Each installment of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle is filled with the usual array of reality TV twists and turns, but the season premiere always holds the exact same surprise: The contestants are informed that, rather than being on a standard sun, sand, and sex reality series, they are actually on the set of the only show that tries to stop its cast from hooking up with each other. “I don’t even know how I’m going to make it through these next few weeks,” says season three cast member Patrick after the sex ban drops. “I hope I don’t die.” (He doesn’t appear to be joking.)
Even by reality TV standards, this is a show that can feel like it takes place in a handsy alternate universe. So comedian, actor, and Taskmaster alum Desiree Burch is there to bridge the gap, offering quip-filled accounts of the permanently swimsuit-clad cast’s hijinks. She almost never appears on screen, acting instead as the British production’s irreverent voice from the heavens. When she hosted the first season’s virtual reunion, she was credited as being the show’s “Narrator/Professional Pisstaker.”
“It’s like having all of the sardonic wit of British writing and comedy, but coming out of an American voice so it doesn’t sound as mean,” she said of her narration. “There’s something about hearing what British people think in their own accents, it’s just like, ‘Ow, I think you cut my neck open.’ But I think if you hear it a bit softened, then everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so funny.’
Too Hot to Handle, which emerged as an early-pandemic streaming hit after its 2020 debut, is like many other entries in the beach romance reality subgenre, which includes series like Love Island and Are You the One?. Contestants are promised that, if they make it to the end of the series, they’ll split a $200,000 reward. That prize pool decreases if there are transgressions of the sex ban, which are calculated on a sliding scale that starts with $6,000 for a kiss and grows more expensive as the cast rounds the bases. Despite the cost, rules are still broken, frequently and expensively.
While Burch now serves as a guide to the sex lives of strangers, she’s also written shows about her own sexual and romantic experiences, including her time working as a virgin dominatrix. To her, the struggles of those who tick all the boxes of conventional attractiveness and the rest of us are parallel. “You’re just on the other side of the same coin,” she said. “Human beings want to feel like they belong physically, in their bodies, to the world.”
You do a great job of pulling back the curtain a little bit and being kind of snarky, but not too mean. How do you strike that balance?
It is because there are so many chefs involved, I think. I’m working here in the UK with the production company and their writers, I’m doing the voice acting, and I’m also sort of bringing my own spin to certain things, or changing things. But it really does sort of start with, “We’ve gotten some writers, here’s the script.” So because there are a lot of people checking off, like, “Is this too mean?” I’ll be the one that’s like, “Are we dumping too much on the girl? Are we basically slut shaming this girl for what everybody is doing on the show?” So everybody’s kind of got their eye on different things.
The people who are over in Los Angeles are going to have a different eye, which is like, “Does this make sense to Americans?” And, “Is this too mean?” Because, in Britain, everyone is like, “Yeah, you could be meaner. The whole thing is these people think they’re so hot, let’s cut them off at the knee.” And in America, we’d go, “Oh, these people think they’re so hot, maybe, one day, we’ll be like them if we just do enough diet books.” It’s nice to make it a show that people can watch and feel like they’re in on the joke, even if they’re the hot person who’s watching themselves back going like, “OK, I guess I did do that.”
I think it’s been very important as well to not make any of these people feel like they want to kill themselves, you know? Particularly in the UK, the tabloid press here is pretty vicious. And it has happened before that people have hurt themselves, ended their lives, over press that they’ve gotten. And there’s no need for something that happens over a couple of weeks on an island to have blowback into somebody’s real life. I think that it is important to be like, “Let’s be honest, the reality TV people, they probably didn’t get paid a heck of a lot except for a trip to Turks and Caicos. So let’s make sure that they don’t come home with baggage that takes years to undo.”
I was reading about your work, and saw that you wrote and performed a show called Unfuckable. And I thought that was such an interesting coincidence because on Too Hot to Handle, the contestants are so fucked with, even as they’re constantly determining each other’s fuckability. Is there something about this idea of fuckability or unfuckability that you’re interested in, in your work?
It’s a reappropriation of a term, do you know what I mean? If something’s been leveled against you in a way that is meant to cut you down or to hurt you, after a while you go, “Fuck it, I’m going to take that kind of thing on.” There isn’t anybody who is unfuckable, as anybody who was born into a woman’s body understands. There’s always someone. You could smell like a trash bag and be coming out of a gym, and there’s always someone who’s like, “Hey.”
I came from a place of being Black, fat, a virgin, all of these things where I was just like, “I don’t know how to do it, and no one wants to do it with me.” And I was super born-again, raised that way. You spend so much time worried about if you belong as a human being that you don’t think about what it is that you want. And I think the same is true for extraordinarily attractive people, especially at the age where everyone wants them, and they also want to belong.
It’s so easy to be like, “Why don’t these people just not make out with someone for a couple weeks? Just sit there and make money.” But being desired is its own currency. Would I risk $6,000 to have everyone in the world know that I’m hot and have that validated by someone wanting to kiss me on TV?
It’s six grand that I don’t have and there’s a good chance I won’t get anyway.
Because that has been their currency up to that point. I just think somewhere they know they have a finite amount of time, even extraordinarily hot people get old. And then, there’s new hot people that get more dates than them. So somewhere they know that, “I didn’t always have this, which means I won’t always have this.” Like if I went to an island where everyone just thought that big Black women were the hottest thing in the universe, I’d be banging everything. Because it’s hard to turn down that validation, especially when it feels like it’s based on something that you didn’t merit.
So, if you’re hot, it’s just because you won the lottery. I would feel like, “Shit, I better use this before somebody finds out and takes it away.” That’s just me. I don’t know if they’re thinking about it that much, but I guarantee that, underneath, human beings [are] like, “We are primates that want to belong socially to each other because we need that to survive.” And when we don’t have that, we start to freak out.
Have you ever met any of the contestants?
Not a single one. I mean, to be fair when this show came out, it was in lockdown. I’ve never met any of these people except for the one time that I did the reunion episode. And that was virtually from my flat. I’ve never been in the same room as any of them.
But in some ways I think it probably works better that there isn’t any bleed. Because the worst thing that could happen is meeting one of them and finding out that they were a terrible human being. Because then I’d be like, “Maybe all the rest of them are assholes too.” From a distance, I feel like this sort of maternal, like, “Oh, these sweet kids,” over what they’re doing. Everybody’s been 20-nothing and just been like, “I can have sex now.” I have this very sort of protective feeling about them that I probably wouldn’t have if I were closer to their age. And I would hate to have that ruined.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.