The Pandemic-Induced Desperation of ‘Love Island USA,’ Quarantine Edition 1

What happens when you take 10 “sexy singles,” give them all COVID-19 tests, and make them share one tiny Las Vegas hotel room after months of isolation? Extreme horniness and a flagrant disregard for safety procedures ensue. So begins the second season of CBS’s Love Island, the US adaptation of the British reality dating show of the same name. 

When Love Island USA premiered last summer, it failed to pack the steamy, dramatic punch of its original iteration from across the pond. Cast members were forgettable and the canned voiceover narration turned out to be more cheesy than charming. This year, however, CBS’s decision to go forward with a quarantine edition of the show provided a necessary twist, during a time when people are especially starved for entertainment. 

Narrator Matthew Hoffman set the scene for the new season early in the first episode, jokingly warning, “The following program contains love, lust, and a disinfected rooftop we’re calling an island.” While last year’s season was filmed in Fiji, this season takes place entirely at the Cromwell Hotel & Casino in the exotic city of Las Vegas. The change in venue was one of many precautions taken to minimize the cast and crew’s risk of exposure to COVID-19. As Hoffman and host Arielle Vandenberg repeatedly assure viewers throughout the premiere, contestants were required to quarantine for 14 days prior to arriving on the island (ahem, rooftop) and are apparently subjected to regular testing during the filming process, though this is never mentioned or shown after the first episode.

But from the moment the islanders pull up to the hotel in flashy sports cars, any attempt at social distancing goes out the window. There are no masks or hand sanitizer dispensers to be seen, and no explanation of how producers intend to keep six feet of distance between contestants sharing queen-sized beds. 

First to arrive are Cely and Moira, who shower each other with disingenuous compliments and gaze in wonderment at the tacky neon décor. (Not that we blame them—after six months marooned on the couch, a rooftop pool surrounded by AstroTurf and throw pillows is a respectable stand-in for paradise.) Cely, a 24-year-old legal secretary from Sacramento, explains that she is looking for someone who “loves Cely as much as Cely loves Cely,” instantly demonstrating her potential as a reality television star. She emerges as an early favorite of the male islanders. 

Also among the bikini-and-stiletto-wearing hopefuls is Kaitlynn, a 27-year-old with a tattoo on the inside of her lip that says “Psycho,” and Justine, a billing coordinator/go-go dancer who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo after surviving the Rwandan genocide, and is absolutely too good for any of the men on this show. Mackenzie rounds out the group introducing herself as a sports fanatic who has only ever dated millionaires.

Kaitlynn best captures the pandemic-induced desperation underlying the whole season so far when she admits, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been surrounded by testosterone and I just, like, want someone to touch me.” Lucky for her, she will not have to wait very long before the islanders start swapping saliva, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world remains in the midst of a global health crisis.

After the first round of introductions, the men are brought out and the signature Love Island mating ritual begins. As Vandenberg explains, each male contestant gets to pick which woman he wants to couple up with. The women can step forward to indicate that they are interested in pairing up with the male islander, but he can ultimately pick whoever he wants. Often, no one steps forward for the contestants, yielding hilariously heartbreaking moments like when James, a tattooed personal trainer from Texas, chooses the uninterested Moira and says, “Hopefully I’ll grow on you.” 

Throughout this process, Vandenberg has the clearly excruciating job of asking the islanders to explain why they are or are not attracted to the person in front of them. Tre, a former college athlete and self-proclaimed player, says he is attracted to Cely because of “the obvious fact that she’s attractive.” Kaitlynn is not into 23-year-old Connor because “he looks like he shaves his whole body.” They all stand around uncomfortably, ankle deep in the swimming pool. This is, undeniably, the best part of the show. 

Fans will be pleased to learn that even with the change of setting, the pandemic edition of Love Island USA mostly feels like any other season, not unattributable to the fact that the contestants don’t seem to care at all about the blatant exchange of germs taking place. Producers give them water bottles and wine glasses monogrammed with their names, presumably so that they won’t drink from the same cups, but this proves to be a comically futile effort when they all immediately squeeze onto the too-small couch for a game of “Suck and Blow.” They lick sweat off of each other’s upper lips and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries as if they are still living in the carefree, pre-coronavirus days of yore. 

As usual, new contestants arrive throughout the week to stir up drama and threaten the existing couples. Mackenzie vies for a villain edit when she tells new girls Kierstan and Rachel to stay away from her man, then gets mad at Connor for not following her when she runs away in tears—typical reality TV fare. Though he is initially paired up with Kaitlynn, 23-year-old Carrington falls for Kierstan. “She looks like she would be a flight attendant on a private Dubai airplane,” Carrington earnestly gushes, “definitely one of the sexiest girls I’ve ever seen.” 

It turns out that the change of location does not make that big of a difference either. The set designers who managed last year to strip a sprawling villa in beautiful Fiji of any local culture or taste have perfectly replicated the same day-club style on the roof of the Cromwell. There are ample cushioned sitting areas on which to make out and discuss your astounding similarities, (Would you believe that James and Moira both love cuddling?!) In fact, such a campy, absurd show as Love Island has perhaps always belonged in a place like Vegas. The giant, sparkling Caesars Palace sign, glowing brighter than the moon above the makeshift island, is the perfect backdrop for secret jacuzzi dates. 

In the three episodes following the premiere, COVID-19 barely comes up, except as fodder for the narrator’s corny jokes. The islanders have bigger things to worry about, like Friday’s highly anticipated recoupling—the first of the season—and the subsequent elimination of whichever contestant is left without a match. The decision comes down to poor Tre, who doesn’t know whether to pick Justine, with whom he has a genuine interpersonal connection, or Kaitlynn, who he admittedly does not know well, but “enjoys looking at.” In a rare display of sound judgment on a reality dating competition, Tre decides to give Justine a chance and send Kaitlynn packing. 

The introduction of two new guys promises to shake things up for the happy couples, but for now they have a break—until tomorrow, that is, because this is Love Island and Love Island airs every damn night of the week, pandemic or no pandemic.