I took a brief trip around the world last Thursday courtesy of VPN, hoping to discover what the number one Netflix show is in various countries. And while the result didn’t quite make me despair for the future of humanity, let’s just say I’ll be rooting a little less hard for “Team Homo sapiens” against the coronavirus from now on.
In seven randomly selected countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel (OK, that one wasn’t so random), Japan and Australia – the same series was number one in no fewer than six of them: Netflix’s new reality show “Too Hot to Handle.” Take a bow, Australia, but don’t get too smug because “Too Hot…” was second only to “The Last Dance” in your territory.
I wish I were as immune to COVID-19 as I am to the charms of most reality television shows. I particularly loathe the increasingly large number that involve nubile young things and – to put it euphemistically – dating.
Sure, birds do it, bees do it – but not in some crassly choreographed, wildly overproduced manner that features more pecs than a Budapest phonebook and more silicon than Palo Alto. And as you watch a show like “Too Hot to Handle,” it’s pretty clear that educated fleas would run rings around most of these dumbass contestants.
All of the tropes of the dating genre – exotic location; swimwear; hot and horny young singletons with the self-awareness of an avocado – are present and politically incorrect in this eight-part show, which is seemingly what happens when a Netflix exec takes the phrase “Race to the bottom” way too literally.
The show’s stated object (other than the contestants’ lithe bodies) is to take a group of “commitment-phobic swipesters” and help them, ahem, “gain deeper emotional connections” in their personal relationships. How? By sticking them in a luxury resort in Mexico and offering them the chance to win $100,000 if they “abstain from sexual practices” for the entirety of their stay. Congratulations if your response to that was “WTF?”
One of many indications that this is not a Mensa International summer retreat comes when a contestant asks what “self-gratification” means when the rules are explained by an AI voice called Lana (basically an even creepier version of Alexa).
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The overriding problem with “Too Hot to Handle” is that it is all concept – “And then there was none,” to paraphrase Agatha Christie – and no follow-through. Once the horny contestants learn at the end of the first episode that they will need to forego physical pleasure to win, they are all undressed up with nowhere to go. The rest of the show is a series of increasingly stupid “trust games” that generate zero tension or interest, with a few gimmicks thrown in en route.
Funnily enough, the one reaction I expected after seeing the contestants reveal themselves – “I’m not the brightest spark in the … book,” says Essex girl Chloe in her intro – didn’t happen: I thought I would hate them all with a passion and be only too happy if the show turned into a real-life “Hunger Games.” But they were generally a likeable bunch of narcissists, more ensnared by the desire to be famous than anything else.
With their jacked-up bodies and pneumatic figures, a better term for these millennials would be “mirrorennials,” all dangerously obsessed with their own image. When a contestant explains what she will spend the prize money on if she wins – “I’m gonna get my nose job; get my credit card paid off” – it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for such a sad response.
My disdain went instead to Netflix, which uses these pieces of eye candy to draw in a young audience under the pretence of conducting a psychological experiment. I’d have had a lot more respect for the show if it were set in a nunnery or monastery than an exotic retreat – although it did at least teach me what a palapa is (and no, it’s not a sexual term).
Although the show is being widely watched, it doesn’t appear to be getting much love – possibly because abstinence is just not as dramatic as hot young things coupling off in shows like “Love Island.” Everything is also painfully overdone, the producers recognizing they have very little to work with: there’s a tediously snarky commentary by comedian Desiree Burch; an over-the-top soundtrack supposedly keying up the drama; and “real-time” commentaries by the contestants that are spliced into supposedly suspenseful moments. Honestly, I’ve felt more tension waiting for a lift to arrive.
Still, even though I would rather stick jalapeño peppers in my eyes than watch a second season, I hope they make an Israeli spin-off – for the sole reason that I already have the perfect title for them: “Chastity Gelt.”
Luckily, Netflix is a broad church and in addition to trashy reality shows like “Too Hot to Handle” and “Love is Blind,” it also boasts countless shows that will lift your spirits or transport you out of these lockdown blues.
