Netflix's Sterile Reality Hits Were Made For A World In Quarantine

With slick, clinical looks and distanced concepts, "Too Hot to Handle," "Love Is Blind" and "The Circle" ushered us into an era of peak anxiety about touch and intimacy.
Images from "Too Hot to Handle," left, "The Circle," right, and "Love Is Blind," background.
Images from "Too Hot to Handle," left, "The Circle," right, and "Love Is Blind," background.

The Trump administration wasn’t ready for a pandemic, but apparently Netflix was.

Not only is the streaming giant poised to take advantage of bored quarantiners’ thirst for bingeable series, but much of its programming for the next year and a half has already been filmed, according to Bloomberg. “We work really far out relative to the industry,” an executive told investors during a recent earnings call. While broadcast networks have been forced to abruptly halt production on shows midseason, Netflix has months of TV in the bank.

And what TV. Netflix presciently (or serendipitously) released the documentary series “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” in January. Still more curiously, each of its three major reality shows of the spring — “The Circle,” “Love Is Blind” and “Too Hot to Handle” — captures a slice of quarantine life: total physical solitude, dating remotely, and an imperative to maintain social distance, respectively. These are shows with isolationist concepts and slick, clinical aesthetics, shows that reflect modern anxieties that the pandemic has only magnified, about touch and distance alike.

Take “Too Hot to Handle,” which dropped in mid-April, as if to taunt horny singles confined to Zoom dates and sexting for the foreseeable future. The concept: Over a dozen gorgeous 20-somethings, all self-described fans of casual sex, cozy up together at a resort only to learn that all sexual contact is verboten. A $100,000 prize fund is taxed as punishment for infractions ranging from a kiss to full-on sex. Even self-gratification is off the table. The balls must remain blue, in short.

For the cast, filming was an unwitting training session for a time of social distancing, for a world in which breaking the rules and touching other people would cost not just cash, but lives. For audiences already plunged into lockdown, it was a fun house mirror held up to a bleak new reality in which those of us huddled at home or forced out of it by essential job functions watch balefully as others crowd beaches, throw parties and protest to have their hairdressers reopened. Some contestants, like Kelz “The Accountant” Dyke, committed immediately to preserving the prize at all costs ― only to look on helplessly as less disciplined cast mates decided they’d waited long enough and started making out or fooling around under the blankets, hoping to get away with it. The consequences may be slightly delayed, but the announcement always comes: The COVID-19 cases have shot up, the prize pot has shrunk. No one has gotten away with anything.

The uncanny symmetry between reality and Netflix’s 2020 slate extends beyond the broad central concepts. The aesthetic, too, has evolved from the janky, chaotic productions of the early aughts. Where once we had sloppy and intentionally cheap-looking shows, like the mockingly annotated classic “Blind Date,” today’s new dating shows tend to be crisp, aiming for a more high-end look. Netflix pays relatively good money, allowing production companies to up their budgets. Compared to longer-lived network shows like “The Bachelor” and its spinoffs, the streaming platform’s reality shows look polished and clean, and they don’t break the fourth wall.

As I dutifully clicked on the first episode of “Too Hot to Handle” recently, I was prepared to feel unkempt compared to the show’s seductive singles. At four months postpartum, I’d been feeling unkempt for a full third of a year at that point. In an odd twist, of course, my experience recently had become more widely shared; thanks to the pandemic, hordes of other middle-class Americans had joined the sweatpants and greasy ponytail lifestyle.

Meanwhile, on-screen, I had never been confronted with more perfectly sleek specimens. Fourteen poreless humans in solid-color spandex and trim swim trunks, enduring the Mexican heat with barely a shimmer of perspiration. Every body hair has been neatly removed. Most of the women suffer from unremitting Instagram face: contoured, blurred and held in neutral pouts. The rules are introduced and enforced by Lana, a conical oil diffuser we’re meant to believe is an artificial-intelligence surveillance device. If the participants all look as if they’d stepped out of Instagram, filters included, the host looks like she’s stepped out of an ad for a direct-to-consumer wellness brand that pops up on your feed.

Lana, the conical AI host of "Too Hot to Handle," is pretty in pink.
Lana, the conical AI host of "Too Hot to Handle," is pretty in pink.

It was meant to be sexy, all these gorgeous, horny young people marooned together in their swimwear, watched over by a stern white cone. The entire tension of the show rested on the sexiness of this scenario. And for the contestants, Lana’s cock-blocking does cause unbearable temptation. They start breaking the rules almost immediately, and in between they struggle to even make enough conversation to flirt. “Usually if a guy is hot and I want him, it’s just like, do a little hair flip, make eye contact, and it’s game over,” admits Francesca Farago, a professional influencer. Once this maneuver is accomplished, there’s barely anywhere for a conversation between a budding couple to go, aside from pained references to how much they’d like to touch. But for me, as a viewer, the extreme physical perfection and self-conscious posing almost made sex seem implausible, as if their bodies were too smooth to create any friction or fluids. When rule-follower Matt Smith jokingly flirts with Lana, it felt about as steamy as any encounter between two humans on the show.

Old-school reality shows have a perversely appealing grossness, perhaps a sign of lower production value but a sign of humanity as well. On the “Bachelor” franchise dating show “Bachelor in Paradise,” contestants fight losing battles against humidity, which frizzes their hair and melts their makeup; crabs, which invade their bedrooms; and sand, which is stuck to everything. They’re perpetually sweaty and red-faced and lounging on wooden furniture covered in natural-fiber cushions. On “Too Hot to Handle,” every surface in the resort looks designed to be wiped down with a Clorox towelette, and every bit of upholstery is white or neon.

