Heartbreak Island is the Brotherhood of Mutants to Love Island's X-Men.

Heartbreak Island: the reality behind this TV mutant

Even before it aired, Heartbreak Island had attracted an excess of controversy. Duncan Greive says the show is much better and stranger than its detractors would have you believe.

Has there ever been a show as doomed as Heartbreak Island? The name is manifestly a jack of ITV’s smash hit Love Island, only inverted so as to be freighted with pain.

When it went to air a few weeks back, it became that rare television product that united truly diverse range of opponents: George FM and Newstalk ZB. The furore was all over social media, even prompting co-host Matilda Rice, previously living a teflon existence and adored by all, to have trouble sleeping after the brutal reaction to early episodes.

Over what? What made us so mad?? Let’s look back at the first week, where it all began, all those days ago. Firstly, some young people went to Fiji and stood on a giant foot and coupled up after a Tinder-style process. Second, they did some kissing in bikinis and boardies. Third, they had a bit too much to drink.

Not quite enough to send the commissioners directly to jail just yet.

There’s more. They could be there for love – but there is $100,000 on offer too. The drinking also went a bit far, when poor Izaak went green and had a nap. Add a bit of ordinary reality show digging through fetid water for diamonds and there still doesn’t seem to be enough to get worried about.

If this doesn’t look like your Friday night, you’re probably the one doing something wrong.

Even Friday’s Heartbreak Island: Uncut didn’t seem to quite justify the billing. A suggestive opening montage was not backed up by the content, so even though its highest rating demographic was – according to The Spinoff’s sources – 5-14, they would not have seen anything worse than the sidebar ads on Pirate Bay.

What they would have heard, though, was the greatest narrator in our reality TV history reappearing in an unexpected place. It was Bill Kerton talking us through the week on the island, with that fascinated stray anthropology professor air he had on Neighbours at War. What’s more, a close inspection of the credits revealed fellow Neighbours at War mastermind Lee Baker named as the segment’s producer.

And with that reveal, all suddenly became clear about what had been a show which was much more mysterious than it was titillating. Because while some indignant audience members seemed desperate for Heartbreak Island to by coated in smut, the content has thus far stubbornly refused to support that proposition.

In fact, based on what I’ve seen so far – every single second of the eight episodes to have aired so far – the show is actually a reality TV rat king, combining almost every format known to the genre into one sprawling and often glorious mess. Viewed from some angles it’s a parody of the genre, from others an OTT tribute to its excesses. To these eyes, while it’s filled with treachery, it seems made with love for the whole galaxy of reality, and determined to become one show which contains it all.

Let me count the shows it nods at:

  • Survivor: it’s an elimination contest wherein strategy surrounding ‘the game’ is paramount.
  • Wipeout: contestants regularly compete in ungainly physical challenges
  • Big Brother: contestants are constantly filmed and recorded for sound, even and especially in bed.
  • Fear Factor: eat bugs and smelly fruit, put your feet in with eels.
  • Love Island: find love, on an island.
  • Also Love Island: random drops of fresh meat.
  • Krypton Factor: brain teasing puzzles mean you need to pair brawn (of which there’s a lot) with brains (a more scarce commodity).
  • The Bachelor NZ: someone ends up with a Suzuki Swift.

As you can see, it’s a hell of a lot. And if you’re looking for signs of the social apocalypse, you’ll likely find them – most notably in the constant partying and partner swapping. But, intriguingly, the partying is not without consequences. The hungover tears of regret are real, and thus make it one of the more accurate portrayals of New Zealanders drinking on holiday yet to screen. And as to partner swapping: who are you, Bob McCoskrie?

(Incidentally, Bob McCoskrie has a google alert for his name, and has yet to issue an opinion on Heartbreak Island: Uncut, so watch for that in coming days).

The point I’m trying to make is that there is a chasm between how the show is sold and the product which appears on screen four nights a week. And that the reaction to it, as so often happens with reality television, has been much more centred around its presentation than its content. I have mostly found it a riveting, funny and pacey show, with a fascinating cast – Harry is hilarious, Gennady is hopelessly devoted, Kristian was a world class villain. One critique you could make is that Heartbreak Island, for all the titillating teases, has thus far been somewhat tame.

Lewd, obscene, disgusting.

Obviously we’re only a little over two weeks in, and a lot can change. The teaser for Heartbreak Island: Uncut appeared to show actual people having actual sex, and while that hasn’t happened yet on the show itself, that would feel like some kind of new ground broken – while also something that is happening quite frequently elsewhere on a Friday night, so…

The sad part, to me, is that being far more castigated than watched has contributed to a show which has not become the kind of national pop culture obsession it deserves to be. The competitors being younger and differently motivated gives it a new feel to that of prior dating shows, and its vernacular language (“cactus”; “absolute strife”) is a persistent joy. And TVNZ2 has clearly tipped a huge amount of money into it which it seems unlikely to recoup.

Compared to, say, seventies throwback Dancing with the Stars, Heartbreak Island is a far more modern and varied product. Yet the latter appears to have been disdained, sight unseen, by the same audience which lapped up The Bachelor.

It’s a shame. They’re missing out an absolute mutant, and one which deserves many more eyes and much more considered scrutiny than it’s had to this point.


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