The premise of Too Hot to Handle, the latest offering in Netflix’s new slate of reality programming, is too bonkers to not be appealing. Ten hot young singles head to an island retreat for what they’ve been told is a reality dating show. After they arrive and size each other up (read: immediately start drinking and flirting heavily), they’re told that there’s a $100,000 prize on the line, to be split at the end of the retreat. The catch? Money is removed from that communal pot every time any of them makes sexual contact. That means no kissing, no sex, and no masturbation. An all-seeing AI named Lana, housed in what looks like a conical smart-home device, will be logging any indiscretions.
Like Love Is Blind before it, Too Hot to Handle is billed as a social experiment. The reasoning is that these sexed-up party-girls and -boys are used to hopping into bed with whomever catches their eye, which prevents them from forming deeper connections. It’s the same thesis at the heart of Love Is Blind, in which contestants were encouraged to open up to each other while inside isolation pods, falling in love without ever seeing each other. But while Love is Blind cast contestants who were open to the idea of finding someone and settling down, Too Hot to Handle is full of sweet, gorgeous dummies. They didn’t come on this retreat to “form deeper connections” — they’re here to have fun, wear tiny bathing suits, make out with babes, and gain some Instagram followers.
Social-experiment framework aside, the reality show Too Hot to Handle most resembles is the U.K. import Love Island. On that program, a group of British hotties spends a month at a Mediterranean villa drinking, hanging out by the pool, and canoodling, with new islanders brought in to shake things up. Anyone who isn’t coupled up gets eliminated. At the end of the summer, the public votes on their favorite couple, who will split £50,000. The contestants on Too Hot to Handle would fit right in with the Love Islanders, especially since a few of them have thick British accents. (This is the first trashy Netflix reality show with an international cast, and it’s really fun to hear the Americans start picking up British slang.)
The main thing Too Hot to Handle borrows from Love Island, though, is its snarky voice-over commentary. But while the gentle ribbing doesn’t feel out of place on the U.K. show, it doesn’t entirely work for Netflix’s knockoff. For one thing, Love Island employs both a host and a narrator. The host introduces the show and its rules, while the narrator pokes fun at the contestants and their antics. On Too Hot to Handle, comedian Desiree Burch acts as both rule-explainer and snark-provider, and it can be jarring to go from quips to exposition and back with no warning. Too Hot to Handle’s narration is also constant in a way Love Island’s isn’t. Barely a minute goes by without Burch making a joke at the expense of one of the contestants.
But the most frustrating thing about the Too Hot to Handle commentary is that it fundamentally misunderstands how audiences engage with this type of trashy reality. A bonkers premise may reel viewers in, but if they keep coming back, it’s probably because they’re rooting for specific contestants or couples, almost in spite of themselves. (I once had a conversation about Love Is Blind where I both scoffed at the concept of getting engaged to someone after talking to them through an opaque wall for a week, and declared that I would die for two of the participants, Lauren and Cameron.)
Reality-show fans certainly do make fun of the genre, its storylines, and its contestants. One look at #BachelorNation Twitter on Monday nights proves that jokes about The Bachelor’s ridiculousness are as much a part of being a fan as choosing sides in a feud, or having an opinion about who should be the next Bachelorette. But that tension between affection and derision is familiar to any fan of the genre, and part of the appeal. The difference between Iain Stirling’s commentary on Love Island and Burch’s on Too Hot to Handle is that Stirling at least seems to have a begrudging affection for the contestants, like a put-upon babysitter. When Burch makes fun of fitness trainer David for tearing up during a trust-building exercise, or nitpicks contestants’ grammar, she just sounds mean.
It seems like Netflix is hedging its bets, hoping the irreverent tone will reassure viewers new to the genre that they don’t have to take it seriously. But Too Hot to Handle is trying to have its cake and eat it too. By interjecting snarky commentary into practically every moment, the producers ensure that the high-minded “social experiment” framing doesn’t land. Lana’s congratulations on the contestants’ “personal growth” ring hollow when their (admittedly silly) attempts to better themselves are only ever met with derision from the show itself.
Instead of making new viewers feel more comfortable with the ridiculousness of the premise, the snarky commentary will likely have the opposite effect. As someone who watches a lot of trashy reality shows, I formed a genuine affection for a few of the sweet dummies trying their hardest not to bone down, seemingly in spite of the show’s attempts to make me feel nothing but scorn for them. For those viewers who aren’t already primed to suspend their disbelief in the face of manufactured drama, Too Hot to Handle gives them no reason to care.
All eight episodes of Too Hot to Handle are streaming now on Netflix.
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