Do you remember 2020? No, not that bit. The part about eight weeks before the global pandemic fully kicked in, when 11 outrageously beautiful single people decamped their lives in the hope of falling in love in a remote villa in South Africa. You don’t? Neither do I. After a lacklustre initial outing that featured the forgettable final winners Paige Thurley and Finley Tapp, a rebooted winterLove Island hopes to once again capture the nation’s attention with a new cohort of sunkissed islanders, while back home, normal, less attractive Britons face the drudgery of January. It therefore feels like an auspicious start for this series to begin on Blue Monday, but then again the producers behind ITV2’s runaway smash hit have never been ones for subtlety.
So what’s new this time? An updated McMansion and, of course, the arrival of Maya Jama as Love Island’s new First Lady. But we’ll get back to that.
One of the first to arrive in the villa is Haris, a man whose claim that “I’m that good at selling TVs, I can sell a TV when it’s not even on” should read less like a boast, and more like a warning to vulnerable elderly people everywhere; and airport-worker Shaq, who has openly suggested that he would sleep with colleagues in order to get discounted flight prices. Relatable. They are promptly joined by TikTok farmer Will, who already has a million followers on the app. Readers will be pleased to know his repertoire includes a video where he calls a sheep “absolutely filthy” before expressing in detail how he is planning to go about trimming dried clumps of excrement off its ass. It feels like an important moment of representation for people who folded T-shirts at Jack Wills and attended too many Young Farmers events at an impressionable age.
Also on the lineup are “Essex Boy but different” Ron and built-like-a-fridge Kai. The latter is in desperate need of someone to hold him and tell him he is loved. I say this because the man has openly admitted that women claim his best attribute is his height. It’s a bit like being told the most interesting thing about you is simply the hair colour you were born with; I cannot imagine a more withering compliment in my life.
And so, in scenes that would kill off radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, were she alive today, comes the coupling-up ceremony as the girls enter the villa. It’s an easy enough start, with the rather adorable biomedical scientist Tanya swiftly coupling up with Shaq. Next up is self-professed chatterbox Anna-May, who has taken a different tack to the promotional VT, confessing to millions across the nation that her conversation skills are so scintillating that she has caused her dates to fall asleep at the dinner table. It’s this kind of self-awareness that creates an underdog for which to root for, and also makes me feel marginally better about myself. After initially choosing Kai, Anna-May is later dumped for Tanyel, a woman who looks like those Instagram accounts that amalgamate the faces of four famous people into one, terrifying, elite being. Ron quickly opts for the bilingual Lana, who enters the villa with one suitcase and the hopes and dreams of secondary school foreign language departments everywhere, before being joined by actor and ring girl Olivia. Dressed as what I can only describe as a Y2K Pinterest board brought to life, Olivia is made to settle for Will, professing through gritted teeth that maybe they are meant to be. I promise you Olivia, things will get better soon.
Of course, the path to love never does run smooth, and as Love Island veterans will know, a bombshell awaits. Yet it isn’t Macclesfield footballer Tom that captures the most attention of the night. Instead, the episode belongs to the newly appointed Jama, who takes over the reins from Laura Whitmore as the show’s latest host. After years of prompting from fans, it looks like the producers have finally taken the hint, with Jama’s easy charm and affability reminiscent of Caroline Flack’s much-missed warmth. Quite simply, it feels like she’s always belonged here, and regardless of who triumphs as the final couple, I suspect that the real winner of winter Love Island will be Jama.
But even with Jama’s magic, is winter Love Island any good? For many, the answer will be no.
For one, these early episodes are dull. The format at this point is slightly tired and outdated. And yet, this is Love Island at its most pure, before the fights and the mess, before Women’s Aid have had to make a statement about someone’s onscreen behaviour, or any adult men have sucked a boob on live TV. The contestants are happy. They are talking about their astrological compatibility. They are oblivious. They are free. And so we face a crossroads. In so many ways, it would be better for us to simply move on, turn off the TV and leave before the dream begins to unravel. But much like Lot’s wife, who couldn’t help but turn her head to gaze towards the fallen city of Sodom in Genesis, I know that the temptation to continue watching is too great. ITV2, you have done it again.