(CNN)“All you need is love,” sang The Beatles.
The format sees Instagram-attractive, perma-tanned singles isolated in a luxury summer villa for weeks on end. Couples form and reform as new tempters — “bombshells” — enter the villa and rejects are voted out. The New York Times called it “a cross between ‘The Bachelor’ and the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
And “Love Island” is essential television viewing in Britain: This summer’s premiere took 18.5% of the audience share. So, there were high expectations for the show’s US version, currently airing on CBS. Yet, somehow, America isn’t biting. Viewer ratings in the US have been a disaster.
Is the US simply a higher-minded nation than Britain, with a population too virtuous to enjoy snogging contests and on-camera sex in the coyly misnomered “Hideaway” suite? Unlikely. But the failure of “Love Island” to land stateside does remind us that Britain and America are still two very different nations, especially when it comes to our big obsessions: class and competition.
In both Britain and America, “Love Island” pretends to be a show about finding love. Perhaps, at a cursory view, in both places it’s a show about sex. But in Britain — like everything else — it’s really a show about class. Watch an hour-long episode of the British edition, and you’ll be surprised by how little of the airtime is taken up with conversations about flirting and sexual betrayal. Instead, the show’s top viral moments are when the show’s contestants drop educational bloopers.
In a nation in which every newspaper has spent the last three years covering the economic and political questions around our exit from the European Union, there was an explosion of derision last year when model Hayley Hughes turned out not to know what “Brexit” meant. (“Does that mean there won’t be any trees?” she worried.) Hughes hails from Liverpool, a city known for its proud working-class history, strong accent, and habit of attracting bile from the rest of the UK. (Incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson was once forced to apologize to the city for insulting it.) Meanwhile, this summer has already seen dumped contestant Jourdan Riane complain that her smug assurance that “Barcelona is in Italy” was edited to maximize viewer scorn. (The network has not commented on her claim.)
Brits from every walk of life watch “Love Island.” For many of the show’s young, lower-income fans, there’s a genuine identification with its working-class cast members — demonstrated by the huge success of the brand’s cheap, “fast-fashion” tie-ins.
But the reason it reaches out beyond that base — and dominates newspaper columns, where intellectuals lament the regressive gender politics — is that the upper-middle classes love it, too. When the editor of the influential Daily Mail resigned last year, one prominent editor suggested that George Osborne, who ran the Treasury for ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and has since entered journalism, might be campaigning for the job. “Err… actually, I’m watching ‘Love Island,’ ” the ex-Chancellor replied. Osborne, better known for his taste in Wagnerian opera, wasn’t just doing a man-of-the-people act — he was likely enjoying the rare thrill of a world in which no one knows his name.
“Love Island,” the US edition, however, seems to be making the mistake of taking its contestants seriously. Where the cast of “Love Island” in the UK mixes blue-collar workers — like a firefighter — with the usual slew of catalogue models and mid-tier influencers, some of the US cast even have white-collar jobs. By contrast, when the UK version last season featured a doctor, it sparked newspaper columns about the rare incongruity of a “solitary middle-class contestant” amid the working-class cast.
We also have yet to see if the US version handles the relationship between race and dating as poorly as the UK version, in which contestants never talk about the subject, but silently act out harmful patterns in which women of color are regularly rejected.
What is clear is that it avoids the toxic snobbery of the United Kingdom. But if the American show’s not a zoo for the posh to gawk at the poor, it will never have the key ratings pull of its British cousin.
“Love Island,” the US version, does show some superior moral chops in its collaborative nature. Only one couple can win the cash prize for being voted the nation’s most popular couple, but contestants, when given the chance, rarely vote out their toughest competition. Eight contestants make it to the final, and no matter who wins, there are sponsorship deals and an appearance circuit for most finalists — or, to quote Alice in Wonderland, “prizes for all.”
However, the US version already shows signs of a “Survivor”-style dog fight. (At least two contestants have already muttered “It’s ‘Love Island,’ not ‘Friend Island,’ ” ominously.) The great American blueprint for reality dating television is “The Bachelor,” in which only one lucky man or woman gets to choose a mate from fiercely competitive contestants. And American viewers may struggle with the idea that television love isn’t always a knock-out contest.
Britain has never been a nation that fetishizes “winners.” The great benefit of this is that we’ve never grown our own Charlie Sheen. But where we avoid the nastiest streaks of America’s competitive character, we are still riddled with the class snobbery for which Yanks rightly mock us. Perhaps that’s why the producers of “Love Island” in the US haven’t understood what really made the British version zing.
Want to understand the character of a nation? Watch their dating shows.