Sexy and sexually repressed singles stranded on an island together? On paper, Netflix's latest is reality TV gold. 

By Isabel Jones
Updated Apr 16, 2020 @ 11:00 am
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Credit: Photo Illustration: Kelly Chiello/InStyle.com; Image: Netflix

On paper, Too Hot to Handle has it all: A sunny island hideaway, hot people in bathing suits who brag about their fear of commitment, Essex slang, and an all-knowing digital assistant named Lana (think: Amazon’s Alexa with a shrewd eye for sexual activity). Adding to the tension of the highly produced situation is an impossible goal: No kissing, no sexual contact of any kind.

It sounds like a reality TV dream come true. I mean, what makes good reality television, really? A bizarre premise, a set of seemingly insurmountable stakes, and a cast of sexy nightmare people you can root for (or against) from behind a screen but who would absolutely ruin your life in any real-world scenario. Too Hot to Handle has all the elements of a perfect reality show, so why isn’t it? Well, there are a few reasons, really …

The Bizarrely Simple Goal

While the stakes (no sex = money) do seem insurmountable to the island crew … they aren’t. Toward the end of the first episode, Lana tells the 10 competitors that there is a $100,000 prize (details on how to actually receive said prize are scant), but every time one of them engages in a sexual act (kissing, heavy petting, and "self-gratification" included), money is deducted from the fund. Given the simplicity of the aim (DON’T HAVE SEX), the competition sounds simple. But, of course, most of the islanders do break a rule or two. It’s a viewing experience akin to watching the cocky non-believer in a horror film decide to patrol the woods alone. That said, the results of Too Hot to Handle’s careless rule breaks are less “violent death at hands of forest prowler” and more “sucks for the rest of you.” The islanders all potentially suffer from transgressions, while the perpetrators receive no additional punishment aside from the venomous glares of their peers.

The Backward Message

In an attempt to infuse some heart into a show that revolves around self-proclaimed “10s” keeping it in their pants, Lana (not unlike your middle school health teacher) sells abstinence as a path to true love. The contestants have been selected because, according to Lana, they’re “having meaningless flings over genuine relationships.” Lana tells them the purpose of their stay is to “gain deeper emotional connections in [their] personal relationships.” In fact, as your connection with another contestant appears to deepen, you can unlock moments in which you’re able to engage in sexual behavior free of restriction. Your emotional growth is celebrated with physical rewards, bringing to mind the cliched refrain of many a ‘90s coming-of-age film: “If he loves you, he’ll wait.” It may be camouflaged by string bikinis and multi-person showers, but don’t be fooled, Too Hot to Handle’s message is a conservative one.

The Construction

While the sexual corollary of the game is innovative (though misguided), the ethos of the show itself feels calculated, as though the creators decided to cherry pick elements from other successful reality competitions and fuse them together to create a sexy internet-friendly Frankenstein of a Netflix series. Too Hot to Handle steals the “hot singles stranded in paradise” aspect of Love Island (they’ve even thrown in a few Brits to give us the U.K. slang we crave — hearing a woman described as a “fit bird” will never not fill me with regional jealousy), adds a dash of the technology-reliant mayhem of The Circle with conical sex robot Lana, and in the spirit of Big Brother (and temptation!), forces contestants to share beds or find their own sleeping arrangements (i.e. the floor).

The Weird Sex Robot (!)

Though it’s easy to overlook in favor of the overtly bizarre “yoni” painting workshops or emotional lessons in bondage, the most ridiculous element of the show is undoubtedly the electronic elephant in the room — every room. Lana sees everything. And while, conceptually, it’s somewhat less creepy to have a robot clocking your sexual misdeeds instead of a human peering under the sheets, it’s still SO. CREEPY. Also, is it actually possible for a robot to have such capabilities? Probably not. In all likelihood, these “incidents” are reported by producers. In even greater likelihood, these incidents are produced by, uh, producers, rendering the entire show a get-famous-quick scheme for the influencers at its core. Yes, most reality TV shows operate on this same unspoken basis, but the framework of Too Hot to Handle makes this likely truth even more obvious.

At the end of the (long) day, spent indoors, playing Animal Crossing, Too Hot to Handle isn’t bad. Structural and thematic flaws aside, the show is entertaining as hell. Perhaps we’ve come to expect too much from our reality programming since our actual “reality” became something so foreign. The show, like the bag of off-brand potato chips my boyfriend and I have been rationing, isn’t ever the treat you quite want it to be, but it’ll certainly do when all the alternatives have been consumed.