Over the weekend, I watched the first four-episode batch of Netflix’s new reality show The Circle without any knowledge beforehand of what it was or what people were saying about it, save for my sister texting me to check it out because it was bad and she couldn’t stop watching it. I’ve since learned that The Circle is based on a series that premiered in the U.K. in 2018 and has versions coming soon to France and Brazil. I’ve also learned that critics have described it as a hellish combination of Real World, Big Brother, and Black Mirror, and while those comparisons are accurate, I think it’s better to describe The Circle as if Real World, Big Brother, and Black Mirror were combined with your mom attempting to compose a text message using dictation, where she keeps messing up and shouting things like “SEND” or “HEART EMOJI” at her phone. The Circle is terrible. The Circle is fantastic. The Circle is the show we deserve right now.
If you insist on reading a description before watching, here’s what it is: Eight contestants, mostly 20-somethings, are sent to live in separate one-bedroom apartments in what appears to be a building in Chicago, cooped up and not allowed to physically see or interact with each other. They communicate only through “The Circle,” the show’s crude version of a “voice-activated” social-media platform they interact with on the TV screens in their living rooms and smaller screens at their beds, bathroom sinks, the rooftop jacuzzi, the gym, and other locations (common areas like the jacuzzi can only be used by one contestant at a time).
The contestants are all gunning to win a $100,000 cash prize, which goes to the most “popular” contestant when the show ends. Through the public Circle chat, private messages, and private group chats, the contestants talk, gossip, flirt, fight, play games, and form alliances, and near the end of every episode, they must rank all of the other contestants by popularity (or, well, however each contestant wants to rank everyone). The top two contestants of each episode win “influencer” status (they receive temporary “verified” badges in the Circle system, because of course) and are tasked with choosing one contestant to “block,” a.k.a. send home, leaving a slot open for a new contestant to enter the game. Before the “blocked” contestant leaves the show, though, they get to choose one contestant to visit so they can see them face to face. This is where you should know that some contestants use real photos of themselves as their avatars and present what seems to be a generally accurate version of themselves on The Circle, while others opt to go the catfish route and are not exactly who they are pretending to be.
Sounds dumb, right? It absolutely is. Watching The Circle, which Netflix is releasing in four-episode bunches over three weeks, you will be forced to hear people constantly shouting things at their TV screens like “SEND MESSAGE!” and, even better, “LOL” and “LMAO” without a hint of laughter on their faces. A large portion of the time you spend watching your TV screen will be watching contestants watch their TV screens, through which they are all just texting each other over and over and using terrible hashtags like #SeeYouOnTheThrone #WayMoreThan50Shades. The show attempts to make The Circle seem like some super high-tech, voice-activated platform, but halfway into the first episode, it becomes very clear that it’s definitely not “voice-activated” and most likely run by a production staff transcribing messages and choosing emojis behind-the-scenes.
Despite all that dumb stuff — or really, if I’m being honest, because of it — The Circle is a fascinating series, and my sister was right: I can’t stop watching it. The real pull of The Circle is that it’s a brutally honest reflection of the fractured way we attempt to connect to each other today — through social media, dating apps, #influencer culture, the edited photos we choose as our avatars, the language and personas we employ online — and how we filter our thoughts, feelings, and identities before throwing them into that huge web. There are what at least appear to be genuine moments of heartfelt connection, like when newcomer Miranda opens up to Italian bro Joey that, unlike him, she isn’t close with her family and grew up in foster care, or when popular player Sammie tells socially awkward Shubham, a.k.a. Shooby, to not worry about “fitting in” with the others. But just like any online interaction, there’s a layer of the unknown hiding beneath everything, and what’s real and what’s not — the players who are catfishing, the players who are “being themselves,” their Circle messages to other contestants versus their private ramblings to themselves between sending them, all while knowing they’re being filmed for a reality show that’s actually not filmed in Chicago but in the U.K. — becomes an impossible riddle to solve.
That’s why the comparisons to Black Mirror don’t quite do justice to what makes The Circle such an addictive watch: Most Black Mirror episodes take elements of technology that currently exist then stretch them to their most dystopian, terrifying, near-distant-future conclusions. The horror — and the comedy — of The Circle is that we’re already there.
Anyway, I’m rooting for Joey. Smiley face emoji. Send message.