On paper, Netflix’s new reality series The Circle seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
The show follows eight contestants sent to live in a fancy apartment building who are forbidden from interacting with each other except via an in-house, Alexa-like social media platform known as “The Circle.” Their goal? Become its most popular “influencer” to win a $100,000 prize. In short, it pretty much sounds like something that could only take place in a fairly deep level of hell.
The contestants can’t see each other, which allows each to craft a profile representing who they want to be within the world of the game. There are a mix of players who choose to approach the game as transparently as possible, others who fudge the truth about some aspect of themselves—a false profile photo over their real personality, for example—and some who decide to completely catfish the other contestants, adopting online personas that bear little resemblance to their real selves to try and gain an advantage.
In such an anonymous, competitive atmosphere, how long could it possibly take before the contestants start telling lies, backstabbing, and sabotaging one another? Or just straight up attacking their rivals for the most petty and superficial of reasons? After all, if we’ve learned anything from social networks like Twitter and Facebook in the past year, it’s that people revel in the opportunity to indulge the ugliest aspects of their nature—particularly when they can do so anonymously, behind the safety of a virtual screen. The very idea of a “social media reality competition” is almost enough to make anyone reach for the nearest bottle of alcohol. So, viewers can’t really be blamed for tuning in expecting a complete train wreck.
The real surprise is that The Circle doesn’t give them one.
Instead, the series turns expected reality television tropes on their heads, ultimately shunning catty competition and calculated betrayal in favor of genuine emotion, real friendship, and a positive message about being and accepting who you are. No matter how they choose to play, many genuine moments of authenticity and connection take place, often times in what feels like a direct contrast to everything we expect from this genre.
Sure, it’s full of juicy gossip and occasionally performative group chats. But in a world where even the most innocuous social comment can result in an onslaught of trolls in your mentions dropping expletives and snake emojis, The Circle, with its surprising focus on connection, authenticity, and care for one another, feels like a breath of fresh air. This show should be completely and utterly ridiculous. And in many ways, it is. After all, you can’t really watch grown adults loudly and repeatedly spelling out LMFAO to a TV screen without laughing. A lot. There are certainly things to mock about this premise, and indeed the people who’ve decided to take part. But it’s hard to argue with its entirely heartwarming final product. (Who would have ever guessed that a show about competing to be popular on social media would turn out to be the most affirming, wholesome thing on TV right now?)
Lots of reality series talk about the concept of realness and being true to yourself, from America’s Top Model to Big Brother. But perhaps the anonymity of The Circle is also what galvanizes its contestants to be so obsessed with authenticity as a value proposition, and the idea that friendship is, at its heart, something you have to be willing to take on faith. The Circle also embraces the idea that, for every time social media encourages us to be terrible, somewhere, it’s allowing someone the chance to be their truest selves, safe from the judgements of society.
For example, there’s Joey Sasso, a player who on any other reality series would be instantly pushed as the second coming of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from Jersey Shore. And The Circle does poke some fun at Joey’s supposedly “bro-y” demeanor. But underneath that hypermasculine shell is a kind mama’s boy who becomes legitimate BFFs with the nerdiest guy in the game, innocently questions what the eggplant emoji stands for and is an utter disaster at baking.
Adorable tech nerd Shubam enters The Circle with a derisive attitude toward social media—he actually refers to it as the “bubonic plague” at one point—and a plan to expose the artificial nature of the platform. But despite his misgivings, “Shooby” rapidly becomes one of the game’s most popular players, as the other contestants respond to his honest attitude and kind nature. (He honestly is the best.)
Even the players who lie about some aspect of their identity all have reasons for doing so that make sense beyond game strategy. Seaburn may be playing The Circle pretending to be his girlfriend Rebecca, but that doesn’t change the fact that he really is the sort of sweet, charming guy who engages in empathic listening and likes to cuddle with a giant stuffed toy called “Sir Bear Bear.” His identity may be false, but the personality underneath still feels deeply authentic. (Unless, of course, he’s discussing cramps and tampons.)
According to Seaburn, his decision to catfish is a mix of game strategy and actual sincerity. Yes, he thinks women are seen as less threatening in reality competitions, and purposefully leans into a shy, overly emotional persona. But he also contends that as a black man in his community, he’s frequently not allowed to express intense feeling or be vulnerable in any meaningful way. Here, as Rebecca, he can.
Most of the players who catfish have sincere reasons to want to be someone or something else, and “winning $100,000” usually isn’t one of them. Karyn, a lesbian pretending to be a much more glamourous femme named Mercedeze, wrongly believes that her fellow contestants could never relate to her more masculine self. Social media manager Sean uses an attractive friend’s photos to disguise the fact that she’s plus sized, fearing that no one will want to be friends or flirt with a fat girl. But the contestants forgive her in this deception almost as soon as she comes clean.
On a different sort of show, these players would inevitably be at each other’s’ throats, backstabbing and lying whenever the opportunity presented itself. On this one, they just become friends. Whether it’s because the virtual anonymity of The Circle leaves them feeling vulnerable, or all these players are just too nice for reality television, the bonds that form among the group are real and moving. Even though we hear various contestants complaining that they know they should make decisions strategically, they vote based on things like who’s been kindest or most loyal, rating popular rivals highly simply because they’re good people, rather than zeroing them out to try and get rid of the competition.
It’s honestly the most amazing thing to watch. Especially now, when so much of the TV landscape feels like it’s built to cater to our worst instincts. Yes, The Circle is the sort of silly, addictive television that most will dismiss out of hand. It’s not exactly prestige television, and it won’t reinvent the way you understand the power of drama. But it might change the way you think about people, a little bit, and how we relate to one another in this increasingly scary modern world. No matter how much it wants to be a story about technology, The Circle is a warm, wholesome reminder that humanity and sincerity matters, even in the face of that which encourages our worst selves. And that’s a reality competition worth watching. Heart emoji. Praise hands emoji. Send message.
The Circle is currently airing on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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