After my grandma died last month, I tried to throttle my grief with brute force, AKA reality TV. In times of distress she always fired up her “progrums.” I don’t usually watch dating shows, but I needed something totally novel. Something I had no context for. Something with a $100,000 prize that is never once mentioned.
I washed up on the shore of a pink and aqua show called Love Island USA Season 3, which premiered in early July. And from then until last Sunday’s finale, I was marooned from anything resembling pain.
The Love Island franchise started in the UK in 2015, and its purist fans won’t let you forget it. The show is their The Office, and our hot dog water bastard child (est. 2019) just won’t do.
“No one watches that one,” these lazy Anglophiles fume. No, they don’t follow the royals, but mention Love Island USA and suddenly they all fancy a spot of tea. Oh, you won’t stray from the Bri’ish version? Is that because it’s your FAVOURITE? Well, sorry, but this is the one I found. Or the one that found me.
Love Island USA takes place in a tricked out Hawaiian villa. It stars a revolving cast of hotties whose goal is to stay coupled up through various trials and temptations. Weak couples (or sad singles) are “dumped” from the island. The strongest pairs will endure until the show eventually ends and winners are chosen in a black-tie and beautiful gowns ceremony. Oh, and viewers have a say in things too, because it happens in real time.
It all kicks off with five bikini women standing in a line. One by one, shirtless male delivery drivers, budtenders, and rental car company branch managers Kool-Aid man in. They have one thing in common: loving saying “definitely,” as in “We definitely just got here” and “I'm definitely a straight shooter” and “The first thing that’s gonna grab the girls is definitely my abs.” Shiny kings giving Rain Man. Heaven.
Then, in the most horrific moment of anyone’s lives, the contestants pick partners based on physical attraction alone, and if you think production steps in to make sure everyone gets a shot, well bitch, you’re not on self-care Instagram anymore. Your phone actually doesn’t even work here. There are no Lyfts home.
(Before we go on, if you’re hoping for a smug roast of hot people, bye. We’re not doing the nerds vs. jocks thing anymore. This isn’t fucking 1986 — sorry, but everyone’s the same now. You think you’re better than these people because you own vinyl? Who’s really worse, an influencer who shaves his pubes and launches into backflips constantly for no reason, or a guy who would kill his whole family for the Black Keys? The Islanders fight, fuck, and cry on a global stage; what’s the boldest thing you’ve done lately? Leave a note on someone's windshield saying their parking job “ISN’T COOL?”)
(Ladies, I’m looking at you too. Your dating app drama is just a poor man’s Love Island in an Everlane wide leg. Shopping at ethical factories doesn’t make you better than women who shop at um… I guess THE CUTOUT STORE (?!?))
The show is helmed verbally and spiritually by Matthew Hoffman, who cut his teeth interviewing celebrities and is now LIUSA’s voice of God narrator and co-writer. In a booming, musical cadence, he deftly alternates between puns, rimshots, and deep philosophical truths masquerading as sassy quips. He’s so funny that I DM’d him to see about an apprenticeship (no response but you knew that). Comedic actor/model Arielle Vandenberg, the imposing but cozy host, sometimes shows up for the dumping ceremonies, sometimes just...doesn’t, and there’s no host for like six episodes straight. We’re being steered, but we’re rudderless. An apt place for someone processing death (me).
The Island is detached from such grim realities, at least on the surface. It’s also a realm far from online consent discourse, a Wild West where people “definitely” make out with people they “probably” don’t want to, and ape heteronorm relationship tropes with no regard for possible blue check scorn. An oasis from outrage, every gesture radiates gleefully with a little romcom, a little Pornhub, a lot of sexy mischief. It’s a tribute to virility and collagen. A pure escape from fears of cancellation, misery, and decay.
The Islanders frolic in a sexuality of yore, one that’s wet, bulbous, and soothing. As they’re traded out like circuit twinks, the “boys’” appeal is slo-mo and buns-centric, suggestive as an open-faced McRib. The “girls” channel ‘80s pop metal vixens while being too young to have ever seen those women buck on cars, giving so much “Richie Sambora’s third fiance” energy it feels like time travel. As an Islander, whether you “win” or “lose” a strip tease challenge, you’re getting passed around like a Christmas ham.
But the real action comes when things end up falling apart. Rain fell in sheets ‘pon the Good Vibes Only neon sign, obscuring its message. New people were brought in and America voted for their favorites (lets just say I... made it out to the polls.) Hyper-accelerated love triangles and betrayals played out as relationships were tested. Bitter depths were plunged by rejection and low self-worth, which seemingly plagues everyone, all the time, even people with white teeth and bouncing pecs or milkers. The undercurrent of the show that at some points nudged the fourth wall out of place was that no one in the world really has self-esteem and everyone has so much pain. This calmed me.
Offscreen, Covid ravaged the crew. Four Islanders left abruptly, some for unexplained reasons, some due to personal tragedy. It turned out even the island wasn’t death-proof, and I cried with the contestant who lost his sister during filming, for his loss and my own. Fan favorites were dumped, and happy couplings occured as soon as players left the villa, almost as if the show itself were cursed.
As things devolved, the internet responded. “END THE SEASON NOW,” Reddit brayed. “WHERE’S PRODUCTION?” “BRING IN MORE GUYS,” they demanded, like the men were war rations. I half expected the helicopter on a mid-season date to careen into the side of a cliff.
The Internet is fake, though. Love Island weirdly isn’t. It carried on and so did I. Over the course of a 50-hour, 44-episode, 39-day pilgrimage, we trudged. Where, we didn’t know. There kept being more. It claimed to air five times a week but released bonus episodes on off nights as well. Called “exclusives,” they were actually full blown opuses, hours each in length, mini-Russian Arks. I needed every single one, and began to decline any plans after nightfall.
The Islanders’ resilience inspired me. Battered but not broken, their resolve was invigorating. I honestly clung to it. Any anxieties they had were quickly buried for the greater good, the hope of a “genuine connection” and the total willingness to surrender to every moment, every open mouth. Truly living for today, as we all should!
“I want to find my person,” they kept saying, and in the end, some did. Love was reduced to a soulmate-centered binary — on Love Island, the idea is that there’s a lid for every pot. It’s a comforting place where making memories, living in the moment, and being open are all the same thing, always possible, and usually include ziplining. If it weren’t for all the dry humping, my grandma would have loved it there.