There’s something uncanny about The Circle, Netflix’s original techno-competition series. Everything feels adjacent to our world—close, but ever-so-slightly ajar that the likeness is a little eerie. Contestants speak the words out to acronyms (instead of LMAO, it’s “Laughing My Ass Off”); none of the messages they send sound like a real person wrote them; all of the apartments look like they’re styled by a bot that perused 2012 Pinterest boards. For some reason—possibly because Netflix knows all, also releasing a pandemic docuseries just as coronavirus became a pandemic in March of 2020—The Circle has paralleled our online, socially-distanced lifestyle for the last two seasons. It’s weird. But along with many other Netflix subscribers (The Circle is one of Netflix’s top-viewed shows at the moment) I love it.
The Circle’s premise is similar to juggernaut reality shows that have preceded it, like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race A handful of competitors, all full of unique character and wit, compete for a cash prize via alliances, challenges, and eliminations. The twist? They don’t see each other. Ever. Instead, they communicate through The Circle, an Alexa-style computer that allows them to chat with other players and play the rest of the game. Some people come into the game as themselves. Others catfish as hotter, younger versions of themselves. It’s like if Instagram and MySpace collided: every week, the loud-mouthed players chat and judge until they must rank each other for elimination. Those who have seen Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” episode may experience déjà vu from this techno dystopia.
But the socially-distanced apartments, the living life through little on-screen interactions, the uncanniness of it all—with the pandemic, that became less of a dystopia and more similar to the real world. As COVID altered our ability to be in-person with everyone, this silly series became more and more relevant. Released in January of 2020, the competition found a second life just two months later. “The Circle USA is full of loneliness and boredom,” wrote the Independent, “it’s perfect for the pandemic.” Other outlets reported that Netflix’s reality programming (also mentioning Love is Blind) predicted the pandemic’s isolation. Joey Sasso, a competitor on Season 1, offered Vulture some top self-quarantine tricks he learned while filming the series. Some diehard Circle lovers even created their very own version of the game as they quarantined. The Circle was a hit all over again, thanks to the pandemic.
And it wasn’t just because of the social distancing, technophile aspects of the series. The first season of The Circle was a charmer, introducing a delightful slew of sweet folks. Yes, they were competing with intentions to succeed, but above that, they were buds. They fed into the goofiness of the show. Living life through a robot is kind of a joke (even though, now that I write it, I realize it’s closer to reality than I first thought). Instead of tapping emojis, the players have to describe the hieroglyphs in detail so that the computer can send them over—but two of the girls turn this into the game, aiming to grab the first eggplant emoji from a flirty dude competitor. It’s all fun and games. The final five stick together from the early moments of the series, and when they meet IRL, there’s a delightful buzz in the air.
This narrative mirrored that neighborly vibe introduced in the first few months of the pandemic. We all watched comfort shows together, joking about Tiger King and obsessing over Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. We shared a communal drive to socially distance, to keep each other safe, to look out for one another to flatten the curve. “Remember parties?” we’d joke, half saddened, half happily nostalgic. We were there for each other. We were each others’ Circle—well, in the Season 1 sense.
Season 2 of The Circle, which debuted mid-April, is a whole different story. There is no solid alliance of adorable amigos, like in the first season’s case. The cozy mood has been swapped for a cutthroat drive to snag the cash prize. One catfish announced his desire to be named The Circle’s biggest villain, and a bevy of other catfishes swam into the apartments to stir the pot. Two girls went head-to-head in a vicious duel for the ages. Twist after twist has pinned this collection of Circle competitors against each other, a sure departure from the first season’s jolly wholesomeness. This new cast? They took notes. They brought new strategies, and they’re ready to fully embrace the gameplay of the game. The niceties have disappeared.
Just like Season 1 of The Circle matched our isolated-but-supportive early pandemic lifestyle, Season 2 has managed to mirror our more current attitude. With a year of this quarantining under our belts, that online friendliness has started to slip. After a year of being totally virtual, we’re at each other’s metaphorical throats, lacking a lot of empathy for the humans who only exist through a screen. Perhaps we aren’t as vicious as the catfish hunters on The Circle, nor the two dueling gals that shoot each other snake emojis (made even funnier by the fact that they have to say “snake emoji” out loud) in the public chat. But the discourse—be it unfolding on Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, or in the neighborhood Facebook group—does get pretty heated. It all leads to an inevitable conclusion: we need that vaccine, because we need to get outside. We need to see each other in person again.
The contestants of The Circle have that isolated internet brain, but their internet is an entirely different internet than that of the real, human world. The series is more than a guilty pleasure—because, by some wild coincidence, the show has managed to capture our collective consciousness in one silly competition. Will being honest and kind pay off in the parallel world? Or will the Season 2 winner prove that arguing, manipulation, and discourse reign supreme? What, ultimately, will Season 3 of our pandemic life bring?
The Circle is currently streaming on Netflix.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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