Near the start of the pandemic, whilst the locked-down masses were still hungry for new content, Netflix offered up their own rendition of Love Island with a chaste twist: ten hot and horny singles are confined to a deserted resort and are prohibited from kissing, heavy petting, having sex, and self-gratification, lest they lose money for the entire group. To ensure no rules are transgressed, the contestants’ every move is watched by Lana, a puritanical Amazon Alexa rip-off with a Dr. Ruth update who takes pleasure in slut-shaming her guests. The objective of the “experiment” — as the contestants are fond of calling it — is to teach them how to form deeper connections, rather than disposable flings. So, thankfully, when all of Sydney plunged into lockdown for a second time, the producers were kind enough to bestow us with a second season.
What the new slate of episodes showed us, however, was the strange eugenic throughline that had been fermenting since the beginning. In the first season, Sharron and Rhonda, the only Black contestants that end the season in a relationship, are shipped together — literally (their final date is on a boat). David, Sharron’s white best friend, also has a thing for Rhonda, although he dutifully backs off to not interfere with his boy’s romance and instead gets together with a woman of the same race. Similarly, Kelz, a Black guy from London and the self-proclaimed “accountant” of the group, refused to make out with Francesca, Too Hot to Handle’s certified prima donna, knowing full well that it would result in his disbarment.
In the second season, Melinda and Marvin, who are both Black, are undeniably the power couple of the group and the two most attractive members of the cast. Meanwhile, the other contestants of colour serve auxiliary functions to the white characters: Elle tempts Nathan to break up his loveless relationship with Larissa; Chase reveals himself to be another one of Carly’s bad exes, before getting a taste of his own medicine from his new love interest; and Kayla is sent home because she’s a total bore.
This creepy eugenic impulse also affects the contestants through the show’s fetishisation of different shades of white. When Christina arrives at the resort four episodes in, the sexually repressed contestants immediately become infatuated with the high-octane Cape Town pilot’s half-Italian, half-Portuguese ancestry, which Cam, the resident playboy of the group, notes is a “good mix.”
But back to the A-plot, Marvin, like Sharron before him, struggles with emotional walls that prevent him from getting close to his partner, which eventually become eroded through the thumping palpitations of love. At the same time, Melinda teases that she used to date white guys, and like Rhonda, is tempted by a white boy — in this case, a 21-year-old who makes thirst traps on TikTok — before returning to her perfect Black match. Her final date with Marvin takes place, yes again, on a boat, where, like season one, they get the green light to kiss without penalty after Marvin asks her to be his girlfriend.
Even though the show awarded Marvin the prize money for Best Performance of Emotional Growth, it reads like a tokenistic pre-emptive strike in anticipation of being called out for racism. Viewers might remember David’s Instagram post from June 2020 of him standing shirtless in a pool beside Kelz. Below the picture, he announced that he was “sorry for what [his] people did to [Kelz] in the past,” as part of his obligatory Black Lives Matter-for-likes scheme. Kelz, being the accountant after all, issued receipts showing that he didn’t condone David’s use of his image for personal gain.
It’s a truism to say that reality TV is fake TV. The show’s artificial parameters facilitate specific responses from the cast who are all aiming to attain celebrity status (and increase their prices on Cameo). Simultaneously, the narration is scripted, storylines are scrapped, sex scenes are blocked, and contestants are “nudged” to elicit maximum drama whilst still maintaining an MA 15+ rating. Nevertheless, reality television, by virtue of its name, has permission to shape our own understandings of reality, contributing to prevailing myths of heteronormativity and “anti-miscegenation,” beyond our TV screens. Just as The Bachelorette Australia’s decision to feature a bisexual and Indigenous bachelorette has offered an opportunity to revolutionise the format from its racist and sexist roots, we can only hope that Too Hot to Handle experiences a similar revolution.