It’s a paradox of contemporary television culture that, as our taste in fictional programming grows ever darker, viewers increasingly turn to so-called “reality TV” for something lighter. We pin our hopes on talented unknowns on creative competitions from The Voice to Project Runway. We live vicariously through the home buyers and renovators on HGTV (or its many streaming equivalents). And we can’t get enough of the generic, heterosexual, roses-and-diamond-rings romances—or the tawdry, superficial, drama-prone hookups—that play out on dating shows.
I came to Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, the latest dose of high-concept reality catnip from the platform that brought us Love Is Blind, expecting a frothy, easy-on-the-eyes escape from my current socially distanced existence. What I got was, somehow, a frothy, easy-on-the-eyes allegory for the sad and frustrating predicament plaguing our pandemic-stricken world.
Premiering April 17, the eight-episode series begins just like any number of other reality dating shows. Ten unfeasibly attractive young women and men arrive at a luxury resort that offers acres of pool, beach, lounge and bar space but only one giant room full of beds where everyone has to sleep. The contestants—with the exception of self-described “deep thinker” Matthew, from Colorado, whose billowing garments and flowing hair earn him the nickname Jesus—make their entrance in bathing suits. Introductory interviews find the men boasting about their sexual prowess and prolificacy. Musclebound Kelz, from London, sports a tattoo of a lion wearing a crown, which he explains is a reflection of “how I see myself.” The women seem eager to label themselves as airheads. “I’m not the brightest spark in the book,” Chloe, another Brit, cheerfully announces.
As they size each other up, what these singles don’t know is that they’re about to be banned from having sexual contact with anyone for the duration of their stay. “Nobody can keep it in their pants these days,” the obligatory snarky narrator, comedian Desiree Burch, complains, “because hooking up is as easy as swiping right.” (Never mind the ample evidence that young adults are starting to have sex later and with fewer partners than previous generations.) So Too Hot is going to teach them a lesson in forming “deeper, more meaningful connections” by offering a collective cash prize of up to $100,000 in return for their celibacy. A menu of activities, from intercourse down to kissing, is forbidden—with violations resulting in proportional deductions from the prize pool. On hand to enforce the rules is an electronic schoolmarm called Lana, who resembles a Google Home under the influence of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It is, as the creators surely intended, a recipe for conflict. As in MTV’s Are You the One?, participants are chosen specifically because they have trouble maintaining relationships. They collect one-night stands, measuring partners in quantity rather than quality. And although there’s plenty to be said about the show’s retrograde attitudes toward sexuality (do people in their early 20s who aren’t ready to settle down really need to be scared into doing so?), Too Hot isn’t wrong to presume that the majority of its cast struggles with impulse control. A series of New Age-y workshops is apparently meant to support the show’s “process” by coaching the contestants to respect themselves and their peers but mostly delivers cheap physical comedy. In one session, the guys become something called “heart warriors”—which entails rubbing mud into each other’s skin under the supervision of a man who refers to women as “females.”
Alas, despite these interventions, rules are broken swiftly and repeatedly. So, beyond the expected competition for desirable mates, there are constant tensions about who is and isn’t minding Lana—and who does and doesn’t especially need the money that abstinence would win the group. One chaotic couple, sultry Canadian influencer Francesca and super-tall Australian goofball Harry, violate rules with a selfishness that borders on sociopathy. Kelz and Jesus, who have less luck finding soulmates on the retreat, become hookup cops. Factions form. Confrontations take place. Some people lock lips just to spite their fellow contestants.
In the end, though the producers use the standard arsenal of reality TV tools—new characters, rule changes, sudden reveals) to obscure this outcome—evidence of personal growth seems scant. Too Hot is a thoroughly awful show—a social experiment with a flimsy premise that fails to either yield remarkable results or create interesting characters. But what its makers couldn’t have known during production is that it’s also weirdly relevant in the time of coronavirus.
As they attempt a form of social distancing that will seem hilariously easy to viewers who haven’t been within six feet of anyone outside their household in weeks, the participants face a low-stakes version of the ethical drama playing out across nations trying to flatten the curve. In both cases, the success of the community relies on the compliance of every individual. Just as the members of this performatively shallow group can’t stop their roommates from hooking up and losing them money, those of us who are staying home whenever possible can’t stop our neighbors from endangering our lives by meeting up in parks, throwing dinner parties and, yes, swiping through dating apps. Which isn’t to say that it’s a pleasure spending time with an entire cast of people you could imagine spending their pandemic-mandated downtime on Tinder.
Of course, neither this TV show nor the novel coronavirus invented this particular variety of frustration. Economics majors and, probably, Good Place fans will recognize it as a variation on the tragedy of the commons—a phenomenon in which self-interested individuals deplete a shared resource, whether it be a collective cow pasture or a species of fish, ultimately ruining it for everyone. Climate change is, so far, playing out as an international tragedy of the commons. As Too Hot so salaciously demonstrates, once one person (or couple, as the case may be) has reaped the benefits of undermining the common good, others who’d initially committed to acting in the public interest start to suspect they’d be suckers not to put themselves first. At the bottom of these slippery slopes: no money for the sexy singles. No end to the coronavirus pandemic. In the event that the fast-approaching climate crisis isn’t diverted, no long-term future for humanity.
Is this an odd, unexpectedly dark place to end up when you logged into Netflix in search of something brainless to pass the time between video chats? Absolutely. But then, what could be more in sync with the current zeitgeist than odd, unexpected darkness?