HBO Max Dating Experiment Show, Explained – The Hollywood Reporter
On first viewing, reality dating show FBoy Island may seem to appeal to a specific audience. But creator Elan Gale says that as viewers stick around to see the first season evolve, the new HBO Max offering is actually “a show you can talk about with your family.”
That’s also why the show’s title was edited to be more PG-friendly. “We didn’t want to fully discourage people from talking about the show openly and excitedly,” says the former Bachelor franchise producer, who acknowledges that while the word “fuckboy” rolls off his tongue nicely, not everyone uses the F-word so freely.
When viewers land on FBoy Island, three single women are running a tight ship. In this latest reality dating experiment, leads Nakia Renee, CJ Franco and Sarah Emig have been tasked with sniffing out the “Fboys,” who have secretly signed up for the show’s cash prize, from the “Nice Guys,” who are truly looking for love, when they meet 20-plus men in a pandemic-era bubble on the Cayman Islands. The competition — which is filled with twists — is hosted by an irreverent Nikki Glaser, who comically holds the cast to task. The show certainly does not take itself too seriously, but, according to Gale, the hope for a modern romance is the beating heart of the series.
“FBoy Island is not here to change the world. It’s here to make you enjoy a few minutes of your life and have fun,” Gale makes clear. But, at the same time, “we want to try to see if people can change for the right person.”
Below, in separate chats with The Hollywood Reporter, Gale and fellow reality veteran and showrunner Sam Dean (Love Is Blind, Married at First Sight) discuss their big swing with FBoy Island, tease what to expect from this season and possibly beyond (“I’m looking forward to fuckboy weddings, fuckboy babies,” says Gale of his hopes to franchise the idea), and why they set out to subvert expectations with their “simple pleasure” reality series.
First, tell me, Elan, how did you come up with the idea for FBoy Island?
Elan Gale: Working on dating shows for years and loving them, I didn’t know what was missing for me. I wanted to do something just a little bit new and different. When I talked with friends of mine, the conversations they were having about the guys they were dating tended to be around a specific thing of men who would ghost them. Obviously, it goes both ways. But it was very often men who said a lot of things, made a lot of promises and then disappeared. I heard the term “love bombing” a lot. And I heard the word “fuckboy” a lot. I felt like there was a new opportunity.
Most dating shows say, “Here’s a bunch of really great people. You should get to know them.” And then part of the journey for the lead is to figure out whether that person is really interested in them, or if they are enjoying the game or spotlight. And I thought, in real life, when you go out with people, they put their best foot forward. People want you to think they’re interested and emotionally invested. Sometimes it’s absolutely true and sometimes it isn’t. So rather than saying, “Here’s a bunch of people you should get to know,” what if we say, “Here’s a bunch of people; some are really great, some are not.” There’s an honesty to that. Of course, it’s all wrapped in comedy and silliness. But the idea is that this is more similar to real life, where dating is more of a sleuthing for the first few weeks. That was the premise. I thought: Let’s go to a place called FBoy Island. This is our Jurassic Park. A place where you’ll go and have an adventure. I’m not necessarily saying it’s a great place to live — and, I don’t know if we should have opened it! But now the dinosaurs are running around and hopefully you’re able to escape unscathed with an amazing story.
When you come up with an idea called FBoy Island, I imagine you always pictured this as a streaming show?
Gale: I didn’t think there was a chance this was going to be on a broadcast network. (Laughs.) When people heard about this show, it felt almost like a dare. Even for us, the producers. This was in the middle of the pandemic and it felt like something fun and different, hopefully both as an experience and as a show, that didn’t take itself too seriously. Going to a streamer was the hope and was always the goal. And HBO Max were partners hand-in-hand throughout, making sure that we created the best show possible. TV is a team sport; no one creates anything alone. Hundreds and hundreds of people worked on it. And the reason I bring up the pandemic is I think people really just had fun. People had a good time trying to do something different and take a big swing.
