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What’s With the Fake AI on Netflix Reality Shows?

Photo: Ana Cristina Blumenkron/Netflix

The Circle and Too Hot to Handle are reality shows made for the age of technology: textable, tweetable, and built for bingeing, with the sheen of artificial-intelligence hosts that aim to elevate their lowbrow status. They intend to hold a mirror up to our Siri-led lives, and teach us something about living within the algorithm, but as with most reality TV, the “reality” is concocted. Viewers recognize that the virtual assistants are fictional, manipulated behind the scenes by producers to spark contestant drama.

The idea behind this practice isn’t anything new. Years of exposés and shows like UnREAL have demonstrated the manipulation of reality plots and contestants by production teams who monitor everything from sleep schedules and diet to dating history. It was only a matter of time before reality-TV producers began disguising their meddlesome ways with the surveillance tools we use in everyday life. But while The Circle’s production is able to render a convincing AI program, Too Hot to Handle’s Alexa-wannabe “Lana” constantly undermines her own position, revealing the producers behind the curtain and driving the show’s momentum into the sand. In order to successfully integrate technology into reality TV, those fictional counterparts need to mimic our own devices: A fake social-media network will inevitably coax contestants into televised Twitter beef, but in fabricating AI with morals and capabilities far beyond what’s currently plausible, producers become too caught up in maintaining the ruse to stoke the drama that actually matters at the human level.

Too Hot to Handle wonders whether a group of hot people on an island retreat can refrain from having sex in exchange for a share of $100,000. Partway through the first episode, narrator Desiree Burch reveals that the contestants are being monitored by a “virtual guide” named Lana. A large white cone with glowing lights, Lana watches the guests for 12 hours, “secretly gathering personal data” before laying down the show’s surprise “sex ban.” It becomes clear that she’s achieved the Google Home dream, a small pedestal in every room and outdoor gathering spot, like a modern panopticon. Viewers are expected to buy into this fictional technology, to believe that Lana could have enough cameras and emotional intelligence to accomplish these goals, instead of just a film crew. The premise is thrillingly raunchy, and Lana’s ability to mirror the viewer’s own judgments gives her the potential to improve the show à la Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Terrace House commentary.

But instead she quickly turns into the arbiter of morality, announcing that guests were selected for their tendency toward meaningless flings, or, as she puts it in episode six, “chastity-challenged people in need of my service.” What results is a confusing assortment of hookups and wellness-retreat rituals. Money is deducted from the pot with every sexual infraction, a wrinkle that briefly lends itself to conflict when contestants Haley and Francesca seek revenge on the group by kissing, but Lana immediately rats on them, destroying any suspense in favor of total control.

Because Lana operates under the illusion of impartiality and science, Too Hot to Handle’s producers are able to wield more overt control than they would on similar shows, their meddling disguised as Lana’s “lessons.” But this power is more corralling than responsive. They clearly have an end goal in mind, which they relay through Lana — emotional maturation demonstrated by PG-rated romance — and the show falls back on pseudoscientific props in a failed attempt to boost credibility. Lana offers guests incentives to behave according to her robotic rule, using an Apple Watch–style wristband that lights up green when guests bond, allowing them brief physical intimacy as a reward. For all the purported tech-savviness, the watches are just LED lights, and Lana herself is described by one contestant as a “lava lamp.” She uses tech speak like “analyzing personal data,” though that data is seemingly contestants’ willingness to participate in workshops and their level of outward positivity in interviews.

The commitment to Lana’s singular bit often comes at the expense of anticipated drama. In episode five, potential villain Haley deadpans, “I don’t think I’m learning anything other than everyone else in this house is an idiot. I don’t think Lana’s process is doing anything for any of them either.” It’s the first honest statement on the show, and acknowledges the hollowness of the Lana strategy. But Haley is kicked off for “insufficient progress,” which, without stated rules or metrics, reads as retaliation and an unfortunate end to her comedic contributions. Considering the number of contestants who freeload their way through the season with brief confessional-booth quips and no relationships of note, “progress” comes to mean pandering to Lana. Though Lana is intended to cloak producer involvement, the team ends up trapped inside their own scheme, unable to retract or alter the course of the show without undermining their AI fabrication. Instead of driving up the stakes, the use of Lana forces contestants to conform to her stated ideals, and they aim to please by proclaiming unlikely affections to one another and praising “the process.” By the end of the eight-episode season, there’s no longer anything interesting about the cast, their canned comments about personal growth and self-respect more preprogrammed than Lana pretends to be.

The end result of Too Hot to Handle is an uncanny valley version of our AI reality: This is what happens when you feed the algorithm 10,000 hours of Love Island, Smart House, and abstinence-only education. In an interview with Glamour, executive producer Viki Kolar said that they included Lana because “[A.I.] is literally everywhere around us. It’s kind of governing us; it’s taking over.” But propping Lana up on her fiberboard pedestal as a stand-in for any old boom-wielding, plot-twisting producer doesn’t offer any insight into the role of technology in our world. Though A.I. is increasingly omnipresent, it acts on user input and commands, whereas Lana was implemented so producers could “govern.” No one would buy a phone that dictates which calls to make, just like no one wants to watch a show about people following rules; instead we rely on apps and algorithms that make suggestions, leaving us to believe we have a choice in the matter.

Where Lana serves as a moralizing, inanimate puppeteer, The Circle’s artificial intelligence, aptly named Circle, functions as a tool to expose contestants’ relationships to social media. The “players” live together in an apartment building but are unable to meet face-to-face. Instead they communicate through the Circle app, cultivating their chosen online identity in the hopes of remaining popular enough to stay in the game. The Circle is supposedly controlled by voice, much like a real-life virtual assistant, and dictating messages forces players to think aloud about how their online persona may be perceived. The desire to be the last player standing and the winner of (you guessed it) $100,000 creates a sense of agency in the vein of the original surveillance show, Big Brother. Players scheme and manipulate and confess to become the top influencer.

Where Too Hot to Handle’s producers trap themselves into one dull narrative with Lana, The Circle format encourages contestants into a kind of chess-playing that makes the show compulsively bingeable. Though The Circle producers do insert themselves more directly at times, stoking suspicions through games such as Who’s Most Likely To?, those interventions aren’t necessary to produce compelling plot twists and never force specific outcomes. The underlying system of the Circle app functions like a maze. Players wander until they find their way out, and with countless outcomes and strategies, it’s hard to predict the season’s winner up until the final moments. Much like an algorithm, producers concocted the game to be somewhat self-sustaining, and drama unfolds without too much prodding. The appearance of a hands-off approach adds to the believability of the Circle app, which in turn makes the plot seem organic rather than planned.

The allure of all reality TV lies in the possibility of going off-script, which is why any decent producer aims to facilitate those moments, often by pushing cast members past their breaking points. The use of fake A.I. aims to cloud that interaction. Restricting interactions through the Circle app allows contestants to roam within the structures of the game, posing any conflict as an inevitable result of contestant decisions. Yet the producers of Too Hot to Handle sabotage the potential of their own tool. They misunderstand the notion of an algorithm, meant to absorb data and spit out new conclusions, and end up posing Lana as an evangelizing bot, revealing their own exhaustive attempts to corral contestants into a preconceived narrative. By the tail end of the season, Too Hot to Handle producers are in too deep with their ruse — the only way out is through a cheesy, predictable finale. And that is perhaps the most robotic thing about it.

What’s With the Fake A.I. on Netflix Reality Shows?