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‘Too Hot to Handle’ Is Netflix’s Most Disconcerting, and Entertaining, Reality TV Show Yet

Ten contestants are invited to an island, prohibited from having sex, and encouraged to become “authentically connected.” This is not ‘Love Is Blind.’ It is something much, much worse.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The clinical name for blue balls, in case you were wondering, is “epididymal hypertension.” It is—they are—not considered terribly dangerous, medically speaking. One afflicted by the condition would do well to wait it out or, barring that, take a cold shower, or barring that, take matters into one’s own hands. So to speak.

Unless, of course, the afflictee has absconded to the nightmare island of Netflix’s new reality show, Too Hot to Handle.

Too Hot to Handle’s premise takes many of reality television’s favorite tropes—10 dashing young people, whisked away to a secluded island paradise where they and their mostly dreadful personalities can clash ad nauseam—with a record-scratch: On this island, there will be no sex. Ditto “heavy petting” or even, ahem, “self-gratification.” The show informs the contestants that a pool of $100,000 awaits a winner or winners at the month’s end, which is apparently a surprise to all present. It is unclear what exactly the contestants did know about what they were signing up for: It is not made clear, to the players or the audience, what the rules of the contest are or how a winner will be selected until the finale, and nobody on the show even seems particularly worked up about not knowing. Either way, there is a catch: Any hanky-panky by any member of the group in the interim will result in a fine taken, according to its severity, from that 100 large. In short: A smooch on one is a smooch on all, and that shall not stand.

I understand what you might be thinking. How hard can it possibly be for 10 people to refrain from bumping uglies for a month? You, an upstanding citizen, have probably been found among groups of nine strangers on a number of occasions, and have refrained from having sex—maybe even from wanting to have sex—on a great many of them. Sure, OK, tropical paradise, abs, hot tubs, abs, one great tufted shared bedroom, abs, a champagne coupe in every florid and uncalloused hand, and abs, but hell is other people, isn’t it? Force me into a room with nine strangers and I am exceedingly more likely to want to send them all to a penal colony than I am to contemplate fuzzy handcuffs.

But you, my friend, are probably not the sort of person who signs up to compete on reality television.

For the contestants, the sex prohibition is a surprise—they all believed, apparently, that they were headed for a program that was explicitly “hedonistic.” The revelation is met with shrieks, cursing, wailing, horror. The show tells us that in these 10 islanders, it has found the world’s “hottest, horniest, commitment-phobic swipesters,” and those swipesters would seem to agree with this assessment. Sex, they tell us—having it, mostly, but also their ability to have it most any time with a great many readily obliging someones, found at bars and libraries and churches and also, in one case, the hotel the very night before taping—is a vital part of their identities. One contestant compares the ban to learning that her mother has died. “What I’m most proud of is my penis,” says another, by way of introduction. “Bro,” says a third after a couple of weeks of abstention, “I could poke a hole in the wall.”

We are led to believe that the contestants are being observed not by the camera crew tailing them at all times or the microphones that are in most cases the largest single item of coverage on their glistening, pious chests, but by a virtual assistant overlord in the vein of Siri or Alexa. The show’s version is named Lana, and speaks from a conical device that sits in most rooms, purportedly observing and then summoning the contestants with the cadence and perhaps intent of the Red Queen in Resident Evil to gather over and over in the home’s palapa. About once an episode, as fronds sway lightly in the wind, Lana summons all the contestants and then lists the inevitable transgressions of her wards: make out sessions, boob licks, and, in one case, “inappropriate touching of the bleep, constant use of the bleep in the bleep, not to mention the bleep.

Lana, the show informs us, is not a sadist: She simply wants her captive fuck bunnies to develop the “tools to become authentically connected” to one another, a goal accomplished in part by workshops involving an expert in Japanese bondage (to build trust!), and using a mirror to examine one’s undercarriage (to build self-respect!). It does not take long for the contestants to deify their robot overlord. One player insists she and a prospective partner must follow the sex proscription “and listen to Lana because obviously she knows what’s best and we’ve just got to follow her and let her guide us.” (When they immediately disregard this, the other party explains: “We felt like it was the right move in our relationship.”)

The genius of Too Hot to Handle is the communal nature of the prize pool. As the pot of money steadily shrinks, players get angry at their horndog compatriots and blame their co-hookupees for initiating the funny business. Some are more reverent than others. One, having learned that she will be invited to a no-touch night in the estate’s private suite with a fella, openly ponders how much anal would cost. Faced with the wrath of his peers, another player concludes, “Sorry that we’re hot as fuck and we want to tear each other apart like a roast chicken.” There is an included sound effect that I would not say was the sound of eating roast chicken.

You might, perhaps, remember the instructions: No seed-spilling of any kind, even by the owner of the orchard. This raises some horrible but regretfully pressing questions about exactly how the producers planned to supervise things on the monkey-spanking front—there’s a camera in the shared bedroom (where liaisons, yes, occur), and a camera outside the showers (where liai—you get it), but not, so far as we know, absolutely everywhere. I am terribly sorry to tell you that having watched the entire season, Lana fined no one for polishing the banister, which might well mean that everyone was precisely as chaste as reported.

Reader, you know better.