Courtesy of Netflix
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
What we need right now is culture and entertainment that dares to interrogate life’s most pressing questions. Why are we here? What’s the point of it all? Is this how we live now? And most importantly: What would happen to a bunch of hot people if they weren’t allowed to fuck each other, and someone filmed it?
Too Hot to Handle, Netflix's new reality format—which takes the time-honored tradition of throwing people deemed "better looking than the rest of you lowlifes" into a beachside property, and then making them live by particular conditions—answers this question. In the real world, hot people can essentially receive every bit of instant gratification they desire at any moment; in identifying this, placing an arbitrary obstacle in the way of that gratification (no sex or you lose prize money), and observing the chaos that ensues as a result (touching tongues and sitting on each other a lot), the "streaming giant" has created both the Platonic ideal of reality dating shows, and a remarkably prescient artifact for the lockdown age.
With an international cast, Too Hot To Handle differs from its closest relative— Love Island—by placing sex front and center rather than sidelining it. It’s possible that people will say that this show wreaks war on yet another layer of public decency, to which the contestants’ behavior simply responds: “Come friendly bombs, rain down as I grind the crotch area of a one man Pitcher and Piano into the finest powder with my perfectly firm ass.” As such, it is perfect, gently controversial television—here is an excruciatingly detailed explanation of exactly why:
It Respects Its Heritage
Too Hot to Handle is so good because it does not attempt to reinvent the wheel of the "beach location dating show" genre, but rather it takes the best bits from other previous wheels in order to make a very powerful monster truck wheel. From Love Island, there is non-contact messaging from the producers (via a speaking cone which behaves in almost every way like a high end sex toy, down to Joanna Lumley-doing-the-satnav-instructions-esque vocalization), a loud, poppy aesthetic, a dressing room, and a cash prize. From MTV’s much underrated Ex On the Beach there’s a) actual proper rows, and b) that thing where new contestants emerge from out of the sea like really virile jellyfish. From both of these shows, you may recognize the extremely strict Four Visible Abs minimum for all cast members, "witty" narration, a beachy location, enforced swimwear, and a romantic premise, all topped off by the pièce de résistance, Too Hot to Handle’s own stupid "concept": “What if hot people but no fucky?”
Loose (I.E. Fake) "Social Experiment" Premise
When you spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it this show shouldn’t work. Without looking it up we have no idea where it’s set, at no point do we know how long they’ve actually been there (realistically the whole thing could’ve been filmed in 48 hours) and we’re expected to believe that a group of people whose only shared trait is "being horny" were lured to a resort with the promise of a free “retreat” where they just… hang out, doing nothing in particular, for Netflix. And do you know what? None of that matters.
Since the bottom fell out of Love Island and most contestants stopped even pretending to buy into its premise as a show about "finding love" and not "reaching one million Instagram followers," we’ve been lacking a reality dating show with a universal concept. Too Hot to Handle is that show. Contestants may still play up to the format and use the phrase "genuine connection" like they’re being sponsored to do so, but "see that hottie? Don’t touch them" is fundamentally way more believable as a driving force than "pick one of these hotties to fall in actual love with for 50 grand." Ostensibly the real point of the show is to encourage shallow twenty-somethings to create "deeper connections" by "showing restraint," but that’s just for moral posterity and additional sexual tension.
The thing is, not everyone has had a whirlwind heterosexual romance in the space of a few weeks, but most of us have been told we can’t have someone. At the very least, everyone can sympathize with the plight of watching hot people parade around all day with their asses out while being forbidden to act on impulse because that’s the entire viewer/program dynamic. I was so wrapped up in the shenanigans it didn’t even occur to me until 20 minutes into the finale that I had no idea how anyone actually wins, how many people were supposed to win, or what the point of the show was—and I don’t think anyone involved in the show did either.
Innuendo Is Out
The thing I respect most about Too Hot to Handle is that the contestants make no bones about wanting to bone, vigorously and often. Netflix has the benefit of not having to observe the rules of respectability that normal television is bound to (like, if this aired on ITV2 you can guarantee it would be topic of a week’s worth of Twitter discourse about choice feminism, and grounds for a debate on This Morning where Eamonn Holmes makes a comment for which he is later forced to apologize by Ofcom), and it flouts them admirably. Everyone involved loves sex and discusses it openly; Sharron mentions that he once took a photo of his penis next to a can of air freshener for scale in his intro VT.
When you compare this to the relative primness of Love Island, which makes 25-year-olds participate in a prom-cum-promise-ring-ceremony to mark the end of the experience, and where people talk about sex in code (in the most recent season, hand stuff was referred to as "avocado" for reasons I can’t and won’t remember), there’s not much competition as to what is more entertaining.
