Highlighting the best and worst of reality TV

The winter break was dark and cold, and towards the end of it, I found myself very bored, despite the fact that I absolutely had things to do that I was procrastinating on. And so, I found myself grateful that “Too Hot to Handle” (THTH) and “The Circle,” two reality shows that I had watched all available episodes of, were both coming out with new seasons. The latest season of “The Circle” had extremely likable contestants, intriguing twists, and just a hint of romance. Unlike some past seasons, this one felt like it had players who were the right amount of strategic without being mean to each other all the time. “Too Hot to Handle” was extremely entertaining too, but as always, it was in a way that made me feel a little gross. Once I had finished these new installments and was looking for something else to stave off boredom, I started considering something—what makes for truly good reality television? I’m sure this is a polarizing question because reality TV itself is a polarizing topic. Some people love it, some people hate it, and some people who love it hate that they do (sometimes I’m one of those).

Some of the genre’s most popular offerings are dating shows: “Love Island,” “Love Is Blind,” and “Married at First Sight,” to name a few. When romance is the focus, it’s not remotely difficult for interpersonal drama to pop up, allowing the viewer the extremely entertaining experience of taking sides without holding any stakes at all. “Too Hot to Handle” definitely delivers on the drama. The premise is that people who have trouble forming authentic connections with others, usually opting for meaningless sex instead, are put on an island together and banned from kissing or doing anything more. Each time someone breaks the rules, the prize fund of $200,000 is depleted. 

“Too Hot to Handle” annoys me a lot, and this recent season was no exception. I will say, however, that past seasons of “THTH” have made me want to yell at my screen much more than this recent one did. One of the reasons was that historically, the producers gave seemingly endless second chances to people (usually men) who were behaving badly. In Season 4, that wasn’t so much the case. After watching Creed, an infuriating man, try to get away with seeing two women and lying to them both about it, it’s a refreshing surprise when he actually faces consequences.

“THTH” has the ostensible purpose of encouraging people to form genuine connections, but the premise is confusing. First of all, the message surrounding the show’s stated goal and how it’s delivered definitely invokes some of the worst forms of purity culture. Also, despite seeming to preach that the only way to find real love is to refrain from having sex, breaking the rules doesn’t actually prevent people from winning—it just lowers the monetary reward. On the flip side, people who remain single for long enough are often kicked off of the show, based on the idea that they aren’t trying hard enough to make a connection. And except for in Season 1, where the prize was split between all of the finalists, no one who was single at the time of the finale has been able to win. This bothers me a lot because I think that refusing to make a fake connection with someone you don’t really like for the sake of winning is actually very in line with the message the show pretends to be upholding. The fact that this isn’t how the show actually works is a testament to how false the premise is. My main issue with this isn’t the way the show is handled, but rather how disingenuous it is—I wish the producers would stop pretending the show is an exercise in morality rather than a deeply vapid project.

In contrast, “The Circle,” which I enjoyed much more, is, at its core, a popularity contest. The ultimate goal is to be highly ranked by your fellow players, who you never see —everyone lives separately and only interacts using an online social-media-like platform called The Circle. Part of what makes the show appealing is that, due to this structure, there is nothing stopping players from catfishing and posing as someone else. Many of the twists and games are clearly designed to stir the pot, start arguments and plant seeds of doubt in the minds of the players. But “The Circle” is not pretending to be something it’s not.

While the show doesn’t try to make grand sweeping generalizations about life and authenticity, , many of the players have heartwarming stories or interesting reasons for catfishing—or for being themselves. I much prefer this style. On a dating show, it’s hard to know who’s being fake and who’s just trying to win. While contestants on “THTH” are always mad at each other about losing money, it’s not really acknowledged that some people might be motivated to pair up because they’d have a higher chance of winning. On “The Circle,” because everyone is separated, you get to hear contestants talk about their motivations. Of course, it’s clear that not every thought is voiced, but it weirdly feels more authentic to hear someone explain their strategy behind being fake than it does to see someone behaving that way without acknowledging it. 

While its latest season was branded as the “singles season,” at its core, “The Circle” is not meant to be a dating show. Because of this, friendship shines through as the most important kind of relationship. Chaz, Sam and Raven, who many considered the most popular contestants of the season, developed a close friendship that I frankly found lovely to see. I don’t know whether it’s about the casting or about the format—it’s probably a mixture of both—but I wish more reality TV would allow us to see real friendships develop instead of focusing exclusively on romance.

At the end of the day though, I watch both shows because it’s fun watching people be messy on television, so you might want to take what I say with a grain of salt. But I will say that, despite being a literal popularity contest, “The Circle” left me with a much better taste in my mouth.

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