There were a number of shows that could technically be defined as “reality television” that graced the airwaves before the 1990s rolled around but most of them are better characterized as the traditional documentaries they were at their core compared to what eventually came in their wake.
Prior to the decade, the television industry had dabbled in social experimentation, as shows like Candid Camera gave us a look at how unsuspecting people react to unexpected situations while The Dating Game provided contestants with an unorthodox opportunity to find the love of their life (and, in one case, narrowly avoid becoming the victim of a serial killer).
A new era officially dawned in 1992 when MTV found seven people willing to spend three months sharing a loft in New York City with total strangers as cameras followed their every move to document what happens when people stop being polite…and start getting real.
The Real World was one of the first programs that transformed television sets into fish bowls, giving viewers an intimate look at the often-intimate moments inside the unique ecosystem producers had constructed. The show’s ratings made it clear there was a healthy appetite for similar fare but it took networks almost a decade to discover the secret ingredient capable of making the mouths of their audience truly water: money.
Around the turn of the millennium, indirect adaptations of classic pieces of literature featuring a huge cash prize suddenly became all the rage. Big Brother gave The Real World an Orwellian twist, people on The Amazing Race showed up Jules Verne’s characters by making it around the world in 39 days, and Survivor allowed contestants to get their Lord of the Flies on without having to worry about getting killed by a boulder.
The arrival of those shows marked the beginning of the reality television boom, as the powers that be began to realize they could make programs for a fraction of the cost of more traditional productions and demand just as much (if not more) cash from advertisers. After all, why shell out for a script and hire a crew to film overpaid actors delivering their lines on expensive sets when you can simply offer a bunch of regular people a chance to win some money and let human nature work its course?
As time progressed, it became increasingly clear that there are a few elements fans of reality television have a particular thirst for. Anything to do with sex was obviously a major draw (and we were met with a proliferation of dating shows as a result), but if you wanted to set yourself apart in the category, you also had to figure out a way to sate the audience’s insatiable appetite for interpersonal drama and emotional manipulation.
This led to a new formula popularized by The Bachelor and its ilk that involved sweetening the jackpot by throwing a potential romantic partner on top of a sizeable pile of cash, which checked off one of the required boxes. It was a bit harder to guarantee you’d be able to satisfy those other two but it didn’t take long for producers to realize they’d normally take care of themselves as long as they provided contestants with an unlimited supply of alcohol.
It was only a matter of time until things began to devolve thanks to audience fatigue that was accelerated by an increase in the number of shows best described as “the encapsulation of trashiness” engaged in a race to the bottom and others that found the “reality” aspect of reality television far too inconvenient but failed miserably in their attempts to convincingly make staged events feel as authentic as the organic moments they masqueraded as.
As a result, the genre’s golden era would end not with a bang but a whimper, and while some vestiges do still remain, most viewers and the creators catering to them gradually began to focus their attention on other realms of entertainment as the previous decade came to a close.
However, when the new one began, reality television got an unexpected shot in the arm that was administered by a fairly unlikely source: Netflix.
No one really knew what to expect when Netflix boldly announced it was planning on wading into the original content waters in the early part of the 2010s, as going from a company that facilitates the viewing of movies and shows to making them is an incredibly ambitious leap.
With that said, getting David Fincher to helm a show starring a non-scandal-plagued Kevin Spacey is one hell of a way to make your presence known. With the release of House of Cards in 2013, Netflix managed to achieve what the Joker did when he waltzed into Bruce Wayne’s penthouse by making it clear the company should not be ignored.
Netflix may have initially made a name for itself by aggregating content but the in-house projects it pumped out over the next few years resulted in the company garnering a stellar reputation for creating it. Its track record may not have been perfect but most people were initially willing to give anything labeled a “Netflix Original” a shot because there was a general perception that the company hit more often than it missed.
It’s safe to say this is no longer the case. As more and more titles disappear from its library on a monthly basis while every single entertainment entity on the planet scrambles to get a piece of the streaming pie, Netflix has used some of the massive amounts of cash at its disposal to adopt a “quantity over quality” strategy. At this point, you couldn’t even keep up with everything they produce if you tried, as 371 original projects hit the platform last year—including more than 20 that fall under the “reality television” umbrella.
I don’t know if there’s any other show in existence that’s brought me more joy than Queer Eye has and I never would’ve guessed watching people clean up their homes could make for compelling television until Marie Kondo came along. However, I’m not particularly drawn to the reality genre as a whole and can’t say I’ve been intrigued by anything else Netflix has offered in that sphere —at least until this year.
Netflix ushered in 2020 with the release of The Circle, which revolves around a group of people living in the same physical space but whose interactions are exclusively virtual, as they can only communicate with an app straight out of Black Mirror that allows them to rate the other contestants vying for a $100,000 prize.
