Compared to the commercialism and staginess of current reality shows, the daddy of them all retains an unfiltered charm

The third season of Netflix’s abstinence-in-bikinis reality show, Too Hot to Handle, launched on the platform in late January with a surprising twist. At the beginning of the first episode, the show’s narrator, Desiree Burch, explained to viewers that one day after wrapping up the filming of season two last year, an entirely new cast was introduced to the show’s villa in the Turks and Caicos Islands. As with the second season’s brigade of contestants, season three’s group were not informed that they would be appearing on Too Hot to Handle, whose agonising reputation precedes it. Instead, the programme-makers told their band of singles that this was a sexy show called Pleasure Island, complete with a fake host and its own in-show lingo.

The participants in Too Hot to Handle’s third season had no idea this trick had also been used on their predecessors. They seemed dejected, if still slightly knowing, when they were told. But it’s not surprising that the show’s producers were keen to pull the rug out from under them in pursuit of “authenticity”. Reality TV is now self-consciously commercial, with contestants increasingly seeing its shows as a fast track to brand partnerships and sponsorship deals in a TV-to-Instagram-influencer pipeline. Contestants take part with the intention of growing their social media followings and signing lucrative promotional deals when they leave. Over the years, even the format and production values of reality TV have become predictably staged: we get scene transitions with establishing shots, musical interludes and stock character tropes that become even more pronounced during the edit.

Lauren O’Neill is a culture writer for Vice UK

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