exit strategy

The Circle Might Have a Catfish Problem

The game of The Circle isn’t “figure out who’s a catfish”; it’s much more interesting than that — or at least it can be. Photo: Netflix

Michelle Rider’s time on The Circle was cut short all because she doesn’t let her dogs lick her face.

In an icebreaker on the first episode of season three, the 52-year-old mom from South Carolina (correctly!) answered “no” to the statement, “It’s fine to let a pet kiss you on the mouth.” The group was evenly split, but it was Michelle’s answer that raised eyebrows from the other contestants, since she’s holding two small dogs in her profile picture. Nick, a computer programmer pretending to be a drummer, called her out, writing in the Circle Chat, “The most shocking part of that whole game was that Michelle won’t let those two beautiful dogs kiss her on the mouth.” She tried to defend her (correct!!!!!!!!) choice, telling them, “I do love my fur babies, please don’t get me wrong, but I do not desire for them to lick their butt and then my face.” But it was too late — the implication that Michelle wasn’t who she said she was had been thrown down and she was voted dead last in the first rating.

While Michelle managed to survive the first elimination, she became the first player to actually leave The Circle in one of the most genuinely hard-to-watch episodes of this usually light and goofy show. Previously blocked sisters Ava and Chanel were allowed to clone Michelle’s profile and try to convince the rest of the players that they were the real Michelle. They used the suspicions about Michelle against her, arguing, “It’s kinda better to go with someone who is in doubt.” Watching Michelle fight to prove her identity was more frustrating — and eventually heartbreaking — than entertaining and represented the biggest problem with this season of The Circle: By placing such a huge emphasis on rooting out catfish, both players and producers fundamentally misunderstand how the game works and what makes it fun to watch.

Because here’s the thing: Who cares? Catfishing is a perfectly legitimate strategy. The game of The Circle isn’t “figure out who’s a catfish”; it’s much more interesting than that — or at least it can be. As host Michelle Buteau says in the intro, The Circle is “the ultimate popularity game,” playing out entirely over (an extremely insulated form of) social media. In between private chats, group chats, and games designed to help the players get to know each other, the contestants rank each other. The two most popular players are given the role of “Influencer”; together the Influencers choose another player to eliminate. So really it doesn’t matter if someone is a catfish as long as they rank you highly (or fight to keep you around if they’re chosen as an Influencer.) There are lots of different tactics to take there, and at its best The Circle resembles Survivor in its ability to challenge players’ social intelligence. Both shows are at their most compelling when alliances are forming and/or coming undone. Catfishing is just a tactic, like playing a hidden immunity idol. When contestants spend all of their time trying to figure out if someone actually looks like their profile picture, it’s not just repetitive and boring from a viewer’s perspective — it’s also bad strategy.

I can totally understand the reasoning that if someone is lying in their profile, they could also be lying in their conversations with fellow players. But as we’ve seen over the past two seasons, plenty of contestants feel perfectly comfortable manipulating the hell out of each other even when using their “real” face. And on the flip side, plenty of people are capable of making genuine connections behind a “fake” profile. Last season’s winner, DeLeesa St. Agathe, played as her husband, Trevor, but told Vulture, “When I was speaking and having these private chats with people, I was really opening up to them and listening to them, just being a friend.”

Despite DeLeesa’s fantastic gameplay last season (or perhaps because of it), players this season were more suspicious of each other than in years past. Calvin and Kai in particular seemed especially obsessed with figuring out who was “genuine,” which gets tedious and grating when nearly every conversation ends with someone squinting at their TV and muttering about how some phrasing or other sounds “fishy … catfishy.” (It’s also worth noting that no one on The Circle is very good at clocking catfish.) Even when Calvin was eliminated he made it all about catfishing, declaring that he “came in 100 percent myself” and inadvertently throwing suspicion toward his Circle bae Kai by making vague innuendo that someone in The Circle wasn’t who they appeared to be.

And it wasn’t just the contestants who made catfishing the focus of the game at the expense of forming more meaningful connections. Producers this season threw two catfish-themed gimmicks into the mix, both of which ended up being huge bummers. First was the Saga of the Two Michelles. Then, a few episodes later, Nick was able to play under a second dummy profile assigned to him by The Circle. While Nick did a great job of utilizing the profile of “Vince,” a 38-year-old ghost hunter with a gothy black-and-white photo, the reactions from some of the contestants came weirdly close to bullying. Even though Vince wasn’t a real player, goths have feelings too! I bet some of them even watch The Circle! Daniel’s joke that he was scared he’d be Vince’s “virgin sacrifice” really rubbed me the wrong way. And, of course, Vince’s dummy profile seemed designed to elicit that reaction.

To be fair, in the few episodes before this week’s finale, more nuanced gameplay started to come out. Hard alliances were formed, tense conversations were had, eliminated contestants were blindsided. And, encouragingly, both Nick and “Ashley” (played by her real-life BFF Matthew) called out Kai’s obsession with catfish hunting. “At a certain point, girl, everyone is a person behind those screens,” Matthew muses out loud. But the first two batches of episodes were so off-putting, so simultaneously frustrating and boring, that it lost all of the charm, joy, and silliness that made the previous two seasons so fun. I’ve talked to several fans of The Circle who said they didn’t even watch past the first three or four episodes because they didn’t feel like they had anyone to root for.

Netflix loves to bill their reality show offerings as “social experiments.” Well, I respect the scientific method and recognize that experiments require some messy trial and error. Here’s hoping The Circle, which has been renewed for another two seasons already, can find that perfect formula again.

The Circle Might Have a Catfish Problem