Too Hot to Handle has really grabbed the experience economy by the balls, inviting a shibari artist, whatever the title is for a woman who invites you to look at and then draw a portrait of your vagina and a “heart warrior” to the resort to indulge the "personal growth" aspect of the show. As much as they’re only introduced for a bit of structure and something to do, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t genuinely moved by how deeply some of the guys were affected by them. Show me a greater representation of wholesome masculinity than big beefy boner boys smothering each other in mud, looking deep in each other’s eyes and crying as they explain how stubbornness gets in the way of them being happy.
International and Therefore More of an Event
Arguably the show’s greatest act of brilliance is throwing English, Irish, Australian, Canadian and American people—five of the loudest and most shameless nationalities in the world—together, knowing full well the cultural differences in terms of humor and sensibility will both contribute to misunderstandings and fan the flames of desire. Essentially what they’ve done here is throw a traffic light party where everyone comes as "green" and has no possible connection to anyone else in the room, creating the ultimate environment for a one night stand.
With the exception of Rhonda and Sharron, who have managed to establish something real and pure within this rotten little experiment, the prospect of a "future" is largely off the table, forcing everyone to operate on the basis of lust and fantasy. Unfortunately for Francesca, demanding your Too Hot To Handle fling move to Vancouver for you is like trying to organize a second date with a holiday rep you pulled at a foam party in Costa Brava.
All Important Agent of Chaos
Every reality dating show needs an agent of chaos: an individual whose intentions are never quite clear, but whose whims provide the gravitational force of the entire group. Like Megan Barton-Hanson, Maura Higgins and Jessica Batten before her, Francesca Farago is the defining character of this villa. Hot, horny and personally responsible for losing $20,000 of prize money, Francesca is a sexual assassin with Instagram face. A winner with no self-control gets what she wants, whether it’s lip fillers, a partnership with a global fashion brand or a 6’5 Australian who looks like a sixth form campus NOS dealer.
At this juncture, it’s important to remember that chaos lays dormant. These women are sleeper agents, waiting for a catalyst to activate their full potential, which usually takes the form of being wronged by a Stupid Boy. For Maura it was Tom’s “let’s see if she’s all mouth” comment, for example, and for Francesca it was enormous Harry blaming their transgression (a kiss) on her and causing a rift within the group. This prompts a revenge rampage that involves kissing Haley to teach everyone a lesson that cost three grand but was never actually learned, pivoting her attention to Kelz who was simply more interested in the money, going on a date with Kori because her lawless “instincts” told her to, and eventually setting her sights back on Harry who she then spends the rest of the show tormenting in the bath. An icon whose time on the show began with a kiss and ended with accidentally popping a boob, Francesca—a self-described “promiscuous little hothead”—has entered the elite tier of Reality TV Chaos Agents with significantly less screen time. Welcome, my queen.
Extremely Good British Contingent
When it comes to the British contestants, it’s hard not to imagine how they’d fare on Love Island. David, for example, would be one of those lads sent in at the start of Week 6 to pair up with a viewers’ favorite who has been wronged by an OG boy, only she doesn’t fancy him that much, and they slither on their bellies to a lackluster fourth place. The other two UK-based members of the original cast (Chloe and Kelz), however, are essentially like turbo Islanders, with the same
just like me and my mates x appeal as the Love Island contestants (Chloe, for example, has good "friend who would help you fix your hair under the hand dryer after you were unfortunately sick in it in the toilet of a super club called Vision" vibes), just more barefacedly horny and entertaining. Their inclusion is important because it bridges the gap between Love Island—from which THTH takes many cues—and this brave new world, where people suck each others’ fingers more than once an episode. They are adventurers on an unknown frontier, like those people who queue up to be the first to get into a new Tesco Extra on the opening day. They have done the nation proud.
Men Called Not Real Names Like "Bryce"
The virgin influencers with Christian names vs the chad "Rob Schneider look-alike who plays the keyboard and lives on a boat for no reason other than it’s a good pickup line."
Sonic Cone Robot Named After Lana Del Rey
Like the Love Island texting function, Too Hot to Handle too has its own way of contacting the contestants indirectly: via a talking, Alexa-style in-home robot that resembles a vaginal dilator and talks like I imagine the teacher in Busted’s “What I Go to School For” to sound.
Lana is there to keep the contestants in line by announcing violations of the NO TOUCHING regulations, telling them about new developments in the show’s “plot” (lol), and occasionally being a little grass, ratting out the rule breakers if the cast guesses who they are correctly. For a necessary, narrative-driving device, Lana is as good as any, and unfortunately a bit better than the narration, which suffers slightly for the upsetting reason of “needing to be funny to Americans.” Nothing’s perfect, I suppose.