Sam Dean: Elan came up with the initial concept and title, and then I came onboard through [my overall deal with HBO Max] to develop it and help turn it into a format and a structure, which I then went to the field with to run. I loved the idea; I thought there was something so honest and topical about it, and also funny. I’ve done lots of dating and relationships shows. Love Is Blind and Married at First Sight are very heavy relationship shows, which I love, but I thought there was a lot of humor to be had with this. It’s part of an age-old conversation, but also a very modern one that feels fresh. We’ve had bros and players, and now we have fboys. I was very tickled and amused by the concept.
The women are unaware which men have self-identified as “fboys” and which are “nice guys.”
What were some of the notes you got from HBO Max and some things you changed from conception? For example, was the conversation to edit the title down to FBoy Island a big one?
Dean: We went back and forth on the title. It was going to be Fuckboy Island, but it got abbreviated.
Gale: It’s a unique title. There are quite a few really great shows out there that have used some form of vulgarity, but asterisked out. That’s a direction we could have gone, but we wanted to feel a little more accessible. I think FBoy Island is a show you can talk about with your family. This is a family show. We didn’t want to fully discourage people from talking about the show openly and excitedly without feeling embarrassed. We were just trying to have a little bit more leeway. But the number one thing that came out of the partnership with HBO Max is that always at the core of the show — and I think when you get to the end, I hope you’ll feel satisfied by this — is that it’s an examination of fboy culture, but it’s not a celebration of one. It’s really important that in the end, fboys are not being congratulated for the things they’re doing. They can potentially be given money for thinking about the way they’ve interacted and, hopefully, making some changes; and there’s obviously a lot of silliness with how we deal with [host] Nikki and with “Limbro” and the “Nice Guy Grotto” [twists]. But the premise was really about how being an fboy is not a good thing. It may be fun and people are allowed to do whatever they want to do with their lives, but it’s not the kind of thing we’re going to celebrate. Instead, we’ve got to examine it and expose it, and then try to see if people can change for the right person.
Dean: We went back and forth so many times about how to actually structure the show. We wanted to have an empowered female voice and we wanted to tell stories from the female perspective, so we were very much in alliance that we should have a more limited number of women so that they could be the heroes of the show. As a woman, I think it’s so fascinating that, on the one hand, you don’t necessarily want to be with a player or an fboy, but they’re still very appealing. It’s so relevant to so many women that I know when you go through your phases of dating. It’s fascinating studying the layers of what really attracts women and why they’re attracted to certain things. We also wanted to try to take the morality out of it and not have so much judgment. People are entitled to be attracted to who they want but, why? Are the nice guys going to win in the end?
The show does evolve as it goes but on first impression, especially, to hear you call this a “family show” subverts expectations. How did that influence the roll out (the 10-episode season releases weekly with batches of episodes) — are you hopeful people will stick around?
Gale: I really do hope so. We want people to get interested in the characters. It’s such a crowded summer with great TV shows where one hour isn’t enough. But in three hours, you can get to know the characters a bit more. This show is full of really interesting people. Both the leads, who are very different from each other, and the men, who operate on the entire spectrum from the nicest of the nice guys to the fuckiest of the fuckboys. The hope was that by giving people a little more early on, they can get invested and care about what happens to CJ and Sarah and Nakia. I think of the show as one long narrative more than weekly episodes.
Dean: It’s so funny because in many ways, it is a family show. I know where he’s coming from and I do agree with Elan — but, obviously it’s called FBoy Island. (Laughs.) It’s a loud title and concept that conjures up a reaction. But, in many ways, it’s tamer than most other dating shows. It’s a really good fit because HBO Max is still new. This is a great avenue to attract and appeal to a big, wide audience. It’s a wonderfully diverse cast. It should, hopefully, appeal to a lot of women. I think it’s family viewing by how funny it is. I know it sounds very ironic. It’s soft and poignant in parts, and is about love, ultimately. But it’s a real celebration of people and relationships generally, with lots of humor, especially with the eliminated cast.
