When Netflix executives decided to greenlight the streaming service’s newest reality TV experiment Too Hot to Handle, they couldn’t have predicted how apt the show’s wild-on-paper premise would be for our current moment. Close cousins with ITV’s Love Island and Netflix’s own smash hit Love Is Blind, Too Hot to Handle begins with 10 sexy singles isolated on an island together with zero clue what lies ahead: a bucketload of money if they can keep their distance and resist their baser urges.
Lana, Too Hot to Handle’s virtual host, may look like a knockoff lava-lamp Alexa, but she’s the one running the show. She gives the contestants 12 hours to get acquainted, and by the time night falls, these horndogs are already playing a game wherein one person wears a blindfold and must guess who exactly is touching or kissing them. Just as things are getting steamy, Lana powers up and lays out the rules of “the retreat,” throwing the equivalent of a bucket of ice water on the contestants’ heads. She has chosen these 10 dupes for one reason: They’ve all been having “meaningless flings” instead of forming “genuine relationships.” To cure the commitment-phobia that ails them, the contestants are not allowed any sexual contact for the next four weeks, supposedly to promote more worthwhile connections instead. For every infraction, they all stand to lose money from the $100,000 prize.
It’s unclear up until the final episode whether that prize will be allocated equally between contestants at the end or whether Lana will choose whom she deems worthiest in her computer eyes. Still, the message is clear: Give up your personal satisfaction for the good of the group. The contestants aren’t even allowed to self-soothe, and to ensure that they abide by the rules, the luxe beachside villa is revealed to be nothing more than a shiny panopticon where Lana sees all and deducts accordingly. A kiss is worth $3,000. A blow job is worth much more—though not as much as penetrative sex. Lana doesn’t itemize these various acts at the beginning, so we and the contestants only find out how much each breach of the rules will cost them once the act has already been committed. The steadily diminishing prize turns some contestants into sex cops. Others, including Kardashian-lite influencer Francesca, breach the rules just to spite the rest of the group.
Shows like Too Hot to Handle succeed, when they do succeed, by finding a careful balance between titillation and pathos. Only a narcissist would volunteer to be part of a show like this, but it is the producers’ job to at least make us care about these narcissists long enough to get us to the final episode. Too Hot to Handle has too many villains—like Francesca’s heinous paramour Harry, who says things like, “I had the hottest señorita mamacita, and now she’s with someone who’s a lot uglier than I am”—but it is also clear from the outset that the producers are too interested in making fun of the contestants—a job that should be reserved for the audience—and not interested enough in humanizing them. The snarky voice-over provided by comedian Desiree Burch seems at first to be cut from the same cloth as The Circle’s host, Michelle Buteau, or Love Island’s omniscient commentator Iain Stirling—but it is without any of their dry affection. In fact, Burch’s commentary almost seems like an afterthought, added once producers realized that, despite four weeks’ worth of footage, they barely had enough to warrant eight episodes.
Despite an irresistibly juicy premise, Too Hot to Handle doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be, and it suffers for lack of direction. Is it a scientific study of whether sex or money is the stronger motivator? Or is it a woo-woo retreat replete with shibari and yoni puja workshops? Despite its stated aim of helping the contestants grow, Too Hot to Handle waits too long to make us care about the person doing the growing. One of the ickier elements of reality TV dating shows is their tendency to force participants to reveal their deepest traumas in their first 15 minutes of screen time. But Too Hot to Handle suggests that there’s something to be said for expediency. By the time you finally learn a contestant’s backstory in the second half of the show—that they come from a broken home, or they’ve been cheated on, or they’re a single mother—you’re already too steeped in toxicity and boredom to care.
It’s unfortunate that despite the arsenal of weapons at the producers’ disposal (which include adding new contestants to test connections, tempting private suites, and watches that light up when contestants are allowed to kiss) the show never manages to be as scintillating or as meaningful as it claims to be. Its will-they-or-won’t-they concept is ruined as soon as it becomes clear that, yes, they obviously will, even if it means losing tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the show will reveal itself once we’re no longer isolated, bored, and starved for content: how torturously it illustrates our current moment, and not just because contestants can’t touch each other. When a twentysomething unironically tells her fellow contestants that they should be happy that she’s in love, even as her actions cost them all thousands of dollars, it’s easy to see how we got where we are now: because of an unwillingness to forgo even a moment of pleasure for the common good.
For more on Too Hot to Handle, don’t miss Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.