Call them guilty pleasures, eyebleach, comfort TV… whatever they are, they’re those shows you’re not exactly proud to be watching. So… why are you?
The Circle is a Netflix reality competition that pits social media users against each other in a last person standing popularity contest where no one truly knows anyone else. The Circle has Frankensteined parts from almost every reality competition that came before it. Let’s dive a little deeper into them, shall we?
Competitors on The Circle live inside the same apartment complex where they mostly holed up in their own apartment. Think Real World or Big Brother. But they are in total isolation. Think Love is Blind. They interact ONLY through a social media platform called, you guessed it, The Circle, where they can have group conversations, smaller group chats, or one on one text exchanges. Because they never see or hear another person, it is possible, and likely, that contestants are conning each other with fake photos, backstories, or lies to make them seem more endearing. Think Catfish.
Occasionally there is a challenge or game, where everyone participates in things like Truth or Dare, or an art show, or some other silly physical challenge that may divulge personal information (real or fake). And every few days (it’s hard to tell with the way they edit it) each player does a full ranking of everyone in the house, which leads to the top two favorites getting to vote someone else out. Think more complicated Survivor. And every now and then the producers throw a big twist in, granting a certain person a special power or advantage that re-writes the rules and shifts the balance of power. Think MTV’s The Challenge.
But the weird thing is that usually about half of The Circle players are catfishing, coming in with a totally or mostly phony persona to show off for these random strangers they do not know. That’s where things really get interesting…
The thing about The Circle is that it is a really reeaaaallllly fascinating social and psychological experiment. I doubt the creators of the show had any intention of creating an advanced psychology problem set, but they kind of did. It’s fascinating to think about why someone would choose to not be themselves when no one can actually see or hear them.
Also, generally, the dynamics of power and popularity are central to the goings on, like some sort of ultra-vapid Stanford Prison Guard experiment. In season one there were some really lovable people being themselves and a few catfishers who mostly struck out. In season two, the contestants came in seeing the game reach a conclusion and came in with more strategy and readiness.
Probably the strategy or the twists. The producers, two seasons in, have become very good at figuring out ways for people to attack or try to expose others through anonymous statements, sneaky challenges, or playing into the tensions. For example, a 20something bro pretending to be a 20something hot chick, had to do a challenge where he put makeup on a mannequin head (sidenote – I imagine The Circle pairs well with edibles), which clearly gave away the fact that he was not who he said he was. He was voted out at the next chance.
Seeing people flirt, poorly. Seeing people lie to each other, with various merit. Seeing people lie to people who are lying back to them. And watching and listening to people dictate their messages, which is approximately 96 percent of the show.
When a player is voted out, they get one last moment. They are offered the chance to visit the apartment of any other one player, still in the competition. It’s a chance for them to see if their read was right on someone, or to say goodbye to a new friend, or maybe share some information to help a player in their alliance. THESE MOMENTS ARE ALWAYS AWESOME. You either get a heartfelt moment between two humans who have been deprived of other humans or you get an awkward confrontation. At minimum you get a scene when two people who have been hiding behind keyboards, re-enter the human world and remember how to be a real person. Once, there was a steamy make out sesh.
The reality nature. The competition nature. I always think that I don’t care about who wins because most of the people are either unlikable or lack complete self-awareness, but in the end I always find someone to ride for. The producers do a good job of keeping the game consistently changing so you really don’t know who could be the next to rise or fall. Also the masterclass in episode cliffhangers.
The season is already over. I’ve wholly consumed the first two seasons in embarrassingly rapid fashion. When the third season comes out I plan to stare at the Netflix page as if I am contemplating some sort of Hamlet-like decision before diving back in shamelessly.