Gale: We tried to not make every episode end in the exact same place. We do something different than most shows, dating or otherwise, right before the season ends. It’s the primary reason for Limbro and the Grotto to exist, beyond fuckboy rehab. For our leads, we put them in a precarious setting on FBoy Island. So we really wanted to make sure that anything that happened on the island, they had access to. And that, by the time they got to their final day, they would make the best decision that they could make for them. There’s an openness to the show in that, not everyone wants the same kind of person. There are hybrids of people and everyone lives on some spectrum. Rather than saying, this person is good or bad, it’s about: is this the person who will treat this individual the way they want to be treated? So, exploring some of that in the end, I hope, will allow us to have more complicated storytelling and, moving forward in subsequent seasons, maybe have us thinking less about someone’s title and more about someone’s humanity.
With your backgrounds — Elan, more than a decade working on The Bachelor franchise, and Sam, developing Netflix breakout Love Is Blind and seasons of Lifetime’s Married at First Sight — there are elements of those shows in Fboy Island, but it feels more like Love Island in terms of the humor and not taking itself too seriously.
Gale: Not even a little bit!
Were you more inspired by overseas formats and was there anything you wanted to do that you could not do on U.S. television?
Dean: Not really. It’s partly why I signed with the Max team, because they are really collaborative. Elan and I felt that we had a lot of freedom to create something that we believed in and felt passionately about. During production, HBO Max weren’t with us on set because of COVID, so we had remote viewing and talked every day in what felt like one continuous conversation, about checking in with the cast members and what the plans were to do next. For example, we had ideas for the eliminated cast to stick around. Calendar-wise, we made sure they could stay with us for the run of production, but we didn’t tell them the twist of Limbro and the Nice Guy Grotto until they were actually eliminated. That idea was an Elan special. At the time you are thinking, “Practically, how do we make this work?” And that was one idea that HBO Max really ran with and helped to facilitate. They were big supporters of us trying different twists and angles.
Gale: Sam, who was showrunner on season one of Love Is Blind, brought so much of that new, interesting twist on dating and her expertise was invaluable. Simultaneously, I really love Too Hot to Handle and, my favorite reality show in history is The Joe Schmo Show. I think it’s one of the best TV shows ever made — I watch it on DVD, It doesn’t stream anywhere. People trying to make a romantic connection is a funny and strange thing to do. Life, when it comes to relationships, is a tragic comedy all the time and we lean into that. I would say this show, frankly, was a little bit more inspired by things like Search Party than it was dating shows; in trying to find that strange humor. I hope we hit it. And that’s where Nikki comes in.
Actress and comedian Nikki Glaser, also an executive producer, was the first person Gale called to host.
Why was Nikki Glaser the right host and did you feel like FBoy Island had to have a female host in order to work?
Gale: When we came up with the show, Nikki was the absolute first person that we wanted to host. I’ve been a big fan of Nikki for years and we’ve become friends. I called her and said, “Hey, I’m making the weirdest show of all time with some people, it’s called Fuckboy Island.” I found out later that she thought I was asking her to be a contestant for the first five minutes of the call. (Laughs.) But once she discovered that I wanted her to be the host, she jumped at it. I think it would be reductive to say that someone was born to host Fuckboy Island — but I do think that Fuckboy Island was born to be hosted by Nikki.
Listen, I’m a guy. And I think this is a show that is supposed to be centered around women; our leads, even though it’s called Fuckboy Island. Sam was the first showrunner that we considered and we’re so glad that she took it right away. She was really involved in the day-to-day creation before we even started filming. And then she took charge and helmed the ship, top to bottom. Nikki also was very involved in her own creative. The jokes you hear are the ones that she wrote and wanted to say. Taking myself a little out of it, there was a really female-focused, top-level executive and creative standpoint, also from HBO Max, that hopefully adds some level of complexity that I would not be able to understand or bring to the table.
