Love Island, the ITV dating show which teaches toned and tanned twentysomethings about the pitfalls of coupledom, forgot one of the first lessons about relationships this week: never go back.
The programme’s producers reintroduced former contestant Adam Collard to the Mallorcan villa, four years after he left under a cloud of accusations of gaslighting and emotional abuse.
The gamble paid off, with his reentrance quickly sparking tensions after a flurry of excitement and concern from the contestants who recognised him from his 33-day stint on the show in 2018.
But it has led some commentators to theorise that, like many pop culture success stories, Love Island is beginning to eat itself after devouring all its competitors. Not all think that is necessarily a bad thing, however – Collard’s return is new territory, with contestants usually strictly forbidden from talking about the cameras, or what might await them beyond the show.
They may often talk about “the game” and “being here for the right reasons” (love, not money) but never explicitly refer to other motivators – fame, cash, Instagram followers – for entering the villa. But now they have a man among them who has been there and done that, even if it seems he forgot to buy the T-shirt.
Lauren O’Neill, co-author of Vice UK’s weekly Love Island Power Ranking column, thinks this is a significant moment for the show. “This feels like the first year when the show has properly acknowledged itself as a legacy property,” she said.
The promo for the current series was based around the phrase “We Own Love”, which O’Neill thinks was an attempt for Love Island to assert itself as the leader in a packed field of swimwear-clad dating shows. “This suggests the show is becoming more self-aware with regards to its place in the world. So it feels like the right time for a former contestant to return,” she said.
The show’s reliance on the fourth wall – the invisible barrier separating reality stars from their audience – was first tested last year. Liberty Poole began to suspect what viewers had already mooted: that her then-boyfriend Jake Cornish was more concerned with being “on a TV show” than finding love – he was definitely not here “for the right reasons”.
Now, Collard’s arrival has bulldozed through it entirely. “There has always been a looming sense of the wider issues at play, and I think viewers have felt a bit patronised in the past when the show’s edit has downplayed those elements,” O’Neill said. “It’s a good thing for the programme to respect viewers’ media literacy and just acknowledge that there’s life beyond the Love Island bubble.”
Women’s Aid, however, expressed their concern about the reintroduction of Collard. A spokesperson said: “In the 2018 series of Love Island, we saw [former contestant] Rosie rightly call out Adam for his unacceptable behaviour, which included gaslighting and emotional abuse. We hope that ITV recognise how serious this issue is and that it must be learned from, considering they have asked Adam to return to the show.”
Love Island bringing down its fourth wall might be a move towards authenticity, which has worked elsewhere in reality TV. Bravo breathed new life into the Real Housewives franchise by storylining conflicts about the cast leaking stories to the press, after tabloid Page Six started to become a “character” in its own right.
But when reality shows lose their innocence, the balance can easily be lost: Big Brother’s decline was accelerated by controversial producer-engineered moments that went too far, leading to thousands of Ofcom complaints and fines.
Reality TV viewers are increasingly aware that storylines are being produced and that many shows are only loosely connected to reality. Collard’s reappearance on Love Island makes that crystal clear while opening the door to new types of twists and formats where more former contestants return. O’Neill says that if ITV uses this power wisely, it might pay dividends.
“Adam’s return has felt genuinely surprising,” O’Neill says. “Love Island is a show that can be quite rote in terms of its traditions. So shake-ups are a good thing at this point.”
July 16, 2022 at 11:57AM Louis Staples