The little worlds of these shows are seamless, the surfaces gleam; the effect can be vaguely clinical. The show even introduces robot host Lana rather than nod to the fact the contestants live in a panopticon surrounded by human camera operators and producers glued to monitors.

As I watched the early episodes of “Love Is Blind,” in the first days of lockdown, it was the sterility of the set that struck me. Not only are the contestants kept separate from their romantic interests, feeling out possible flirtations by sitting alone in pods and speaking to each other through opaque glass walls, their surroundings are chilly and institutional. Many dating reality shows are filmed in mansions or resorts — places designed for living. The set of “Love Is Blind” is a custom-built facility designed for display: In the common areas shared by the men and the women, cavernous ceilings and clean lines; in the dating pods, muted metallic fabrics and rows of tall panels on the wall. Somehow both cozy and cheerless, the whole facility looks like a studio set, or perhaps an upscale office space. Every ray of light is artificial, as if the show were filmed underground. In a Refinery29 interview, Kenny Barnes revealed that when not in the pods, contestants slept in trailers on “correctional facility beds.”

Two contestants speak in pods on "Love Is Blind."
Two contestants speak in pods on "Love Is Blind."

After participants fell in love and got engaged, they were permitted to leave the pods and continue their courtship in person, first at a romantic getaway in Mexico and then in apartments in Atlanta. But the pod facility defined the show. When American state and local governments started social distancing measures soon after the show was released, fans and critics quickly noted the aptness of the concept for singles trying to date amid a pandemic. Can one fall in love without ever having a chance to see the other person in the flesh, or smell their pheromone musk? Results for the pod couples were mixed; the jury’s still out on when quarantine daters will be freed to spend a sensual weekend together at a Mexican resort.

In the meantime, many of us are confined to our homes whenever possible. And yet the slick, institutional aesthetic of these shows, perhaps designed to speak to millennials who live in minimalist apartments and commute to funky co-working spaces in lofts, feels particularly right for a moment in which our bodies are mostly in messy apartments but our minds are elsewhere ― in hospital rooms and nursing home corridors, in warehouses and factories that corporate emails assure customers are being frequently disinfected for worker safety.

“Too Hot to Handle” and “Love Is Blind” arrived at their aptness by accident, but it makes sense. Quarantine life often seems like a cruel play on previously existing anxieties about modern life, how we live too much online but also care too much about superficial sexual attraction. Instead, these shows impose a world in which we are challenged to deepen that isolation in order to build stronger, deeper bonds.

“The Circle,” a wildly popular show both in its British original and in Netflix’s version, dropped in January, though it hits differently now, well into the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus. The contestants are confined to their individual suites for the duration of the competition, where they cook for themselves, cuddle with stuffed animal friends, and communicate with the others through a contained social platform called The Circle. They build stripped-down profiles with strictly rationed opportunities to post photos and status updates, then build alliances via chat. The goal: to win the highest ratings from other players. Some play as themselves, others using photos they believe will garner higher numbers (typically hot women).

In the privacy of their rooms, some contestants lounge in sweats while others don full Insta-friendly looks daily; the rooms look like cheaply decorated, intentionally funky suites styled by an Airbnb landlord. Though the visuals are still more polished than old-school reality, there is a homeyness to this show not found in “THTH” or “Love Is Blind,” right down to the social network where they spend their days.

Seaburn Williams, who plays as "Rebecca," hangs out with his best friend on "The Circle."
Seaburn Williams, who plays as "Rebecca," hangs out with his best friend on "The Circle."

They’re only in isolation for around two weeks, but it starts to get to them. Seaburn, who is playing with photos of his stunning girlfriend, sleeps with a framed picture of her in his bed. After several contestants win a challenge, they’re awarded video messages from home; most of them cry. Though their friendships, surprisingly, become real, something is lost in the translation between screen and reality. Every day or two producers set up group events, like a cake-decorating contest or a party. Watching each resident eat a personal-sized pizza and bop around their room, sipping a cocktail and grooving to dance music alone, may have once read as a send-up of how social media distracts us from real life. Now, in the golden age of Zoom birthday parties and final goodbyes said over FaceTime, the scene just stings.

The odd topicality of these Netflix offerings is, in part, a simple question of timing. Many social reality shows have some baked-in kinship with quarantine. Contestants on high-concept dating shows and social competitions, from “Survivor” to “Are You the One?” are often secluded with each other for weeks on end, unable to run out for an errand or even communicate with loved ones back home. Their movements and interactions with each other are artificially restricted. No wonder Bachelor Nation is thriving on lockdown gossip about who is quarantining with whom — these reality stars all rose to fame by interacting entertainingly with the people with whom they were trapped on set.

It’s as if middle-class and wealthy Americans, with our Amazon Prime subscriptions and Seamless accounts, were already rehearsing for a life when we couldn’t, by gruesome necessity, leave home. Once plunged in the reality, we, like the shows’ contestants, quickly realize: It’s one thing to offload your errands and obligations. It’s another thing to actually keep one’s distance.

The sterile visuals and manicured casts only make these shows more deeply resonant for a time in which people are weighing whether a beard may make their masks less effective at warding off the virus, and in which we really must wipe everything down with Clorox wipes. Assuming, of course, that we can get any.