When casting to find both the women and the men, how did you land on your three leads and what was your criteria to identify the male contestants as “nice guys” or “fboys”?
Gale: With the women, we were looking for people who would have three different backgrounds when it came to their dating histories. The one thing we wanted them to share was that they had some level of involvement with fuckboys, but were no longer interested. CJ says at one point that she’s an “fboy-tamer.” And I think that was an important thing; people who wouldn’t just immediately write them off and who would maybe give everyone a chance. They may fail immediately, but giving someone a chance is really important in any kind of dating show. The more people you give an option to, the better off you’re going to be to find that missing puzzle piece to fit into your life.
And with the men, we cast them separately. The fboys were on their own casting route and the key was having a broad spectrum of fuckboys — which may be the first time I’ve ever said that sentence out loud! We wanted to have fuckboys who were clearly fuckboys, and we wanted to have fuckboys who were partially fuckboys. And same for the nice guys. The most important part is that we wanted people on both sides to seem to want to have the ability to change. Because evolution over the course of a series is really important. Having an fboy who is always an fboy is going to get a little old. And the flip side is having nice guys who are nice not out of nature, but out of what’s been available to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the guys on the show who are nice guys and who suddenly have an influx of people interested in them because they were on a TV show may evolve into fuckboys, unfortunately, outside of the confines of the show. But I also think there’s a chance some of the fuckboys may evolve into nice guys.
Dean: Even when the cast members were identifying as an “fboy,” we wanted people that we thought were three-dimensional, who had layers and the ability to self-analyze. There were some people who we thought had a big possibility that they might reform; other people who we thought might only reform for the right person; or some, not at all. We really looked for people who we felt had layers, dimension and could self-reflect and take responsibility for their actions — not that that happened, necessarily!
You brought up sleuthing earlier. Later in the season, the women get to do something many leads on The Bachelorette and other bubble dating shows have long wanted to do: they social media stalk their contestants. What about the traditional dating show mold were you most excited to break?
Gale: That’s a great question and it goes back to one of your first questions. I want to do things that are a little more reflective of the times. We tried to have more group activities and parties to reflect the way that people spend time with each other in the early stages of dating. And of course some silly challenges, which aren’t a part of dating but they are a part of life. You go out with your friends on the weekend and see how they interact. There’s no real formality to the beginning stages of dating. You bring up the social media sleuthing; I don’t think there’s a person out there between the ages of 18 and 30 who is currently single and who isn’t doing something like that. That also feeds into the overall conceit of having the women have the information. Yes, it’s funny and silly. But, more than anything, it comes to pass. And that’s relevant to the decision-making process. Having access to that, we thought, was a good way to be more representative of the kinds of decisions that Sarah and Nakia and CJ would be making at home.
This new wave of the reality genre is more reflective of society. Love Is Blind was praised for its diverse love stories, for example; meanwhile, The Bachelor franchise is working on improving years of a lack of representation. When creating a new show culture, what did you do both behind the scenes and in front of the camera to reflect 2021 on the show?
Gale: Part of it starts with having conversations about it going into the decision-making. We’re a season one show, so we get to create our culture now from the ground up. We were led by a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences; in diversity, in work experience. We had an incredible producing team who worked on every kind of show — dating shows, not dating shows. The best thing we can do is bring in the most collective assortment of experience possible; the most diverse group of humans that we could find. Obviously, we tried our best, but there are always going to be viewpoints that aren’t represented. And the key, for me, is to not strive for perfection but to constantly strive for betterment. I think we did a really nice job collectively; Sam, and our producers Vanessa Butler and Bill Dixon, put together a team behind the scenes of people from all walks of life. That doesn’t mean we should celebrate ourselves. That means it’s a great start. And every season we should be trying to do a little better.
