Netflix’s latest reality show has introduced a new batch of beautiful young people to our screens. The premise of Too Hot to Handle is the same as every other dating show ever, except that the end goal isn’t to have sex on television, but instead “form deep and meaningful emotional connections”.
The format closely resembles Love Island. The villa has a strikingly similar layout, the women spend most of their time doing hair and makeup in a specially-designated room, and there’s more chemistry between “the boys” than any of the couples. However, while Love Island isn’t devoid of its own problems, at least it doesn’t claim to be creating an environment that fosters the “personal development” of its contestants.
The most worrying aspect of Too Hot to Handle is that it repeatedly claims to be “improving” those on the retreat. Such improvement is grounded in banning both masturbation and sexual contact between contestants, thereby encouraging them to form deeper emotional connections. Throughout the series, participants are rewarded with brief moments of physical intimacy – as well as the tantalising prospect of a $100,000 cash prize at the end. These rewards are granted by the AI overlord, Lana, who also sets up dates and removes money from the prize pot when rules are broken.
According to the show, personal growth is indicated not by being happy and well-adjusted, but solely by being in a long-term monogamous relationship. As sexual interactions apparently only threaten to derail this process, they come with hefty fines: $3,000 for a kiss, $16,000 for whatever it was that Sharron and Rhonda did, and $20,000 for penetrative sex. In a cruel twist, the contestants have been hand-selected precisely because they are sex-mad. Coming from L.A., Bryce probably hasn’t heard of Jay from The Inbetweeners, but he talks a lot like him.
Despite their supposed addiction to casual sex, many contestants mention significant long-term relationships. Prior to the sex ban, none express any remorse for the way they choose to conduct themselves. In fact, they’ve come to the retreat under the impression that they’ll get to enjoy a summer of physical love. The show’s enforced “personal development” is not only completely unnecessary but also potentially harmful. What’s more, it’s blatantly only included to cause tension and make for better television, not for the betterment of the contestants.
Ultimately, Too Hot to Handle’s brand of “personal development” is useless and half-hearted. The workshops are highly questionable. One teaches rope-bondage to encourage better communication. A male-only session sees participants cover each other in mud, and stab bits of paper with sticks, while another just for the women involves peering at their vaginas in hand-held mirrors and painting artistic representations. One contestant paints a cat. Another draws a unicorn. There’s a lot of pink. It isn’t that these workshops don’t do the contestants any good, it’s that they are purposely shallow attempts to create a space for the development that Too Hot to Handle claims to inspire.
Love Island understandably faces huge public scrutiny – how many other TV shows have contributed to the deaths of three people? As a blatant rip-off with added sinister undertones, Too Hot to Handle should face the same levels of criticism. The producers are openly putting contestants in tense, upsetting situations for entertainment value. It makes great television, sure, but should that really be the only criteria for what goes on our screens?