Netflix's Too Hot to Handle is compulsively watchable
Too Hot To Handle, Netflix’s third original reality show of the year, carries the torch of a storied dating show tradition: bringing a group of attractive Instagram models from around the world together to spend a month in a villa, parading around various pools in their bathing suits all day. It’s a reality show formula tried and true, except Netflix has introduced a twist. Their version is a surprise self-help show— a rehab, of sorts, for the kinds of people who would normally participate. It’s Netflix saying: we’re not like other reality shows, we’re a deep reality show—which is exactly where it falls apart.
The premise is this: Fifteen hot contestants must abstain from all physical contact with one another in order to keep their $100,000 cash prize fund intact. Every violation of the rules depletes the communal pot further (a kiss costs $3,000, others costs $10,000), forcing the guests to work together to support each other in their collective celibacy.
(They filmed this last summer, before anyone could have imagined some of the specific trials and tribulations of our current pandemic-induced quarantine).
So instead of being their usual self-proclaimed crazed selves, contestants participate in workshops that help them build character and confidence, following the orders of a cone-shaped omniscient AI named Lana, who reprimands them when they break the rules—which happens a lot. The stated aim of the retreat is to give the guests “essential tools to become authentically connected with each other and themselves, steering them away from meaningless hookups and towards long lasting relationships.” The show posits that the way to achieve this is to nix the physical altogether. Sound familiar?
With The Circle, Love Is Blind, and now Too Hot To Handle, we can safely assume that the Netflix machine has a few more of these reality shows on deck for the remainder of this cursed year. And good for them—because everyone seems to be watching. If Netflix wants to lean into the wildly popular, sexy, voyeuristic reality content that people have been getting elsewhere (see: The Bachelor franchise, Love Island) for years, that’s fine. The problem—which becomes increasingly clear with each new iteration of Netflix reality content—is that Netflix is not quite willing to do that. The streaming service stumbles because it is hellbent on its reality programming having some deep underlying message.
In Esquire’s review of January’s The Circle, Gabrielle Bruney wrote “Most shows quietly reflect America’s desire to see thin straights rubbing up against each other by casting said trim heterosexuals and putting them in situations that lead to them doing just that.” Bruney goes on to explain that while The Circle didn’t quite break from that tradition, it was able to hold a mirror up to itself by offering a sincere, albeit cheesy, critique of this reality trope. In February, Love Is Blind at least tried to practice what it preached by shoving constant, irritating reminders that love is truly blind down viewers’ throats, despite its uniformly attractive cast undermining that very principle. But with two still-married couples to boast, at least the stakes of the pod-dating experiment were real.
In Too Hot to Handle, any semblance of sincerity falls off. The preachy message is far more flimsy. It’s Love Island with an AI as a moral compass. Does anyone need that? The contestants themselves certainly don't—several of which are eliminated over the course of the season for openly proclaiming the stupidity of the retreat in their confessional sessions.
Nearly every self-improvement workshop in the show—meant to de-sexualize and dig deep with its participants—doesn't. In one event, the participants are given ropes to learn Shibari, the ancient Japanese art of bondage. We are told that despite being risque, "it really does teach people how to trust, which is the foundation for any long lasting relationship.” In another activity, the women slip out of their bikini bottoms to hold a mirror up to their vaginas in order to learn to see them and learn to respect them. This workshop is called Yoni Puja, a sacred tantric ritual in which the female organs are worshipped. It’s moments like these where the viewer wonders who exactly Netflix thinks it’s fooling by evoking different cultures in its sexy activities. We’re here to watch hot people in bathing suits tie each other up, that's it, and there’s no shame in that.
Reality television is a genre scored with a host of major issues, from a lack representation and diversity to the glamorization of problem behaviors. If Netflix really desired to address those things, a thinly veiled Love Island-remake was not the way to achieve that. Too Hot To Handle is at odds with the nature of its genre—the show’s stated goal is to discourage meaningless hookups while, ironically, its entire draw is the opportunity to watch hot people hookup. At least ultra-successful reality franchises like The Bachelor and Love Island own that. They are what they are, and they present an understanding that trashy reality can’t necessarily have a deeper meaning or moral quest. Netflix’s half-baked concept, in contrast, just comes off as embarrassed of itself. And still, it is compulsively watchable—if mindless, ridiculous reality is your poison of choice.
Too Hot to Handle is now on Netflix.