Dean: We wanted to be true and honest. It was really important to us from the beginning to have a diverse cast and really just be representative. So often, we do see things through a singular lens and focus, and we really didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be modern and reflective of the entire community. At the same time, what was really important to us is that we predominantly tell the story through the female lens. With the show being called FBoy Island, it was really important for us to allow women to be in charge of the situation and for the men to be the supporting cast, which you don’t traditionally see.
Gale: Stories are interesting when they come from specificity and from humans who have stories, right? The stories on the show come from the people on the show. And the more diverse kind of human being you get, the more storylines you get. The reason I love 90 Day Fiancé so much is that cultural differences are such a huge part of relationships. Here in America, we have a lot of different cultures. And those cultural differences are also fascinating. That’s something that should be explored, applauded and shared. It’s a no-brainer for us. The more diverse humans, the more diverse stories.
“You don’t date in a bubble. You come home from dates and talk about it with your friends. And that’s what we wanted these women to do — go on dates and come home and dissect,” says Gale.
Cortez Vernon/HBO Max
How much of the environment were you controlling on set — for example, can the men see the women off camera? Were there drink limits?
Gale: They all really do live together. They’re not on camera 24 hours a day. This is where both the friendships and the animosities come from. We think of that control stuff as more of a safety thing. Yes, there are drink limits. We don’t want people to not be in control of themselves. Of course, people are adults and they should be able to consume what they want, but we also have to make sure they are safe and present. We want people to be themselves and sometimes people lose themselves when they’ve gone too far. But when it comes to the overall control, at the end of the day, these are fully grown men and women with lives and jobs, and they’re going to do what they want to do. Our job is to keep them safe within the confines of the show. It’s still a set and just making sure that everyone stays safe is paramount.
Your set was on the Cayman Islands. What kind of challenges did the pandemic present with production?
Gale: We filmed in March and April, but everyone was flown out two weeks in advance for a full 14-day quarantine with testing every other day. We took the utmost precautions possible, which was obviously the right thing and the only thing to do. We were lucky enough to be welcomed by beautiful islands and really wonderful people, and the most important thing for us is that we didn’t do anything that would endanger anyone. Not our crew, not our cast; nobody. At that point in the pandemic, the vaccine had just become available, so we were able to offer vaccinations. Simultaneously, everyone flew to the island and quarantined individually for 14 days. Everyone had to have at least five negative tests consecutively after landing, on top of the one pre-landing. And then once everyone was in, we maintained a complete bubble. No one was allowed on or off set if they weren’t cleared by us. We had very, very strict COVID protocols and we’re very lucky. We had no positive tests at all relating to the show in production.
You said you have ideas for more seasons. What would you do differently if you were to do a second season and how will the pandemic impact any future planning right now?
Gale: If we had had this conversation a month ago, things might have been a little more straightforward. At the moment, things are really top security. I think we’re all living a little bit on the edge. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. The Delta variant seems to be particularly difficult and terrifying for me, honestly; I’m a little bit of a germaphobe and hypochondriac. It’s scary. First and foremost, we’re not going to do anything until we can be 100 percent sure that we can do it safely, no matter what. It’s just not worth it. But for the future of the show, what I’d like to see the show evolve to over the next couple of years — because in my mind, this is, oh, nothing big, maybe just 20 or 30 more years (laughs) — I’d like to see us have a little bit more time in production so that we can explore the depths of the relationships further. The premise is a really good starting point. But I would like to have a little bit more time; to have more dates so that the contestants can get to know each other even better. This was a first-season show; a lot of moving parts and people. I think the team that made it did an exceptional job. But there are limitations — the pandemic, limited time. There are things to figure out.
Dean: The one thing we would have to do differently is think about how we would do our final twist at the end, after we reveal what happens! We would look into what the audience would like to see. I really do like to review, research and study the audience feedback. I think it’s very arrogant not to. I’m curious to know how it’s going to be received.
