In Praise Of ‘The Hotter Half,’ A Deliciously Despicable Netflix Reality Show

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I don’t know if it was because I’d been watching Great British Bake Off or if it was something else that did it, but at some point Netflix became convinced that I must love foreign reality shows. So far, they haven’t been wrong.

First, there was My Tattoo Addiction, a British show whose first character is introduced as an “unemployed father of six,” followed by profiles of a woman with a tattoo she describes as “a Victorian lady reading a porno magazine about anal sex.” In another episode there was an entire segment dedicated to the shocking number of young Brits engaged in the strange new tradition of getting complete strangers’ names tattooed on your body whilst blind drunk on holiday in Ibiza or Gran Canaria (I especially enjoyed the matter-of-fact tattoo artist shrugging as if to say “Hey, it’s a living.”).

After My Tattoo Addiction came Instant Hotel, an Australian show that follows five Australian couples as they stay the night in each other’s houses and ruthlessly judge their cleanliness/decor/life choices. Apparently all as part of their quest to… I guess be declared that country’s best AirBnB? Honestly one of my favorite aspects of other country’s reality shows is that the concepts don’t seem that well thought out.

Binging these mindless displays of humanity’s worst impulses from other countries has brought me peace of mind. There’s something comforting about knowing that the British have their own Juggalo-esque class of hard luck, good-humored body art fanatics, or that Australia has personal trainers and aspiring real estate moguls every bit as vapid as your average aspiring LA television personality, or as full of shit as any would-be Silicon Valley success-win bro.

Where we once watched reality shows (especially the terrible ones on TLC) to be reassured that there were people out there trashier than us, now I binge these foreign reality shows to be reassured that we’re not the only ones in the world who seem to have gone collectively mentally sick. When you basically have a gremlin made from all your most negative national stereotypes as head of state, it’s nice to be reminded that Americans don’t have a monopoly on terribleness. They aren’t exactly the same kinds of terrible, but that’s part of the appeal too. As Jules would say in Pulp Fiction, it’s the little differences.

On that note, I recently began binging The Hotter Half, an absolute doozy of a British dating/makeover show. If you’ve never seen it, the premise is that every couple has one person who’s punching above their weight class and one who’s snorkeling through raw sewage, so to speak. It’s basically the poor man’s cliff’s notes version of that quote about how every couple has someone who’s kissing and someone who’s being kissed. It’s Who Wants To Date Beneath Their Station! with a makeover twist.

To identify each party in the relationship, the hot and the not, they bring the couples into the studio for a quickie introduction and interview with the host — an affable if not slightly forgettable guy with a nice shiny head. He has agreeable short guy energy, kind of like a less needy Kevin Hart meets morning show DJ. The couple then goes to take selfies in the show’s high tech, much-ballyhooed “selfie mirror.” British shows always feel a little like cable access compared to their wildly overdone American counterparts. Where we have holograms for news shows and trash-talking animated robots for sports, they have, well, a mirror that takes selfies.

The couples get their pictures taken and the producers bring the pictures out onto the street, where passersby are interviewed on the subject of each selfies’ respective hotness/potential dateability. Why these strangers are forced to decide hotness based on a single selfie when the couples have just filmed a presumably much more representative introductory segment inside a real television studio is never addressed. Again, everything is refreshingly half-baked.

They then bring the man-on-the-street interviews back into the studio to play them for the couples, and we get to watch them sit there as their lewk is brutally dissected and theorized about by a cross section of slack-jawed street Brits (with the occasional American or Canadian). “Roight I dunno, he’s fit but ‘e seems like e’d be a bit of a playah, dyaknowwha’oimean?”

It’s a clever, diabolical format. It combines the various schadenfreudes of swiping on Tinder, watching people be humiliated for the shallowest reasons, and the rich tapestry of humanity one finds just standing around the CBD at happy hour. It’s sort of like The Bachelor meets a viral local news segment about leprechauns.

