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Netflix’s ‘Too Hot to Handle’ Remains TV’s Horniest—and Most Confounding—Reality Show

The contest bars contestants from kissing, sex, and “heavy petting.” But partying isn’t really what reality TV is about, anyway.

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is hard, I think, to imagine wanting to go on a reality show. It is easiest to assume that it is a transactional kind of thing, and that all the pretty young people with bright-white teeth and a speculative official in their social media handles are primarily interested in what might come after the show: the fame and the influencer cred and the sponsored posts and the eponymous lines at such-and-such stores. The reality shows themselves seem, mostly, like something to be endured—the embarrassing challenges and the painful shoes and the cast of fellow big-personality’d would-be influencers with a shared familiarity with zero-sum games and the too much cava, everywhere, always.

What I mean is that the most confounding part of Too Hot to Handle, which begins its second season on Wednesday, is not that it is a show where contestants compete, more or less, to not have sex. Or that there are people who watched the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Co. try not to masturbate and thought “OK, yes, that” (really!), or that a cabal of people inspired by that Seinfeld episode pitched Netflix and Netflix agreed “OK, yes, that,” or that some probably very expensive lawyers sat down and after a presumably great many billable hours ruled, ibid. What I find most confusing of all is: the anguish. The screams, the yells, the abject horror when, most of the way through the second season’s premiere, the fresh batch of 10 very slightly clothed strangers learn that they have been summoned to a sumptuous Turks and Caicos estate not to participate in the made-up reality show Parties in Paradise, but in this one, the no-sex one. There will be no parties in paradise at all! Even their smiley Parties in Paradise host, “Jeff,” is a fake! They have been summoned into a horror movie premise: a secluded mansion, a lie forged by mysterious powers with their own ends in mind (binge-watching). But instead of an ax murderer, what awaits them is, in the parlance of the show, no “rumpy pumpy.” And yet: The contestants gasp and moan and beat their chests as if the vorpal blade itself has appeared, instead of the bizarro chastity-enforcing AI speaker technology named Lana (hm) that the show has stand in for a human host. (Sorry, Jeff!)

Which, I don’t know, maybe the contestants all really did board planes thinking: I am going to have so much sex with these strangers with whom I am going to Party and I simply cannot wait to determine whether one of those Paradise strangers has a ticklish undercarriage and I will suck on a stranger’s earlobe for speculative content and I will like it. Maybe! Maybe. There is also a chance that they are acting, that learning that this particular influencer lotto ticket involving celibacy is not really such a disaster. Then again: Someone does indeed determine that a stranger has a ticklish undercarriage. Who can say!

So anyway, you cannot have sex on the island for the duration of a cruel, unusual, and ambiguously defined “summer” that, last time around, was “24 to 25 days.” In Too Hot to Handle’s glorious (?) return, the rules of the game are somewhat better explained than they were the first time around: There is a pool of $100,000, and every sensual something committed by any of the 10 would-be Partiers results in some correspondingly severe chunk being deducted from it. Those sensual somethings are not just sex, but also self-gratification ($2,000), kissing ($3,000), and “heavy petting.” (I had never really wanted a precise definition of heavy petting, but the THTH brain trust has determined that stroking of the rear end is not heavy petting, but “excessive grinding” is. Do with this information what you will.)

The group does not do very well, but you probably suspected as much. The contest is, somewhat bizarrely, pitched as a self-help retreat; these sexy singles, a narrator informs us, are being kept from one another’s nether regions only so that they can form deeper, non-physical connections first. A lovely idea, surely, though the functional result is that the contestants are rewarded for striking up weird pseudo-relationships with people they do not seem to particularly like. This is ostensibly the real reward: true love. Goblets of white wine abound.

Season 1 spawned two couples, one of which—dubbed Sharrhonda by fans—had already bitten the dust by the time the reunion episode aired last spring, a month after the show’s release. Then there was Harry Jowsey and Francesca Farago, who seemed to share a solid grasp of that chief function of reality TV: to transform good-looking 20-somethings with highlights and middling social media followings into full-blown influencers. This is an aim best served by elbowing castmates out of the spotlight; on Too Hot to Handle, the best way to do that was, and is, to be the very horniest of all. Jowsey and Farago accomplished that with aplomb, and used the reunion episode to get engaged via Ring Pop. They alone, after multiple breakups and reconciliations and hint-hint-maybe reconciliations, have remained tabloid fixtures; on Instagram, they went from relative anonymity to a few million followers (and a fair few sponsorships, no doubt) apiece.

But then no one watches The Bachelor with the expectation that they are watching lifelong unions blossom. And while maybe no one actually signs up to be on a show called Parties in Paradise to, well, party, the ones who end up on Too Hot to Handle instead certainly have a way with words.

Quoth the recently celibate: “I think a hand job is very subtle.”