The Circle was dumb and mindless and I couldn’t get enough of it. Sadly, there was a noted lack of similar shows on Netflix to turn to but that all changed the following month with the release of the dating show Love Is Blind. Unlike The Circle, people on Love Is Blind are able to have actual conversations with prospective romantic partners but they only have a single option if they want to see their face: ASKING FOR THEIR HAND IN MARRIAGE WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE.
There was no way I wasn’t going to watch something with a premise like that and it was such an electric series that I managed to finish the entire thing over the course of a single weekend. Love Is Blind might not be a “good” show but there are critically-acclaimed prestige dramas that failed to draw me in as much as it did.
It was a pretty hard act to follow and Netflix could’ve been forgiven if it wasn’t able to one-up itself with its next foray into reality. However, last week, it managed to do what Francis Ford Coppola did with The Godfather Part II when it dropped Too Hot To Handle on an unsuspecting world.
Too Hot To Handle features an incredible twist on the tried-and-tested “drop a bunch of attractive people with raging hormones in an exotic location and have them compete for money” formula that anyone remotely familiar with reality television will recognize. Everyone on the show has a chance to get a chunk of a grand prize that’s initially worth $100,000, but the catch is that the jackpot decreases in value whenever there’s any form of sexual contact between contestants.
It’s truly hard to grasp how amazing Too Hot To Handle is if you haven’t watched it but you shouldn’t need very long to have that realization, as it only takes about five minutes until you’re treated to one contestant getting sexted in the middle of an interview and another who shares he recently signed up for Christian Mingle immediately before revealing he’s the proud owner of a picture of his penis placed next to an air freshener can for scale.
The true beauty of Too Hot To Handle is that it’s a show that’s as self-aware as its contestants aren’t. The reason it harnessed the aforementioned formula it’s based on is precisely because of how played out it is and you could tell the people who were tasked with populating the miniature universe constructed by the producers took great care to select the vainest and most self-absorbed individuals the world has to offer.
There’s a purposeful cheesiness that permeates throughout Too Hot To Handle that was also at the core of a particular bloc of largely forgotten shows that materialized during the reality boom. After sparking the flame with The Real World the previous decade, MTV spent the 2000s dreaming up ways to feed the resulting inferno and found some fuel in the form of a few truly preposterous dating shows.
There was Room Raiders, where contestants were equipped with a forensic detective starter kit and tasked with picking who to go out on a date with based entirely on what they uncovered while exploring the homes of the three prospective matches commenting on the investigations while sequestered inside the windowless van they were thrown into at the start of every episode.
We also had DisMissed, where whoever was searching for love got the chance to decide between two people vying for the same goal by going on a date with both of them at the same time and dealing with the drama and awkwardness that inevitably ensued.
Both of those programs were filled to the brim with eccentric personalities and dialogue peppered with groan-inducing one-liners that producers almost certainly fed to the participants but no show managed to harness that strategy as masterfully as Next.
Next was essentially a serial dating competition where a featured contestant had five potential suitors waiting in a bus eagerly anticipating the moment their name was called. Once it was, they’d emerge (accompanied by a bio filled with hilariously bizarre bullet points) and earn money for every minute of a date the other person could bring to an abrupt end by uttering the name of the show to start the cycle anew.
Too Hot To Handle picks up where these shows left off thanks in no small part to the narration provided by Desiree Burch, a comedian who never appears on camera but provides just as much entertainment (if not more) than the people who inspire the deliberately hokey commentary that reminds you not to take the series too seriously.
However, she’s not the only disembodied female voice to play a sizeable role in the show. Too Hot To Handle may not emanate a Black Mirror vibe as strongly as The Circle does but it still raises questions about our relationship with and reliance on technology with the help of Lana, the smart speaker serving as the show’s de facto host.
Nick and Vanessa Lachey sporadically popped up on Love Is Blind to help lead contestants through their journey and I can only assume they were compensated very well for their minimal screen time when you consider Netflix tapped a generic smart device to oversee the proceedings on Too Hot To Handle.
It’s easy to forget (and perhaps more enjoyable to purposefully overlook) that Lana is a conduit for the show’s producers, but even if “she” isn’t a sentient being, it’s fascinating to watch as the participants come to love, fear, and respect the technological overlord that frequently reminds them their every move is being watched.
Was the person who decided Lana was the best fit for the role she plays actually hoping it would lead to viewers grappling with the implications of our ever-increasing technological dependence? Probably not. But if they were, I hope they know they caused at least one person to ruminate on the topic.
As much as I adored every single second of Too Hot To Handle, there is one thing I should stress if I’ve managed to convince you to give it a shot: there is an inverse relationship between how much enjoyment you get out of it and how seriously you take it. It’s not an objectively good show by any means but it may be the perfect reality television series.
I’m not sure if Netflix will be able to top this absolute masterclass, but as I said before, I felt the same way after finishing Love Is Blind and have never been happier to have been proved wrong. Here’s to hoping it can outdo itself once again.