Certain ideas just sound objectively gross. Giving babies cigarettes, for instance, or mayonnaise-flavored Jell-O. The Circle, a US reality television show in its first season on Netflix, has exactly this sort of forthrightly nasty premise. The Circle pushes its contestants to behave as clout-chasing, manipulative shut-ins for the privilege of appearing on a streaming service and the chance to win $100,000. The tagline: “How far would you go to be popular on social media?”
A show about people alone in their rooms trying to be cool online—could anything be more cursed? The Circle is a remake of a UK program of the same name, and reviewers frequently invoke Black Mirror to convey its plot—the spooky episodes, not that nice one where the old ladies fall in virtual-reality love. Black Mirror comparisons are obvious, as the show has constructed a myopic setting designed to highlight what it’s like to be constantly logged on and desperate for attention. Less expected is how good the show is at demonstrating the highs and nuances of digital life. I intended to watch one episode out of curiosity about how bleak it sounded. Then I kept watching. And watching. (The first eight episodes are available now, with another batch coming next week.)
In The Circle, contestants rank one another, and the two top-ranked players must kick one competitor of their choosing off. They start with eight people, and new players are occasionally introduced as replacements. The group will ultimately vote on a single winner. As in almost all competitive reality shows, alliances are forged, tears are shed, secrets are revealed. The Circle borrows liberally from Big Brother, with its personality-based jousting and constant surveillance, as well as Love Island, with a quippy narrator guiding the audience through the episode. But The Circle has a technological twist: Its participants are living in isolated single-occupancy apartments, and can interact with one another only through the online avatars they create, which are then connected by a voice-activated screen known as “the circle.” Another catch: They don’t need to tell the truth about who they are, and several players elect to catfish their competition, posing as characters they concoct with other peoples’ pictures. One of the contestants, a belligerent Italian party boy named Joey, appears to have based his entire personality off Jersey Shore reruns—and he’s one of the authentic ones. The Circle uses the vocabulary of social media to convey its stakes. Losers aren’t sent home, they are “blocked.” The anointed players become “influencers” and are awarded Twitter-bird-blue checkmarks next to their photos. They are no place in particular; the show uses establishing shots of Chicago and Milwaukee but was actually filmed in England, as location aggressively doesn’t matter—all of the action takes place in front of the screen.
Reality television is now a tested route for wannabe influencers who want to wedge themselves into public consciousness and then monetize, monetize, monetize. The Circle dispenses altogether with the notion that anyone might be participating in a reality program “for the right reasons” by making the subtext the whole damn show. It’s a highly contrived scenario, but from within its artificial limits a surprisingly naturalistic portrait of what it’s like to communicate through the internet emerges.
Contestants have to speak their text messages at the screen, and one of The Circle’s pleasures is watching people try to posture as approachable and friendly solely through text. One instructs the device to add a number of i’s to her Hiiiiiiiiii to strike the right nonchalant tone. Emojis are frequently deployed. When conversations peter down, people invent excuses to end them, even though everybody knows that nobody actually has anything pressing to do—a behavior familiar to anyone with Gchat or Slack open all day.
Although cameras fill their apartments and they are, of course, always aware that they are being watched, the effort that the contestants put toward performing for their peers in the digital space distracts them from dwelling too much on how their real-life behavior might look. The result is a glimpse into something we don’t get to see that much on TV: the visceral and unguarded reactions people have to stuff happening onscreen. (In this way, sometimes The Circle resembles a string of YouTube reaction videos more than traditional narrative television.) The contestants whoop, gasp, and jump around in anxiety and exhilaration—their conversations aren’t face to face, but they’re still vivid and nervy and intimate. The contented expressions the gentle techie Shubham makes when he’s had a great chat recall the tender scene in Freaks and Geeks when young geek Bill sits down to snack and watch television, solitary but gleeful. The UK version of The Circle is especially popular with young viewers, perhaps because people aged 16 to 34 are primed to watch interpersonal dramas mediated through screens, finding them relatable rather than alien.
The show’s treatment of catfishing is another draw. The Circle provides emotional safety rails for the catfishers and the catfishees, as the rules expressly allow for bluffing and playing around with identity. Unlike Catfish: The TV Show, which often focuses on the fallout from deceptions, The Circle shows how titillating and liberating it can be for people to inhabit other personas, as well as how people internalize ideas about beauty standards and likability. One player, Karyn, poses as a thin and glammed-up woman named Mercedeze in her bid to become the most popular. After one of her competitors is eliminated, she talks with them about her decision. “I did a catfish because all my life I’ve been judged. I’m not ugly, but I’m not feminine,” she says. “So it’s really the fact of just showing the world you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Awww—then again, Karyn is voluntarily playing a game set within a hierarchical system expressly designed to force players to place excessive emphasis on appearance. (In the first episode the contestants are tasked with ranking one another based solely on their photographs and a brief bio.) Sometimes Karyn and her fellow catfish have fun exploring the artificial faces they present to the world, and sometimes they feel shitty about it—a complicated whirl of emotions about identity and honesty and conformity that makes for fascinating viewing.
Cultural theorist Mark Andrejevic, in a New York Times column in 2012, described reality television as “an omnivorous meta-genre that scavenges its way across the cultural landscape unearthing attention-grabbing nuggets from a vastly broader range of social life than has hitherto appeared on commercial TV.” He meant this as an insult, but it gets at what makes The Circle so great. Being online can be toxic and intoxicating, and thus far the high drama that can happen from behind screens has been hard to translate to onscreen narratives. The Circle actually takes its audience places, dramatizing the experience of online social interactions in all their fizz and slipperiness.