On Tuesday morning, hundreds of thousands of Brits picked up their smartphones and quietly uninstalled the Love Island app. Another year until our screens are dominated once more by young people trying to find love and fame on the sunny island of Majorca; another year until the country collectively expands its vocabulary again to include terms like “muggy” and an “absolute sort;” another year until British commentators lose sleep over whether the unlikely success of Love Island signals the total breakdown of society.
“It’s the best trash TV going,” says Francesca Thornton, 25, an associate consultant living in London. “If you don’t watch it, you may as well hibernate for eight weeks while everyone else talks about it.” Even the Conservative Party tried to capitalize on the show’s success with an unsuccessful attempt to attract younger voters by producing “Love Island water bottles” in the style of those carried by contestants, except with slogans like “Don’t let [Jeremy] Corbyn mug you off.”
The premise of Love Island is simple. A group of attractive 20-somethings are made to couple up and share a bed—regardless of whether they have a romantic connection—in a villa on the Spanish island of Majorca. New cast members and challenges are introduced to make things difficult and they are made to recouple. At the end, the most popular couple wins £50,000 ($66,000), and contestants who stay the longest will become minor celebrities who go on to endorse detox teas and charcoal-activated toothpaste on Instagram.
Like the World Cup, Love Island became a daily fixture for many Brits this summer, airing for an hour six nights a week. Although the contestants have some say—if they don’t recouple with someone, they risk being sent home—the public ultimately decides on the winning pair and can vote using the show’s app.
After four seasons Love Island has firmly established itself as a cultural phenomenon while breaking records for broadcaster ITV2. On Monday night, 3.6 million Brits tuned into the finale of the fourth season, making it the most watched program in its slot across all channels, and the most watched program for 16-34s. (The first three seasons are now available on Hulu in the U.S. too.) The show regularly trends on Twitter, particularly viral moments like model Hayley Hughes not knowing what Brexit is and the endless debate over Georgia Steel’s kiss with Jack Fowler. This year’s winning couple, Jack Fincham and Dani Dyer, have already been approached for a spinoff reality TV show.
Much to my surprise, I’ve become one of Love Island’s 3 million viewers this year, despite watching a few episodes in 2016 and in 2017 and failing to get hooked. I don’t watch the Great British Bake Off, or Doctor Who, or the World Cup; I don’t even own a television. But halfway through this season, I started watching Love Island and all of a sudden, I know what it means to have your head turned and understand why everyone keeps shouting “I’m loyal, babe.” While my brain is filled with rational critiques of Love Island—its lack of diversity, both in terms of race and body type, and its heteronormativity—I can’t help but find it fascinating.
“I like it because I like being part of the national conversation,” says one high school friend, who got me into the show this year. And Love Island has regularly sparked bigger conversations about gender politics and race. There’s Black Twitter blaming Fiat 500 Twitter (defined by UrbanDictionary as “Basic British white girls on Twitter that post about hangovers, boys, food, tango ice blasts, and generic life advice”) for voting in white contestants over black ones. My friends and I have had genuinely interesting conversations about the misogyny of so-called “nice guys” (including Dr. Alex George becoming an icon for incels), about the slut-shaming of Megan Barton-Hanson, about Adam Collard being accused of gaslighting by a domestic abuse charity and about the erasure of Samira Mighty’s romantic relationship—the only black woman on the show, who was last to be picked to be in a couple.
I polled other friends and acquaintances to find out how they felt about the show. “I love that the premise is so ridiculous—to fall in love with one of maybe 15 possible partners within two months, and yet so many of the contestants seem genuinely committed to it,” Florence Avery, 26, says. It’s not just women watching it either. Preparing for Monday night’s finale with a dozen other 20-somethings at an apartment in London, Nick Porter tells me that it’s fun to see people be so emotionally vulnerable “from the comfort of your own sofa.”
TIME’s cover story on the rise of “voyeur television” back in 2000 summarized this raw appeal of reality TV. “Through a sudden explosion of new-wave voyeur shows, ordinary people are becoming our new celebrities,” James Poniewozick wrote. “The price: living in front of cameras that catch their every tantrum, embarrassment and moral lapse.”
Love Island is no different, and so can be the source of controversy. Certain commentators have focused on the fact that, in the words of TV presenter Giles Coren, the show stars “brainless young boys and girls from the lowest reaches of the underclass,” trotted out for “the amusement of the chattering classes.” (I personally like Love Island even more because Giles Coren—a man who does not see the irony in calling a show “lowbrow, intellectually apocalyptic megasexist bullshit” in the same breath as dismissing the women on it as “vomitous filth in bikinis and high heels”—despises it so much.)
I do know a few people who claim to watch the show semi-ironically, as a kind of sociological experiment. Several others tell me they enjoy Love Island because it’s mindless television that helps them switch off after work. But Hannah Allies, who was there to introduce me to the show that fateful day a month ago, offers another explanation for why Love Island has gripped the nation. “People say it’s all about escapism and needing to switch off because of Brexit and everything,” she says. “But it’s not mindless. It’s a microcosm of society.”
That might explain why millions of people have watched over 50 hours of Love Island this summer alone. “It’s like an eight-year relationship in the space of eight weeks,” my friend Kate Griffin, an actor, tells me. “It’s primal: people are always in such close contact that they’re triggered by everything. Everyone’s emotions are on the surface, and because emotions are irrational, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Other friends comment on just how much you learn by watching other people’s romantic foibles play out under a microscope and then be analyzed by everyone.
But there’s another reason I watch: after years of being a heartless cynic, something happened to me on May 19—the day Meghan Markle walked down the aisle to meet Prince Harry and apparently brainwashed me in the process. Despite being someone who doesn’t really believe in the institution of marriage—let alone the monarchy—I am also now the kind of person who repeatedly watches clips of Harry stroking Meghan’s thumb and telling her she looks amazing. Ever since then, there has been a hole in my life that only Love Island has filled.
Just a few days before the finale, I was gently informed that people go on the show to get famous, not to fall in love. The longer they stay in the villa, the more famous they will be—and they can only stay if they are coupled up.
I know all this to be true, the same way I know lie detectors are not exactly accurate, and yet for some reason the show has me convinced that it’s possible to fall in love in eight weeks. I can’t be totally wrong: thanks to Love Island, three former couples are engaged to be married and two babies have been born. Last night, millions of Brits watched the final four couples make heartfelt speeches. Maybe they were scripted declarations of love, but watching Wes Nelson choke up as he told Megan Barton-Hanson “it’s been amazing to see you grow as a person…I’m madly in love with you and I’m falling even deeper every day,” I found myself whispering “you can’t fake these kinds of feelings.”
My friend Beth Mathias, probably the only person I know less likely than me to be a Love Island fan, sums up the show’s popularity. “I love Love Island because I love love.” For some reason, this year I can’t help but agree.