Imagine Love Island without… the touching? Netflix’s new reality show Too Hot to Handle hits a little bit close to our distanced homes, writes Sam Brooks.
When it starts, Too Hot to Handle seems like another escapist log on the reality show pyre, upon which many an attractive, abominably-blessed human has been set alight. Waves crashing on rocks, bottom halves of people running along the sand, an idyllic but carefully non-culturally appropriative island resort. For a few blissful minutes, this show could be any reality show with the word “island” in the title. But then… it all changes.
Too Hot to Handle has a twist, and this isn’t a spoiler – I guarantee it’s why you’ve heard of the show. Because it isn’t Love/Heartbreak/Temptation Island at all. It’s the exact opposite. Ten singles, perfectly cast from the crossroads of physical attractiveness and low inhibitions, have been put on this island not to screw their way to a prize, but form meaningful connections. Gross! And to twist the knife, they’re also not even allowed to touch. No kissing, no sex, nothing in the grey area between the two. And if they do? Money gets deducted off the juicy $100,000 prize, bit by bit.
To enforce these rule, a speaking computer that everybody somehow (likely contractually) believes to be an AI called Lana watches our contestants, snitching on them for things like “heavy petting” and “self-gratification”. Our other commentator is comedian Desiree Burch, stepping into the snarky role that Love Island’s narrator Iain Stirling essayed. Burch is more savage than Stirling but is also more deeply invested in the contestants. She wants them to win as much as she’s very aware that these people are acting ridiculously and constantly breaking the rules. Because of course they’re breaking the rules – this isn’t an island full of nuns, y’all (though I would watch that reality show).
Which brings us to the contestants. Too to Handle has promised us the “hottest, horniest, commitment-phobic swipesters” from across the world, and by our Netflix overlord, it delivers ten Tinder-tested swipesters. There’s Haley, the contestant who has a tattoo on her back in a language that she can’t identify and describes a sorority party in the most terrifying deadpan I’ve ever heard (“A girl’s, like, broken her neck before, like, falling off the roof, but other than that, it’s fun”). There’s also Matthew, the White Jesus resemblant who leads off by saying he’s a deep thinker, as all deep thinkers tend to do. And oh, yes, there’s Sharron, which is not said how you just read it in your head. He declares himself a feminist early on and then later clarifies: “I studied women and gender studies in college. If you pay attention, you learn the trick on how to pick up women.” Move over, Kate Sheppard! We’ve got a real one here.
Part of the genuine genius of Too Hot to Handle is how they play with our affections for this cast. These aren’t inherently sympathetic people. Even watching in a country where we currently have a narking hotline for people not being far away enough from each other, it’s hard to empathise with people who just can’t not fuck people they’ve just met. But, thankfully, we’re lead down the path to genuinely start to feel for a few people. My personal favourite was Chloe, who is introduced with the killer line, “I’m not the brightest spark in the book” and then apologize for having her phone go off in her talking head interview. There’s a lack of guile there that reads as charm, and more than a few of the cast strike this balance well.
There seem to be two stars which the show hitches its wagon to and never lets them go – Francesca, who ‘works for Instagram’ (which is like me saying I ‘work for Glengarrys’) and Harry (who you might recognise from our very own Heartbreak Island). The pair have eyes for each other pretty early on, with Harry spouting romantic poetry like “These beds are gonna be sweet for what carnage I wanna do to Francesca”. Harry probably did not attend the same gender studies classes as Sharron.
Francesca is pure Instagram id, acting with no regard for her fellow competitors, the rules of the game, or even the end goal. She doesn’t even appear interested in being a sympathetic contestant to those watching; she’s there to get laid, in the most unapologetic and aspirational way. When things don’t go quite well for her, thanks to the genital-blocking Lana, she acts like a petulant child and sulks. I wouldn’t want to run into Francesca in a strobing club at 3AM, but she makes for good TV.
Harry is no better but is presented as more of a bumbling idiot. He seems to have the hardest time withholding from his particular love language (fucking) and the least restraint when it comes to his talking heads. He even, well, acts like an absolute dick for half of his run towards everyone around him, and tries to get out of any consequences. But hey, if anything, he’s proof that we’ll forgive any guy with a twinkling eye who’s over 6’2.
But there’s a nice side to this dystopic, low-level, gaslighting show. These contestants aren’t expected to just form meaningful connections by virtue of being together and not being allowed to touch – workshops are run on the island intended to allow them to grow as people, whether they be shibari classes or the more straight-up female empowerment class. While these workshops, personally, would make me run screaming into the nearest rip, it’s nice to see these breathing swimsuit ads feint towards growth and start to understand their self-worth. It’s enough to make you wish the show was a bit longer – it’s an uncharacteristically swift eight episodes – so we can explore more of these people. I could do with seeing a lot more of Haley who, in reality show villain fashion, sums her experiences up with: “I still don’t like any of these people.”
For a lot of reality shows, sex is treated like a great revelation. It’s a second act twist or the climax. Where Too Hot to Handle earns its stripes – beyond being disconcertingly well-timed to drop during a time when most of the world will be able to empathise with not touching strangers – is that it treats sex as a given. We know these people are well-equipped to have sex with each other and indeed, I’ve never seen a reality show so frankly talk about dick size before.
But where the show feels special is that it tries to get beyond that into what makes people connect or fail to connect with each other. A working relationship is a jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces might be missing or others might not fit because somebody broke them a couple of years ago. Maybe you have to blow the dust off before you can see them properly.
Too Hot to Handle isn’t at its best when it addresses the fact that a relationship is made up of two fleshy blobs with their own experiences, memories and flaws – it’s at its best when it’s showing us the ridiculous acts of ridiculous people. But there are a billion hours of a million shows where you can watch that. To see something dig a little deeper, even if its playground sandbox deep, feels a bit more substantial. By the end of the eight episodes, I found myself caring about these people, even Harry who called himself a cockatoo – truly the most cursed of the birds. If stupid attractive people can find a way to connect with each other beyond their looks, can’t we all? Probably not, but at least we’ve got eight episodes to distract us from that.
You can watch Too Hot to Handle on Netflix right here.