‘Too Hot to Handle’ Is a New, Gloriously Depraved Twist on Netflix’s Reality Show Formula (Column)

Like 'The Circle' and 'Love is Blind,' Netflix's latest reality show gets off on being withholding.

Too Hot to Handle renewed
Ana Cristina Blumenkron/Netflix

The cast of “Too Hot to Handle” is blinding in exactly the way you’d expect from a show that throws hot singles together on a desert island with nothing but tiny bathing suits and flowing alcohol to entertain them. They’re taut and glistening, boasting chiseled pecs and meticulous false eyelashes, the better to lure each other in. They’re polished sports cars, deeply impractical but perversely alluring, revved and raring to go. But in keeping with Netflix’s particular brand of addictive reality programming, “Too Hot to Handle” comes with a twist. None of them are allowed to do any “sexual touching” of any kind —  not to each other, and not even to themselves — without incurring a literal fine from a collective $100k cash pot. To no one’s surprise (least of all the chronically horny contestants), that doesn’t necessarily stop them from giving in to temptation, anyway. 

I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to note that a show about people not being able to touch each other hits particularly close to home during a global pandemic necessitating the same. I lost count of how many times the contestants moan that being within humping distance of their crushes without being able to follow through is “torture,” a claim that made me, a single person confined to my couch for the 30th day in a row, cackle bitterly into the void. But it’s also true that the central concept of “Too Hot to Handle” makes it a perfect third beat in a Netflix triptych of reality shows that, to quote Lucille Bluth, get off on being withholding. 

On January 1, Netflix debuted its take on “The Circle,” an already popular U.K. series that siloes people into individual apartments in which their only human interaction comes through chats on a social media app. (So, quarantine before quarantine was necessary.) Feb. 13 brought the premiere of “Love is Blind,” in which couples had to get to know each other through an opaque wall and commit to partnership before they got to see each other face to face. (So, online dating during quarantine.) As tends to be the case with popular Netflix shows, both “The Circle” and “Love is Blind” — released over a few weeks versus the platform’s typical same-day season drop — were successes that quickly snowballed into intense obsessions, albeit relatively brief. Each centers on the idea that people might be able to forge more meaningful relationships if snap first impressions are taken off the table. This was a much more convincing moral on “The Circle,” which found contestants embracing the power of being genuine, than “Love is Blind,” a particularly bleak take on “love” that leans far more heavily on pushing people to their psychological limits for maximum chaos. 

Nonetheless, both shows do their best to underline the possibilities of forging emotional connections under the extraordinary circumstance of forced physical distance — which, again, feels even more relevant today than they were even just a few months ago. “Too Hot to Handle,” with its drooling slo-mo shots of babes in bikinis and hunks in heat, doesn’t bother to entertain that particular “first impressions don’t matter” philosophy. It does, however, manage to combine the messy dating drama of “Love is Blind” with the surprisingly strong relationships that came out of “The Circle,” making for an absolutely ridiculous, and sometimes bizarrely touching, combination. In fact, watching “Too Hot to Handle” makes the particular triumphs of “The Circle” and shortcomings of “Love is Blind” even more obvious. The best moments of “The Circle” were those in which seemingly surface-level friendships deepened into caring relationships, which proves especially touching when bringing together two people who would’ve never otherwise crossed paths. Conversely, “Love is Blind” pushed itself as a grand experiment on what true love really is, all it did was recycle saccharine tropes and bland contestant tropes from “The Bachelor” into a manipulative mess all its own. 

The sex-crazed celibacy retreat that is “Too Hot to Handle” strikes a campy, canny balance between the two. It pokes fun at its own oxymoronic premise, often with the help of an overzealous narrator and an all-powerful AI cone named “Lana” who informs the contestants when they’ve succeeded or failed. (Think Alexa, if Alexa were more honest about blatantly spying on your sex life.) But “Too Hot to Handle” also takes seriously the idea that people can come out the other side of the show more willing to be vulnerable and considerate with others than they came into it. “Too Hot to Handle” is trashy and ridiculous, but by the end of its season, its explorations of what makes for real intimacy become strangely touching (no pun intended).

For every flare-up of petty drama, there’s someone taking a step back to evaluate what they actually want instead of diving straight in. For every chastity test that tempts salivating couples with a private suite stocked full of sex toys (these producers are truly devious), there’s an actual lesson on the value of cultivating self-worth. Against all odds, the gimmicky twist of “Too Hot to Handle” really does make the contestants slow down and figure out which risks are worth taking and what kinds of connection are worth making. It’s exactly the kind of self-actualization that “Love is Blind” tried to inspire and “The Circle” actually did. 

And yes: just as it feels strange to dive into a season of “The Circle” and realize that the contestants are basically just living in isolation for fun and profit, it’s a little bruising to watch the “Too Hot to Handle” cast members try to deprive themselves of physical touch months before that became a pandemic mandate. On the other hand: it’s undeniably a blast to vicariously live through their relieved joy when they can finally give in. Netflix couldn’t know it was teeing up a perfect marathon for these times, but as millions of people sit separated and restless in their own homes, it’s nonetheless struck reality TV gold by unwittingly making their shows all too relatable.

“Too Hot to Handle” drops April 17 on Netflix.