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Netflix makes reality shows exclusively for the extremely online

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Too Hot to Handle thinks you can go viral without being good

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Too Hot to Handle’s premise is hard to see as anything other than desperate. A collection of hot people are promised a hedonistic island getaway, then surprised with a big catch: a $100,000 prize, but only if they abstain from having sex. As a group of mostly accomplished sex-havers who meet each other in swimwear, this is the opposite of what they want, and the show doesn’t actually expect them to not hook up; they’ll just lose some prize money every time they get too horny. Whether or not the show is good doesn’t really matter, because like all of Netflix’s 2020 reality shows, it was made to go viral — and quality doesn’t really matter for that. A successful Netflix reality show isn’t about being entertaining. It’s about being online.

The Circle, Netflix’s first reality show of 2020, was also the most openly interested in figuring out how to bring digital life into an easily digestible reality competition. It did this by simply making social media the point, telling its contestants that they would only ever interact with each other through the show’s eponymous social network, The Circle. Because of this, they could be whoever they wanted to be. Some participants chose to stick to who they really were; others took a more Catfish-style approach by playing as someone else entirely.

It was a reality competition about the performance of authenticity — the internet in a nutshell, presented in a bingeable reality series. It’s also an easily exportable one. Currently, there’s a version of The Circle for the United Kingdom, Brazil, and France. These regional adaptations might as well underline the point: the internet can be a culture unto itself, a medium where personas are invented and rebuilt daily regardless of their physical circumstance.

Love Is Blind, Netflix’s second reality show this year, narrowed its lens to focus on dating. Like The Circle, it’s a potent fusion of the heightened personalities fostered by both reality television and life online. In it, contestants are divided by gender (Love Is Blind is cripplingly heteronormative) and kept apart, going on literal blind dates in pods where they can hear, but not see each other. It’s a mode of interaction more intimate than, say, Tinder, but still fraught with some of the same anxieties: in a world where anyone can present themselves in any way they choose, how do you know what’s genuine?

As Love Is Blind ups the stakes — to proceed in the “experiment” (as the show calls itself), couples must get engaged, sight unseen — the series takes a very online concern to Bravo-esque heights of surrealism. Couples with only a handful of conversations under their belt meet each others’ families, prepare for a wedding, and try to not second-guess their relationship now that they can hang out with other contestants. In juxtaposing participants’ initial isolation with the messiness of reality television, it takes on a common theme with The Circle: consistency as authenticity.

The couples Love Is Blind gets the most mileage out of are the ones who dependably lean into their broad archetype; even if their personas do not appear genuine. While not a competition, there are heroes (the sincere and sweet Cameron Hamilton and Lauren Speed) and villains (the vain and superficial Matthew Barnett and Amber Pike). As other couples fall to the wayside, Love Is Blind becomes an endurance test to see if your chosen (or, given the genre we’re dealing with, assigned) persona holds, wringing drama from moments where masks look like they may slip. It’s telling that for Hamilton and Speed, the show never really ended — the two have leveraged their newfound fame into a YouTube channel.

That consistency brings us back to Too Hot to Handle, the newest and shallowest show in Netflix’s growing reality TV empire. Unlike the other shows, which sort its characters Harry Potter-style into various archetypes, Too Hot to Handle’s cast mostly falls on a scale that goes from selfish to horny, or selfish and horny, and counts on that to be enough. The cynicism of the enterprise makes for a show that barely seems like it should even hold together. It’s hosted by a smart speaker named Lana that looks like a $16 aromatherapy diffuser, there’s a narrator who provides commentary that barely makes sense, and it’s all tied together with halfhearted moralizing messages about how contestants might learn there is more to love than sex.

Yet it doesn’t really matter because, again: this is about being online, except that, unlike Netflix’s other reality shows, it’s not interested in people. It gives its contestants almost zero opportunities to slide from person to performance, everyone involved is only as interesting as their last Instagram (and whether they will succumb and have sex). It’s the internet as pure consumption and not creation.

To those who lead an online life, it’s no secret that performance lies at the heart of it. This is why “catfish” is a verb and not just the title of a movie / TV show, why YouTubers and live-streamers foster parasocial relationships, and why we’ve developed a nigh-innate ability to decipher what’s implied by the angle, background, and framing of a given Instagram post. We know that posting does not make a person, so we decide on a case-by-case basis if the posts are good enough to connect with on their own merit, or if we’d rather see a person on the other end of the screen.

That Netflix’s reality programming would take on a uniquely online texture shouldn’t be terribly surprising. In terms of ubiquity and traffic, Netflix is the internet, accounting for an astonishing amount of time and bandwidth. Just as reality television emerged on cable and broadcast to present a different kind of show populated by different kinds of stars that gamified small-screen fame, it’s being reinvented on Netflix for our extremely online world. If Netflix’s reality shows seem a little more ridiculous than what came before, it’s because they are: the ante has been upped, and reality television is no longer about “normal” people competing against scripted dramas and comedies.

Now, the whole internet is the network, and everyone with a smartphone is competition. Going viral could happen to you, so why would you watch someone else striving for small-scale fame? Unless, of course, they’re reckless enough to try something like, say, moving into a building full of potential catfish where their only communication was a fake social network. Or marry someone they’d never get to see until they proposed. Or completely ruin a small team of aspiring influencer’s chances at winning money because you cannot keep your hands off each other. That might work. It might be enough to get people to stop posting about their own lives for long enough to post about a few lives sponsored by Netflix.