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At this point, the couple is then shown the results of the poll to decide who is “The Hotter Half.” Which, by the way, is a hilarious title for British people to have to try to pronounce, and generally comes out sounding like “The ah’-uh ahf.”

Not sufficiently humiliated at this point (though it does raise the question of who should be more embarrassed, the slumming half of the couple or the dating-out-of-their-league half of the couple), the less hot half is then sent for a makeover while we meet another couple. The makeover team consists of a makeup artist who looks just like Khaleesi from Game of Thrones, a straight-talking hairstylist with a few curly tendrils spilling out of his fashiony brimmed hat, and a hypebeasty clothes stylist with statement eyeglass frames and a mild hip hop edge.

The makeover team might be the heart of the show. They are essentially the literary foils of the Queer Eye crew (ahh, Queer Eye, that might be why I was recommended this show). Whereas Karamo and Tan and the gang will break down their subjects’ calcified defense mechanisms, trying to get at the root of their insecurities and tease out their true essence, the far more breezy, more casually confident Hotter Half crew are like the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

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If the Queer Eye boys are amateur therapists (plus one guy who is good at making salad dressings) the Hotter Half crew seem more like hipster music store clerks or retail staff. They’ll lead you to what’s “cool” in a very general sense without much regard for how it’s going to actually suit you. It’s almost like they have a rotating series of cool “looks” in their head and just sort of cycle through them at random and then put people in whatever “cool” guy/cool gal costume that comes up, like some disastrous version of Hitch. That they don’t seem to care that much about the contestants leaves them free to improvise. “Now for you I’m finkin’… steampunk Russian mafioso. Yeh, yeh, troy dis flash purple jumpah an’ space hewmet on for soize.”

The makeovers, and I honestly can’t stress this enough, are terrible. The show would be mesmerizing and awful even if they were good, but the fact that they’re so bad is just the cherry on the sundae.

On one episode, the first couple was a pair of lanky black identical twin brothers, who both had fairly developed, individual senses of style to begin with. The second couple was a punk rock chick with colored hair and piercings and her boyfriend, who looked more like Ed Sheeran than any celebrity impersonator I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’m still not entirely convinced it wasn’t actually Ed Sheeran. In the first, the losing brother received a make-over that gave him lots of jewelry, a velvet suit with embroidered graphics, a spread-collar shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. Basically a high-end pimp costume.

As for the second couple, the Ed Sheeran guy actually polled higher in terms of hotness (presumably because people thought he was actually Ed Sheeran). Which meant that his girlfriend had to get the makeover. To recap: imagine dating a guy who looks like Ed Sheeran. Now imagine getting told that he’s out of your league. And after that, imagine having to get a disastrous makeover. What even is this show?! You want to shake them all and scream “why are you doing this??” It’s like a Russian nesting doll of unforced humiliations.

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On another episode, they took a shy but cute girl who said she didn’t like to stand out or spend money on clothes and turned her into, for some reason, their idea of a “High Street hypebeast.” Which in this case involved a ratty haircut, halter top, and puffy orange jacket worn off the shoulders, essentially turning her into someone you’d expect to see at a Gwen Stefani concert circa 2003.

In the last segment of the show, they then take the newly made-over selfies out onto the street to redo the poll, and presumably thanks to the magic of editing, the passersby always seem to have exactly the same awful taste as the Hotter Half‘s stylists. “Oi, yeh, oy’d raite those trainahs, mate, they’s wew fit’ed, yeh, yeh.”

The beauty of The Hotter Half, other than watch people inexplicably submit themselves to brutal public humiliation (essentially the root of all reality competition shows), is that it actually has the opposite effect of most makeover shows. Rather than convince you that you need to redecorate your apartment, revamp your wardrobe, and spend thousands of dollars on face creams, The Hotter Half says, you know, maybe you’re actually doing just fine. It says that probably you know yourself and your look better than a team of strangers and that maybe you should just stick with what you’ve been doing.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.