When Netflix released The Circle, I was dubious. When Love Is Blind came out, I was skeptical. But now, with Too Hot to Handle, which drops its full season on Friday, I am ready to accept the inevitable: Trashy Netflix reality shows just work. We can try to resist, but even if I go into them with doubt in my heart, by the third episode I will find myself begrudgingly accepting that yes, I do want to watch the rest of it immediately.
Where Love Is Blind shares DNA with shows like Married at First Sight, and The Circle has a big dash of Big Brother in its cellular makeup, Too Hot to Handle is more of a Love Island descendant. A dozen or so very attractive people arrive at an island resort. They spend lots of time drinking alcohol and lifting weights in one another’s company, typically while wearing swimwear. There’s a shared $100,000 pot of prize money, but any time anyone kisses, has any kind of sexual contact with another person, or even masturbates, money gets deducted from that pot. Yes, the entire goal of this show is that no one bones.
There’s also one more twist. On Love Island, rule enforcement and game winners are decided in part by audience participation, as viewers can vote on who gets booted off the island, who goes on dates with one another, and which couple is the best. Too Hot to Handle relies instead on a schoolmarmish wet blanket called Lana, who is a “computer.” I say “computer” because like the Circle app from The Circle, I suspect Lana is a fake, a metal cone with a purple light bulb and a speaker that’s controlled entirely by producers. (I asked Netflix to clarify how Lana works and they declined to comment.) But fake or not, the Too Hot to Handle participants take her very seriously.
Since the format is different from The Circle or Love Is Blind, the participants have been chosen based on a different set of qualities. For many contestants on The Circle, the point of the game was to be a little manipulative. Love Is Blind cast people who could reasonably stand in for Bachelor contestants: attractive people who promised they were ready to settle into a serious relationship. The people featured on Too Hot to Handle are, to put it as kindly as I can, the sweetest collection of gentle, hot dummies this show could find. The premise rests on the idea that they each have a habit of leaping into sexual relationships based on looks and desires, rather than making genuine connections. Robo-cockblock Lana is there to stop them from their basest impulses. They’re at this tropical resort in body oil and tiny bathing suits to learn how to have a relationship based on something other than sex appeal. It’s an important social experiment.
As a way to teach people how to have meaningful relationships, the show’s veneer of social experimentation is wafer-thin — something else it shares with The Circle and Love Is Blind, which also come packaged with claims of probing human nature. But as a way to guarantee this reality show can be both entertaining and addictive, it’s an effective framework. Too Hot to Handle begins with a bunch of people who really want to have sex with each other — great, yes, I’ll watch an hour of that for sure. But in the absence of sex, the participants have to find other things to do with one another, which means they spend a great deal of time attempting to have meaningful conversations. Lana forces them to do goofy self-improvement workshops, and they always end with someone weeping after an emotional breakthrough. I can’t say whether anyone comes out of this show a better person, as Lana is supposedly teaching them to be. But I can say it’s a fantastic reality-show mechanism for making me weirdly fond of these goobers.
The “no one’s allowed to have sex or you all lose money” wrinkle is also a smart reversal of one of the most basic Young Hot Person Reality Show tropes. Across the board — Bachelor, Love Island, Married at First Sight, even going back to Real World — sex between contestants is treated like crossing the Rubicon, a huge event that requires significant discussion, several postmortems, and ample airtime. Too Hot to Handle instead treats sex like the baseline. We know it’s going to happen sometimes. We know it’s a thing these people want to do. What if instead, we reward them for not having any? What if we force everyone to stay in the exciting part of the story where everyone wants to do it but hasn’t yet? People with unfulfilled desires are more fun to watch!
Too Hot to Handle also introduces all kinds of twists on the essential idea to help prod along some of the drama. Sexual contact costs money from the prize pot, but Lana won’t tell anyone how much gets deducted for each violation until someone actually does it — and it’s entertaining to watch the cast try to figure out exactly how much a blow job is going to cost them. (Less than I would’ve thought compared to $3K per kiss!) She also won’t say who committed the violations (at least until one of the contestants thinks to ask her). More developments and hurdles get introduced as the show goes along, giving the whole season the kind of aimless, Calvinball-esque structure that also characterizes The Circle and Love Is Blind. People do get added and eliminated eventually, but cast changes come at unannounced, unpredictable intervals. It’s a social experiment run by a talking metal cone based on sexual frustration and learning to know oneself, but it’s also a fishbowl full of hot people being controlled by bored producers who get to take turns making up new rules.
If you’re not familiar with this flavor of reality TV, there is one potential hurdle to enjoying Too Hot to Handle: the narrator, Desiree Burch, who provides lightly snarky commentary that mediates your experience of these goofballs. For viewers who know and adore Love Island, Burch’s narration will feel typical, but for anyone who hasn’t yet fallen down that reality-show rabbit hole, it may be an early barrier to entry. Either way, Too Hot to Handle is too silly and too messy — and too weirdly nice by the end — to not be appealing. I suspect that would be the case whenever it came out. But right now, with so many people starved for human contact, it’s hard to imagine something more primed for mass consumption than a daffy reality show about sexually frustrated hotties who all hope this weird experience will somehow make them better people.