Gale: What I’m hopeful for is that every season takes on a life of its own based on the leads. I think this season was really made by CJ and Nakia and Sarah. We followed their love stories. So I hope that every season allows us to follow whoever the leads are, and that’s going to give us the difference. Yes, we’re going to throw in wild and crazy twists — and, when you see the finale, you will see some very insane twists that really change things at the last minute. But I want to open it up to follow the most interesting story that the people on the show are telling. That is always the most fun part of unscripted television production; they’re in charge and decide what’s going to happen next.
Expect some twists for the end of the season, say Gale and Dean. “The beginning and the end of the show, to me, land in good places,” says Gale.
You sound like you have ideas to franchise FBoy Island.
Gale: Maybe there will be a woman one day who desperately wants a fuckboy. I’m looking forward to fuckboy weddings, fuckboy babies.
Dean: I would love it to be a franchise. It is totally the most modern expression of a dating show that we have for that age group at the moment and I would love it to branch out. Would the audience like to see more women and would people be interested in seeing an FGirl Island? This show is a great conversation-starter and I think FGirl Island would probably be even more of a conversation-starter. It would be really fascinating to turn it around and see what that looks like and what that means. And for women who identify as that, what would their characteristics be? I would find that really fascinating.
Gale: This is a family show and I think that, more than anything, it’s about creating a culture around this dating show that is really about fun. Yes, it’s about love and people; but we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re just having a good time, which I think is something that’s really undervalued in life, because life is stressful and these last 18 months have taught a lot of us. We take a lot of that fun that we have for granted. FBoy Island is not here to change the world. It’s here to make you enjoy a few minutes of your life and have fun; laugh. There is great entertainment out there that makes you think. That’s not this. This is supposed to be something that you enjoy watching with your friends and talking about and laughing about. The pandemic taught us that tomorrow your whole life could be upended. For me to even be sitting here talking to you about a TV show that we made is the utmost height of luxury and privilege. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do it with amazing people; that we had fun and that the cast had a once-in-a-lifetime experience during what was really a dark time. I hope that people watching it now just have a good time. It’s a simple pleasure. It’s not a guilty one; it’s a simple one.
I’m not sure what viewership numbers you will be privy to from HBO Max. For you, what will determine this show being a success?
Gale: I don’t know either! Honestly, I have no idea. I hope so. But at the end of the day, those are for smart people who make business decisions. My metric of success is if people laugh when they watch it, and gasp once in a while. And also if they hate it. I get that. It’s not weird. I watch a lot of shows that aren’t necessarily for me. I really hope people have some visceral human reaction that makes them feel alive for two minutes during a scene. It sounds so silly, but that’s what I think about. Right now, there’s nothing we can do other than hope that people watch it and either have a moment of rage at someone they see who reminds them of someone who fucked them over, or a moment of pure joy seeing someone do the thing that they did when they told someone to fuck off. Just an escape from the horrors of reality.
What is so appealing to you right now about the reality dating genre and are you seeing a lot of change happening?
Dean: Yes. Relationship TV, generally, I find really fascinating. I always find it fascinating when shows use experts or psychologists; they can be hugely helpful. But, at the same time, can you really be an expert in relationships? It’s the topic that everybody experiences, has knowledge of and has struggled with. It equalizes people, because no one can truly get things right all the time; people do need help and conversation. In doing these shows, you realize there is so much commonality. At the end of the day, who doesn’t want love? And who doesn’t struggle with it? There are so many things we can do because the conversations about love always evolve. At the moment, many of the shows we’ve seen have concentrated on a specific type of cast and what’s really exciting about the programming that we’ve seen in the last year with Love Is Blind, with FBoy Island is that it’s opening up a whole new world of possibilities, which I find very exciting.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
FBoy Island releases on HBO Max July 29 with the first three episodes, followed by three additional episodes on Aug. 5 and the final four on Aug. 12.