After falling head-over-heels for Heartbreak Island, her first reality TV crush, Anna Knox returned eagerly for season two. Turns out there’s nothing like a first love to break your heart.
I was genuinely looking forward to watching Heartbreak Island again. Wanderlust, Homeland and Unreal had been my TV diet for the previous weeks, and I needed a hiatus from people taking themselves and the fate of the world so seriously. The antics of a group of twenty-something New Zealanders with borderline narcissistic personalities seeking after $100,000 and love on an island in Fiji should have been just the ticket. Sadly, until the last few episodes, it wasn’t.
Were the personalities just not as interesting this time around? Had I been blinded by novelty in the first season? Did I miss Matilda? Was there something actually, fabulously, ball-blastingly good about the shambolic first season that got mistakenly ironed out in the second?
Yes, to all of that. But ultimately, there were just too many people taking themselves seriously, possibly too many butt cheek shots, and also some very genuine creepiness that definitely ‘gave me the ick’.
All credit to the contestants for effort – and let it be said that toward the end the ones I initially rolled my eyes at (Eden, CeeJay, Helen, Harrison) I ultimately wanted to spend more time with – bu Heartbreak Island season two seemed to be scraping the bottom of the very small barrel that holds New Zealand’s reality TV personality stew. As Duncan Grieve has pointed out New Zealand is a small country, and very few of us are up to the job of being a quality reality TV star. Eden might have been a badass with a good ass, and we saw a lot of both, but she simply wasn’t as clever as Georgia was about it. Darius might actually be the offspring of season one’s Harry and Stacy (the hair! the vocab!), but he couldn’t take the piss the way Harry did (or at all), or eat people alive like Stacy.
In comparison to season one’s chaotic and unpredictable slate of contestants, this season’s group settled quickly into both predictable personality types and couplings they were either too invested in or too afraid to switch up. While they talked a lot about the mayhem they were going to cause, and strategised endlessly – tediously – about ‘the game’, when it came to the crunch they voted to stay, not play or stray, pretty much every time. In the end things got so flat that Kristian and Ruby, the infamous (self-confessed) arsehole and hot chick of season one, were re-injected to the show, much to everyone’s relief.
That said, what we did get with more cautious personalities – and what was arguably lacking in the first season – was character development, which was somewhat interesting. If this were a second novel, you’d say the writing had matured, even if the overarching narrative was a flop.
Eden and Ceejay were great examples of this. The notes from my first impressions of Eden read: Eh? Most dim-witted. And of Ceejay: dood with Rambo headband. Initially, they were true to my predictions, and said things like ‘she has a real photogenic memory’, but the closer they got to each other, the more that changed. It was weird, but by episode ten we saw a transformation – two insecure punks softening as they fell in love. Ceejay went from being silly, arrogant and rude, to being adorably silly, far less arrogant, and quite sweet. Eden got more confident, talked more (and more sensibly), and visibly relaxed. We saw her without make-up, even. Their attraction to each other was clearly mutual, and feeling secure in that turned them into much nicer people. It was a beautiful thing.
Harrison and Helen offered a similarly interesting narrative, though less endearingly so. Having cast himself as the unemotional, arrogant, man-alone who didn’t give a shit what anyone thought and only wanted the money, Harrison started falling for Helen. It was like watching a Rottweiler befriend a kitten – only Helen was actually a lion and she basically ate him up. As soon as she was attracted to somebody else (namely, Kristian) Helen found a way to start talking herself into that relationship and convince herself that ditching Harrison was Harrison’s fault.
My initial notes about Helen say: hot. She seemed like the kind of girl who always gets what she wants, and it’s never enough. Rather than character development per se, she slowly revealed that the hottest, blondest, most popular girl at school, though selfish and something of a ‘space cadet’ (Harrison’s words), will remain attractive and interesting however she behaves. I was sad to see her go.
But not as sad as I was to see Harrison go. Deliberately arrogant, and an awful human being when drunk, he nonetheless had a refreshing honesty which produced this rather sage response to being accused of making all the girls cry with his mean comments: “I just don’t understand why my opinion affects them. You shouldn’t let other people’s outlook affect your own outlook of yourself. That’s the way I see the world. It could be possible that I’m wrong.”
Two people I was not sad to see go were Paora and Kevin. They genuinely creeped me out.
Paora, who may have genuinely believed “if you look after your hair your hair will look after you and you won’t go bald”, seemed to also believe that the women on the island naturally wanted him and that if they didn’t, he might just have them anyway. When Olivia kissed him on a dare in episode 8, he said: “She kissed me, so is that a sign, or is that a sign? Got the green light.” It’s not a sign, Paora. It’s a dare. His angry reaction to then being rejected by Olivia after coming into her bure, hooded like the grim reaper, and trying to “crack on” with her, was self-deluded (“I’m just trying to look after you”) and a bit scary and made me feel keenly protective of all the female contestants. Actually all females everywhere.
