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Love Island and The White Lotus are proof that tropical islands are hell in disguise

In his latest column, Ed Cumming looks at TV’s obsession with islands and how, while they might seem like paradise, they should be approached with caution

<p>‘The White Lotus’ embraces the island’s treacherous mystery right from the start</p>

‘The White Lotus’ embraces the island’s treacherous mystery right from the start

These are steamy times for hot islands. Love Island comes bumping and grinding to a close tonight, after another summer of giving British audiences the vicarious horn. This series has had record viewing figures, despite the increase in the number of top grades being awarded at A-level. Last week, HBO’s The White Lotus launched on Sky Atlantic. It’s a dark comedy, set at a fictitious holiday resort in Hawaii, where the long-suffering staff cater to the insecurities of their pampered and wealthy clientele.

The superficial premise of both programmes is that in these luxurious environs, you can let it all hang out. Freed from the distractions of work, bills and the other drudgeries of day-to-day life, you may chase your romantic dreams and work through the personal problems that have been playing on your mind. The islands are sultry places; you can’t help but get off with whoever you find yourself next to, or – especially in The White Lotus – confess neuroses to which you would never normally admit. In the case of Love Island, you are free to do even more press-ups than you do at home. After all, what could be more appealing than an island… of love? Who wouldn’t want to be at “Casa Amor”? Whatever entanglements ensue, nothing especially bad can happen on a hot island, can it?

It is all, of course, an illusion. Most reality programmes depend on the country-house dynamic. Producers might think they are being canny by setting this in Majorca, where there is the opportunity for nudity as well as the “no-escape” frisson, but tropical islands have been treated with suspicion for as long as they’ve featured in literature. For northern Europeans used to a bracing maritime climate, hot islands have always spelt disaster. Our brains overheat and melt out of our ears. There is a thread in the culture running from Shakespeare’s Prospero and Iago, who practised their trickery on hot islands, through Lost, to Toby, this year’s simplest and most licentious Love Island contestant. Away from the structure and regulations of life at home, everyone’s wheels fall off. Islands might seem pleasant, but after a few days, many of us crave green and pleasant security.

Love Island isn’t the only reality TV show where this applies. There’s a continuum that reaches back to the original pilot Love Island, which blessed Britain with Calum Best, through to Temptation Island, which remains the apex of the format. If you don’t remember it, this dark genius involved loyal couples being temporarily separated and put on islands with groups of gorgeous members of the opposite sex, who were tasked with seducing them. And don’t forget There’s Something About Miriam, one of the more dubious series commissioned, where a pack of dudes went to Ibiza to woo the titular Miriam, only for her to reveal that she was transgender. Wherever people are invited to a hot island for romance, expect treachery. The contestants on Love Island-imitator Too Hot To Handle, in which the twist is the contestants must try not to hook up, can’t say they weren’t warned.

Another strand of hot island reality programming focuses on survival. This tradition recognises that in the face of elemental challenges for shelter, food and water, the veneer of civilisation cracks almost at once. It can be easier to survive on your own, as in Cast Away, than in a Lord of the Flies-style group. Hell is hot and hell is other people. Several programmes have embraced tropical islands in this manner, as a venue for office team-building exercises with tanning. Survivor was the most successful example internationally, but in the UK, Channel 4’s Shipwrecked lives longest in the memory for throwing “sexy young people” into the mix, in a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it hot island extravaganza. Bear Grylls’s strand of Pacific island reality programmes tended too much towards the tough and inspirational. In any case, recent survival shows have eschewed the hot island, probably because it’s too easy. Discovery’s (excellent) Alone focuses on cold wildernesses, presumably because the professional survivalists featured would be able to build a functioning society in the tropics in no time. Impressive, but not necessarily great TV.

There’s a graver side to it all, especially when we consider Love Island, which has been dogged by stories about the deleterious effect it has on the mental health of its participants (and presenters, in the case of poor Caroline Flack). The candidates are now extensively screened beforehand, with psychological support on hand and more time taken over pastoral care, but it’s surely naive to think we’ve seen the last of these problems. Once they’ve left Majorca, these men and women are released onto the metaphorical hot island of celebrity, another petri dish of heightened emotions, mischief and scrutiny where you must be strong, or devious, to survive.

Despite that, there’s little sign of any diminishing interest in hot islands. The pandemic, which has trapped most of us on our cold wet island, has only intensified our longing for escape. British viewers will soon be treated to HBO’s FBoy Island, in which four women must sift through a group of 24 men, half of whom are self-proclaimed “f*** boys” and the other half are self-proclaimed “nice guys”, an even more sinister category. It has already been renewed for a second series.

As is so often the case, when it comes to islands we must turn to fiction for an accurate reading. The opening scene of The White Lotus instantly dispels any preconceptions about the nature of the resort. We see a coffin being loaded onto a plane. Like the light-crime juggernaut Death in Paradise, or the interminable mysteriathon Lost, The White Lotus embraces the island’s treacherous mystery right from the start. These series might be scripted, but it’s a more honest approach than Love Island’s. When it comes to hot islands, you can’t trust reality TV to tell the truth.

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