The Circle January 31, 2020
t’s likely that if someone has recommended that you watch the competition-based reality show The Circle, whose American equivalent recently debuted on Netflix, you’ve been told that it’s something of a combination of Big Brother (2000-present) and Black Mirror (2011-present). After gobbling its 12 episodes over the course of a couple evenings, I’d say the comparisons are apt, even though I think the antic
Big Brother makes for much better television and that if The Circle in its entirety were an episode of Black Mirror, its audience would find it much gentler than other installments.
As in all competitively oriented reality series, the contestants on The Circle are here, above all else, to win a cash price — in this show’s case $100,000. Spiritually similar series like Big Brother and Survivor (2000-present) thrived on the soap-operatic dramas that arose when you forced groups of unalike people to try to live harmoniously in confined spaces. The Circle, in contrast, flourishes in isolation. In the first episode, eight contestants walk through the doors of an anonymous-looking apartment building located in what appears to be Chicago or Milwaukee. (The show was shot in Northern England.) They each get their own flat, fashioned by the show’s designers to reflect their personalities. One contestant’s walls are adorned in Jean-Paul Goude-style
self-portraits; another gets a single-player ping-pong set attached to his.
In The Circle, competitors are disallowed from leaving their apartments once they’ve made themselves at home. Then they’re forced to communicate with other contestants through a social-media app named after the series, which is like Apple’s iMessage but is interrupted by contests and gives players their own Instagram-style profiles. At the end of each episode, someone is voted off by a specially selected rival(s) — a decision generally either to be blamed on how “popular” they are or a conclusion that a certain someone isn’t who they say they are. Following a boot-off, a loser is replaced by someone new. (In the end, loyalty trumps the day: the top five players had been there since the pilot.) Naturally, relationships and alliances must be built in the name of survival. A big catch is that a handful of the players are catfishing their peers. Expressive 29-year-old Seaburn Williams is pretending to be his girlfriend, Rebecca; the sly 37-year-old lesbian Karyn Blanco is playing as the conventionally pretty, 20-something “shy girl” Mercedeze.
The Circle should be tedious; each episode, pretty much, encompasses people texting in agony. (In the show, TV screens stationed all over an apartment function as giant cell phones; rather than type messages, contestants yell out their thoughts, which are then transcribed by the behind-the-scenes crew.) Eventually, the series becomes ho-hum; by around the ninth episode, I started to get antsy. I yearned for the finale because I wanted it all to be over. Unlike other monotonous shows like The Bachelor (2002-present), The Circle’s structure is too confining and gimmicky to stay fresh.
Unsubtly, The Circle is a ghastly, blown-up reflection of internet relations, particularly dramatizing the much mulled-over strategies to appear likable on social media. (My favorite recurring bit in the series is whenever someone verbally texts “LOL” or “LMAO” with a straight face and a flat voice.) It renders moments of vulnerable candor — like when contestant Miranda Bissonnette, in a one-on-one chat with the family-first-espousing Joey Sasso, confesses that as a foster child she envies him, or when Sean Taylor, a plus-sized social-media manager catfishing as an orthodoxly pretty blonde, reveals to everyone her true identity — stilted. There is only so much palpable emotion that can be weaned from a text message and a portrait. Inevitably The Circle simplistically summons the platitude everyone knows — that even though the internet has made the world more connected than ever, connections are undergirded by an overwhelming loneliness.
When he’s voted off, contestant Bill Cranley tries to evince himself as superior to the others for being more “authentic" — voted off because he's authentic. He prides himself for, to his mind, telling it like it is. But his cries are fundamentally out of sync with the crux of the series, which supports the more complicated truth that especially online, it isn’t necessarily self-confirmed authenticity alone that gets you far. One must effectively convey, through an unfeeling medium, that authenticity, while also having to hope, like in life but worse, that that authenticity is palatable to others. A major horror of the internet is how it makes uglier and amplifies the toils of real-life interaction and self-characterization. There’s an added anxiety that people will think you’re a sham, catfish or not. A nightmare underlined by the series is that you can “be yourself” online — given the gift of being more considerate about your words than you can be in life — and still not be welcomed.
The authenticity-is-complicated messages of The Circle are its most explicitly stated and also its most banal. More involving, then, are the implicit comments on the purgatorial nature of the internet: the endless scroll as evoked by the title of the show; the inescapable performativity. The series begins intriguingly, has an addictive quality for a few episodes, then by its end has started to feel miserable and claustrophobic — a dash apocalyptic. Soon, French and Brazilian editions will debut. B