Kevin was less overt, but still paraded a sense of predatory entitlement to sex. “She’s as hot as a hangi. I hope I get to taste that kumara,” he says of Helen. Hilarious, but not. Like Paora he seemed disturbingly well practiced at the kind of self-delusional talk that conjures a romance when there very clearly isn’t one, like stalkers do.
Based on all my knowledge of how reality TV works (which is basically based on watching Unreal and talking to my brother who worked on the first season of Heartbreak Island) my theory is that these two contestants, and some others, were selected for their potential to be predatory/entitled, and that their producers then honed in on evidence of those traits and milked them to generate a creepy stalker dynamic, hoping it would play into the #metoo conversation, which was a hot topic when this season was being created.
To emphasise that dynamic, female contestants who weren’t particularly interested in hooking up like Rosie (definitely there for the money), Helen (just about everyone gave her ‘the ick’) and Abby and Ella (“we’re just taking it slowly”) were similarly selected and produced. I can see what the show was going for, but the heavy-handed direction might have prevented the contestants revealing their own more interesting truths.
In general, there was a lot of restraint and contrivance in the second season compared to the first, and I think it’s ultimately what killed the original’s manic beauty. But mediocrity is what happens when a show’s creators and writers are compelled to craft their product in relation to audience feedback, rather than follow their own creative instincts – we asked for it. If we’re un/lucky enough to get a third season of Heartbreak Island, I hope the direction returns to something looser.
What did work, and what I wanted more of, was the scene in episode 19 where Ella and Kristian go on a date and talk about their childhoods. We learn they were both fat kids, and that one year Ella had a broken leg and two broken arms and nobody wanted to be her friend. That information made both contestants more sympathetic and interesting and I wished we could hear more. Perhaps it’s all off-limits in reality TV, but I wished there’d been a bigger focus on those realities. I wanted to know who the contestants’ parents were, where they grew up, what they had been like at school, and so on.
While I’m making a wish list for an imaginary season three, I’d like to draw attention to two more factors I’ve had trouble ignoring this time around and which seem oddly archaic.
Firstly, the rampant heterosexuality. Since the get-go I have been wanting — or actually expecting — to see a same-sex relationship or even just the potential for one on the show. At the very least some of the contestants could be drawn from the less extreme ends of the gender spectrum, be bisexual, or unsure. The vigorously heterosexual nature of the show seems passé, even for the mainstream. And before you say ‘but how would that work?’ remember that “on Heartbreak Island, anything can happen.”
If the sexual mores are retro, how about this?
When Kristian arrives at the Grand Pacific Hotel in episode 19 he says, “I feel like I’ve been transported back in time.” He has. To when it was acceptable to have the native people fade into the scenery, wait on you hand and foot, dress up for you, play drums for you, put red flowers in your beautiful blonde hair and serve you coconut drinks while you ooo and ahh over the beauty of the paradise resort which has been built on their land for you to pour your wealth into.
Okay, so it’s not the show’s job to critique island tourism (on the contrary, it’s there to promote it), and I don’t want to cast a shadow over the resort dreams of Kiwis heading into winter, but it would be good to see a New Zealand show like this exhibit just a little post-colonial self-consciousness with regards to Pacific Island tourism.
In last season’s final episode, when the remaining (white) contestants were confronted with a line-up of fierce looking Fijians dressed ‘primitively’ in grass skirts, like cannibals, I tried to heed my own counsel and not take it too seriously. When Harry said “There’s one… will definitely kill me if I look at him wrong” I reminded myself it was all a big joke and besides, I could not and should not speak, think or write for the Fijian individuals who were working on the show and quite possibly having a great time and earning good money.
In the end though, I need to call out my own (white) discomfort. There was precisely one camera shot in season two when we saw Fijians doing something other than serving or entertaining the contestants. Briefly, while setting up a challenge, a woman threw a ball. When Ceejay gave Eden a black Fijian baby doll to “care for” in episode 19 I prickled. Something seemed really off about it. But what? It was a joke, wasn’t it? Is it okay for a white New Zealand adult to purchase a fake Fijian baby as a joke? Maybe I’m the one with the problem. I just hope he paid loads for it.
In any case, it’s all over now and a very happy Eden took both her babies home, as well as $50,000 and an electric bike. I’m also ready to take my leave, disappointed and sad, yet willing to regard Heartbreak Island the way I would any companionable-if-compromised ex – with fond memories and the vague hope of rekindling the romance in future.
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