobodies either. More than one is a professional model, along with a couple of musicians.

Another small, but perhaps very important change: how many contestants there are. Unlike the U.K. version, which begins the series with equal numbers of men and women so that couples can start with equal chances, the U.S. version only has 11 contestants, shorting the group a man. With the show admitting up front that this first season will be only heterosexual couples, (also unlike the U.K. version, which began including gay and lesbian contestants with season three), one can assume that the change is a deliberate, attempt to force the women to fight over the men from the outset. So much for positivity.

To be fair, by the time Moonves managed to secure the show to bring it over here, the U.K. version was undergoing some growing pains of its own. Since April of 2019, two cast members have died by suicide after the show aired, the second one coming only last month. The series producers have since committed to making sure all contestants are offered therapy and training to handle the perils of instant fame, but the tragedies have cast a pall over fans watching the fifth season that is currently being aired.

“Love Island’s” U.K. issues will most likely not affect it much over here. But launching a show such as “Survivor” or “Big Brother” in 2000 was easy; like throwing a big fish into a small pond. “Love Island” may turn out to be a drop in the proverbial ocean of U.S. offerings. Though when it comes to looking for love, if the contestants can convince viewers their hearts are true, it could be the biggest fish CBS has reeled in all decade.