Too Hot to Handle Is a Surprisingly Intriguing Social Experiment
Insecurities don’t stop with a pretty face
I am not a big fan of reality TV shows. I just can’t stand the artificial drama and fake (or scripted) interactions. So, naturally, I refused adamantly when my girlfriend tried to convince me to watch Too Hot To Handle. A couple of days ago I was too tired and content with simply lying on the couch to say anything when she turned on the first episode.
Little did I know the surprise I was in for.
The premise of the Netflix show is brilliantly simple. A bunch of attractive, young, and unsuspecting strangers from all over the world are stuffed into a dream house on a private island. Apparently, none of the initial contestants knew what they signed up for, hoping to get as much action as possible with as many strangers as possible. The catch of the show is that it takes out the very reason most reality TV formats on the ether right now seem to be so appealing: the sex.
The gang gets to roam the island for a day, heavily make out, and almost exclusively talk about what they are going to do to each other after night-fall (you guessed it, hump their brains out). At night a fake host gets to drop the bomb on the group, telling them exactly what the show they actually signed up for is about. The reaction is, simply put, hilarious and exactly what you would expect. You get to see a group of pumped-up sex-crazed Millenials completely lose it over the thought of even going a day without having intercourse or any sexual interactions. The fact that they are all dressed in “sexy” animal costumes just adds to the viewer's satisfaction. Not only is it not allowed to have intercourse, but any kind of overly sexual physical contact or self-gratification will result in a heavy deduction from the 100k prize money. The gang will be watched all the time in a big-brotherly fashion and told off by a weird talking cone in front of the whole group. While I do think it highly unlikely that the producers went as far as installing cameras in the toilets to check, the term “blue-balls” is a constant vocal companion in the first episodes.
The show starts off as you would expect from the marketing, branding, contestants, and overall setting. There is a crap-load of rule-breaking and superficial drooling over each other without any meaningful conversations to speak of. You got to give it to the producers as well, they managed to cast the contestants perfectly. They seem to be the embodiment of the fast-paced, shallow social media culture we came to dread over the past decade. Everyone comes off as incredibly selfish, superficial, narcissistic, and appears to have the attention span of a goldfish. Most of them are highly unlikeable to the viewer, in part due to very clever post-production and well-timed cutaways of confessionals.
The initial episodes give the illustrious viewers everything they expect in a typical trash tv reality show. It’s an endless chain of cringe-worthy shallow conversations, expected rule-breaking, and over-the-top proclamations of their scolding hotness (both talking about themselves and others in the group). The only reason I kept on watching was the list of jokes I kept preparing in my head to annoy my better half in the year to come.
What I really didn’t expect was the sudden shift to a real-time mirror of modern-day relationships. It’s interesting to see what happens when you take away any chance of simply vanishing when things get tough or too close. You get to watch the contestants struggle with the lack of meaningless sexual interactions to overplay their inert fears of seriously opening up to someone.
Needless to say, the sex-depraved group loses a massive chunk of the prize money in the first couple of days alone. But with severe monetary punishments and the resulting grilling by the whole group, the need to publicly showcase their sexual drive by breaking the rules seems to vanish bit by bit. Couples start to form and the interactions slowly transition from exclusively talking about banging each other to actual conversations. You start to get a glimpse behind the facade of being overtly shallow and cocky. The contestants get to experience their (allegedly) first dive into adult relationships where the world doesn’t revolve around where and when to bang next. The change in both the group dynamic and the individual relationships is palpable. It’s intriguing to see what happens if the members of the group don’t get to solely rely on their looks anymore to win someone over. With the added factor of not being able to simply leave to avoid any repercussions of their own behavior, the cast slowly comes to terms with their own individual shortcomings and character flaws. Those who don’t get kicked out of the show, to focus on the unfolding social experiment.
Shockingly, you start to like and relate to the guys and girls. I even found myself discussing where the character flaws of the various contestants are rooted and what they probably actually are like given the right circumstances.
The show manages to avoid major cliches somehow (well.. mostly). While personal growth is initially forced by the always present danger of slashing their reward, most of the unfolding interactions do not seem scripted but genuine. Of course, classic trash tv elements are thrown in to sweeten the deal, with challenges solely in place to induce strife and serve the viewers voyeurism. But then the show manages to pull off scenes that are otherwise prone to drift off into cliches and obviously scripted drama. For example, both women and men get a group therapy session with a relationship coach. This would end in a cringe-fest of epic proportions in any other reality TV show, feeling thoroughly scripted and forced. Especially with the men, the session does start as you would expect, with rampant showing off of their own manliness. Maybe it’s the combination of the group-dynamic building up over time and the forced reflection beforehand, but during the session, the carefully crafted facade starts to crumble when one of the guys takes the exercise seriously. In both the men's and women's sessions, everyone slowly starts to open up about their fears and past traumas, highlighting the fact that insecurities don’t stop with a pretty face (sometimes maybe even increasing the perceived expectations).
The viewer can put the behavior in certain situations into perspective, as well as the contestants themselves. For some reason, the epiphanies stated in the sessions and ensuing confessionals seem honest and authentic. New team members are thrown into the mix along the way, which only emphasizes the initial contestants' personal growth compared to the new arrivals. Even the appearances begin to change and reflect the emotional state of the group members, with the women going without make-up at times and some members seemingly choosing comfortable closing over what looks the hottest (although still astonishingly revealing, of course). You can literally see the individual group members getting more comfortable with simply being themselves around the others, which is a beautiful thing to witness.
Honestly, after giving the first draft a thorough read I realize I might have ended up interpreting things into the show that simply aren’t there or if so weren’t intentional. It still felt nice to be proven wrong about an initial prejudice I had for both the show and the contestants. Sometimes it’s worth it to give people a second chance and try to look at the cause of some hurtful behavior before judging it. Of course, it doesn’t absolve them from trying to work on it, but sometimes all it takes is a nudge in the right direction before writing them off. I’m still a bit astonished by the fact that a reality TV show managed to convey that deeper sense of meaning to me, no matter if it was intentional or not.
We still have a couple of episodes to go and if the sneak peeks were any indicator, the contestants will still mess up a lot. But then again, any lasting change doesn’t happen in a couple of weeks. I can’t believe it but I’m actually looking forward to seeing how it pans out and how the group keeps growing on a personal level.
Don’t tell my girlfriend though, I’ll never hear the end of it.