The Circle, Netflix’s new reality show, sounds like a mediocre episode of Black Mirror. But it’s actually a fun, and often touching, look at how we relate to each other through social media, complete with a bit of commentary about physical isolation layered over the constant communication.
The show isolates a group of people in Instagram-ready apartments, filled with tastefully bland decorations and letter boards, and asks them to only communicate through an internal, voice-activated social network. The players make profiles, share photos, and rank each other based on ... whatever they want, really. There are DMs, and group chats, and even “private dates” that consist of two people sitting in front of a screen, texting each other. Players aren’t voted off the island, they’re “blocked,” and each failed player gets to visit one other human being, in person, on the way out. The winner gets $100,000.
The Circle could have put a gaggle of social media narcissists against each other, vying for attention and love based on their ability to present a specific version of themselves online. But the final product is an oddly sweet — and delightfully surreal — meditation on life in our times. Arguments are always light, and everyone seems to be having a good time. One character, Miranda, seems to spend the majority of her time working on jigsaw puzzles and reading while everyone wonders if she’s really who she says she is.
That uncertainty is why that in-person visit gifted to each blocked player becomes such a high-stakes encounter. No one has to be themselves. You can bring pictures of anyone you’d like, and you can present yourself as a completely different person. Much of the show is dedicated to questions about which players are “catfishes” and which are legitimately who they appear to be.
The wrinkle of not knowing who anyone really is, and the inability to see or speak directly to them, livens up the reality show formula in all sorts of interesting ways. Most fans who watch reality TV know that it’s staged and the story beats are so well-known that players instantly fall into this or that archetype for the cameras, we know it’s all artifice at this point, and the contestants have themselves watched so much reality TV that they know what to do, and how to do it long before they arrive. We know it’s artifice, but it’s entertaining, so we don’t care.
But The Circle takes that idea a step further by straight up letting people become completely invented characters, based on nothing but text messages and images of other people. It’s part of the game, sure, but even the players who are who they say they are play the same game as the rest of us do on social media. They’re trying to present a better version of themselves, and in fact most players present as themselves, and a sense of genuine connection is always prized in conversations. The players who survive are often the ones that seem the most “real,” which is a nearly worthless term in this context.
Communication is key
In the first batch of Circle episodes, players tend to pick the pictures that make them look the best, and carefully compose messages, complete with emojis and frequent uses of hashtags, to each other. Each player is isolated in their apartment, looking and talking to screens in order to interact with everyone else, and it begins to feel as though we’re watching the show with them, and reacting in real time.
This leads to some remarkably goofy moments, such as the date between a somewhat homely guy pretending to be a conventionally attractive guy, and another guy using pictures of his girlfriend to pretend to be a beautiful woman.
Hell, they get the same twists and reveals that we do, and it’s all delivered through the monitors that dot their apartments. Without having to react directly to other human beings, and with the ability (though not always the discipline) to think and compose before they speak, few of the participants play to the cameras they know are there. Instead they’re always focused on the screen, making them seem more natural, and less guarded, than what we’re used to in reality shows.
There’s a certain vulnerability inherent in trying to put your best foot forward, especially with so much money on the line, and pacing around your apartment while trying to compose the best response to a potential friend, love interest, or rival is probably the most relatable I’ve ever found a reality TV show.
The slick versions of themselves, the forward-facing character they want to play on TV, only exist in the pre-selected images and messages they present each other. With the focus on that performance, the players tend to take their actual, physical bodies for granted, and thus come across as caring, scared, or excited people, just trying to play the game and get people to like them. The sincerity is infectious.
It helps that the central conceit — that everyone is talking to a voice-activated social network — is so obviously faked. It’s fun to hear people have to say “You’re not real, hashtag quit your cat fishing, scowling face emoji” in order to send a message with hashtags and emojis, but someone, somewhere has to just be typing all this stuff in. Sometimes players flounder when trying to name or describe an emoji, as was the case when someone needed to send, and I’m going to paraphrase here, “the detective guy with the glass on one eye,” in a message. Somehow the Circle’s totally real operating system knew exactly what they meant!
It’s all in good fun, and so far even the jabs and strategies meant to knock someone out of the game have been more lighthearted than mean, and the players who meet face-to-face when one is blocked have created a number of moving, emotionally charged scenes with each other.
Some players are just trying to win money, but others have deeper, more interesting reasons for pretending to be someone else. The Circle, despite initial appearances, brings out a lot of heart from its players.
But that inconsistent, more sincere tone is undercut by all sorts of funny moments. At one point, one of the men pretending to be a woman has to fake his way through a conversation about menstrual pains, only to panic when everyone expresses concerns about his appendix when he claims he only gets cramps “on the left side.” During one steamy private DM session, a woman expresses both frustration and confusion over the other person’s ignorance of how to text the ... idea, I guess? ... of a penis.
In short, the show is an absolute riot, and most of the players seem to be inherently kind and caring people. They’re all alone, but they have each other, even if they can never really trust that anyone else is anything close to who they appear to be. They’re also trying to play a character in real time. It’s a rush to see these situations play out, knowing it’s all in good fun. Besides, who among us hasn’t gotten upset at a lack of a response to a text only to blow off the steam by doing a puzzle or taking a bath? And then lying about the bath by saying we’re actually working out?
The Circle is actually a Black Mirror episode that would never exist, one in which technology is shown to be a tool, neither good nor bad, and everyone can react to it in their own way. And the most pleasant thing about The Circle is that, for all the deceit and double-dealing as players try to win, it shows that we’re all mostly doing OK. We’re alone, but we have each other. We think.
Heart emoji. Message send.