When the sexy singles of Too Hot to Handle arrive for what they’re convinced will be a hot island getaway, they’re instead hit with the surprise rules of Netflix’s latest reality show: No sex or sexual contact at all — and breaking the rules will deduct money from the $100,000 cash prize awaiting them at the end of the show. Keeping their hands off each other, needless to say, proves to be more difficult than expected.
It’s hard to imagine a dating show more fitting for this era of self-isolation, but the show’s secret weapon isn’t its outrageous premise. Instead, it’s the cheeky charm of Desiree Burch, a comedian and former dominatrix who is never seen onscreen but is ever-present, cracking jokes throughout each episode like she’s binge-watching alongside viewers at home. “I’m like, Seriously you guys, there is a bunch of cash. Just don’t touch!” she tells Vulture. “I mean, read a book, take a swim. What the hell? I tried to put myself in their shoes and some of it I totally get, because I’ve been 20. And then some of it I’m just like, Guys, seriously, get it together.”
Having a narrator like Burch is not unique to this particular genre of reality show — it was mastered by Love Island’s Iain Stirling, and Netflix used a similarly unseen narrator in The Circle — but Too Hot to Handle’s producers felt it was an essential to making the show work. “She’s absolutely the voice of the viewer on the sofa, sat next to you, having all those quips that you would have with your friends,” says producer Louise Peet.
Peet tracks her inspiration for Too Hot Handle to rewatching the iconic Seinfeld episode “The Bet,” in which Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George all try to abstain from sex. “I thought there’s definitely a TV show in there,” she says. “That, coupled with my friend showing me a conversation between her and a guy on Tinder, which literally went from two texts straight to a dick pic. I was like, Something’s going wrong in society. We need to sort this out.”
After Netflix snapped up the pitch, the casting process was easy. The producers just put out a call for “all those who believe that they are amongst the hottest people in the planet and would like a hot, long, hot summer somewhere very sexy, with a chance to win a cash prize,” Peet says. “Funnily enough, that’s all we needed to say.”
When it came to choosing a narrator, Burch stood out because she hit the right balance between snarky, relatable, and nonjudgmental. “It was about getting the right tone and making it feel warm,” says executive producer Jonno Richards. “She might be occasionally a tiny little bit snarky, but she’s doing it from a place where she really likes the show.”
It helped that Burch was already on Netflix’s radar after hosting Flinch in 2019 — a game show where people were put in stressful and scary situations, but lost prize money if they flinched — and says the experience of recording her Too Hot to Handle voice-over amounted to watching the completed episodes and chiming in with her real-time reactions. “For me, it unfolded like it does for any viewer,” she says.
This included Burch’s frustration with watching the cast break the rules and lose money, a reaction that anybody binging Too Hot to Handle at home will know well. “You can see the very next day, you know, that thing that we’ve all had after a hookup, where immediately all of the charm wears off and you’re like, Oh, that was profoundly not worth it. But now I can see that with a monetary value.”
The importance of having a woman narrator, Burch feels, comes down to psychology: “When you’re on the train in New York, the authoritative voice is male. And then, the nice one is female so that people don’t freak the fuck out.” The trick, ultimately, was figuring out how to “mock the situation” without being too mean to the contestants. “Not just being like, We don’t give a crap about these people. They’re exposing themselves and their bodies and their souls and their lives to the universe by doing this show,” she says. “So you do have to protect them while at the same time tee-hee-ing at them.”
Burch admits that her initial reaction to the cast was that “these are all the people who I would be like, in high school, Oh my God, they’re impossibly hot and popular.” But it wasn’t long before they grew on her. Now, she says, “I actually really find each of these people endearing for various different reasons.”
Because her involvement with Too Hot to Handle began only after the episodes were done filming, Burch never met any of the cast. She isn’t necessarily interested in changing that — “I’m probably at least a decade or more older than all of these people, and they’re living their lives and living their 20s and all of that” — but she does think she’d enjoy meeting Chloe and Kelz if they got the chance. “I would totally sit there and laugh at them if we were at a bar together,” she says. “Not that we’re all going to be bosom buddies or hang out, but I’m curious to see who they are as people. I should probably just follow them on social media.”