I’ve previously written about shows like “Fauda,” “Unorthodox,” “Unbelievable” and “The Confession Killer.” But the truth is, there are many more buried within the site that don’t attract nearly enough press attention or Twitter chatter.
Here are two shows and a one-off documentary that are well worth your time…
For anyone with a “Fleabag”-shaped hole in their lives – which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us – say hello to “Feel Good.” This British comedy-drama co-created by and starring Canadian comedian Mae Martin is the funniest show I’ve seen all year, successfully offering a beautiful balance of laughter and poignancy.
In classic “Seinfeld” tradition, this semi-autobiographical tale sees Martin playing Mae Martin, a young Canadian comedian who came to England “on a canoe with Celine Dion.” She now plies her trade at a small comedy club called The Gag Bin, which is where she meets and falls in love with schoolteacher George (Charlotte Ritchie).
But as well as being a show about relationships – this is George’s first rodeo with another woman, and she’s struggling to deal with it even as they are living together – it is even more about addiction, drawing on Martin’s teenage years as a drug addict. This is a comedy that revels in going to dark places, all driven by Martin’s “young Ellen DeGeneres on speed” performance and her easy chemistry with Ritchie (a “dangerous Mary Poppins,” as Mae calls her).
“Feel Good” is also one of those shows that, wherever you look, there’s a brilliant character luring: There’s Mae’s writer mom, Linda (perfectly played by Lisa Kudrow), whose Skype conversations with her daughter are brutally frank (“You were four weeks premature. You were in an incubator – it’s why we’re not close”). And then there’s Mae’s sponsor at Narcotics Anonymous, Maggie (Sophie Thompson), who gets some of the show’s best lines, all delivered in a wonderfully manic manner.
Like “Fleabag” before it, the series only consists of six 25-minute episodes, so it’s easy to devour in one sitting. Now, we just need to pray to the comedy gods that a second season will follow next year.
It’s funny how we find shows in different ways. My route to this thriller-drama, about a potential Islamic State attack on Sweden and a young Swedish mother, Pervin (Gizem Erdogan), regretting her decision to accompany her jihadi husband to Syria, was via a Ricky Gervais tweet about the creators’ previous show, “Before We Die” – which he called “one of the best police dramas of all time,” no less.
So naturally, I was curious when I read about Wilhelm Behrman and Niklas Rockström’s follow-up, “Caliphate,” which has broken viewing records in its native Sweden but seems to have generated zero buzz since landing on Netflix last month – and this despite the streaming site’s algorithms presumably pushing the show to anyone who watched “Messiah” earlier this year.
This is a gripping series full of strong female characters, exemplified by police analyst Fatima (Aliette Opheim), trying to investigate the imminent attack on Swedish soil after a tip-off from Pervin in Raqqa. But it also looks at young members of the Muslim community in Stockholm and their anger at being treated as second-class citizens in a country which, to most Western eyes, is an enviously liberal state.
Powerful stuff, which begs just one question: When did Sweden usurp Denmark as the top hund in Scandi TV?
‘Circus of Books’
For over 30 years Karen and Barry Mason ran Circus of Books, a cornerstone of the West Hollywood gay scene until its last store closed in February 2019. At one point, this ramrod-straight Jewish couple was also probably the biggest distributor of hard-core gay films in the United States, releasing videos by the likes of Jeff Stryker and even producing some themselves.
Yet Karen was also a prominent member of her local conservative synagogue and struggled to reconcile her religion with her career – [SPOILER] a feeling only amplified when she learned that a member of her own family was gay.
That dichotomy is at the heart of this touching documentary by daughter Rachel Mason, which serves as both fascinating time capsule of a bygone age – VHS videos! Mom and Pop stores! The AIDS epidemic – and a lovingly made home movie, albeit one that happens to be executive produced by Ryan Murphy and features the likes of Stryker and porn mogul Larry Flynt as talking heads.
Despite Karen constantly kvetching that she can’t understand why her daughter would want to make a movie about her, this is a really heart-warming tale. Good luck not weeping as you watch Karen take her journey – after a long theological struggle – from domestic homophobe to flag-waver for parents to accept their children’s gender identities.
Highly recommended, even to knucklehead contestants of dating reality TV shows.