Netflix has slowly been building up their reality television profile. As a genre, it has lagged behind their other original productions. The service instead put its focus on creating binge-worthy dramas, sitcoms and true crime documentaries.
Slowly, they started attracting viewers to shows like “Queer Eye,” “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “Nailed It.” These were slick reality shows, able to provide funny and intimate moments for the viewer.
But now, Netflix has made their first properly trashy reality show. “The Circle” is a new competitive reality show with a fresh — and seemingly stupid — concept: a group of people living together in an apartment building, competing to be the most popular and win an absurd amount of prize money.
The twist? The contestants cannot see each other and are unable to interact in person. The residents are only able to interact through a voice-activated platform installed on screens within their apartment called “The Circle.”
The Circle is built like a bare-bones social media platform. Each competitor creates a profile with their pictures, their age and a brief biography. There is a wall where they can post statuses and a chat feature where they can have private or group chats with the other players.
This is where the show moves from being “Big Brother” like to a confusing hybrid of the genre classic and “Catfish.” After all, if no one can see you in your apartment, who’s to say you aren’t the 6-foot-2-inch model with a four pack shown on your profile?
This is a feature that many of the players take advantage of and one that drives the interactions between players. Everyone is trying to figure out who is being “real” and how to appear “genuine.” The players make gut assumptions about others and sweat over how others will react to their choices. Should their profile picture show off their body or show that they love their friends and family? How much flirting is too much? If they hint that someone might be a catfish, will people turn around and point the finger at them?
The stakes of not being believable enough are dismissal and replacement. The two top-ranked players send someone home after each ranking. The player sent home is replaced by a new profile, a new potential catfish.
The show is objectively bad. Unlike regular reality competitions that rely on contrived dramatic confrontations to create must-watch moments, “The Circle” consists of people staring at screens and largely talking to themselves. It has removed genuine human contact, the basis of what is supposed to make reality television interesting.
Nevertheless, I found myself absolutely sucked in by this show. It is fascinating to watch these players talk themselves in circles – wink, wink – and try to plot out their catfishing schemes.
Much of the show’s charm comes down to the casting. All the players have compelling personalities. Most of the players being themselves are truly endearing and reveal moving life stories. The catfish are equally charming and have put careful thought into their adopted personas.
One of the most interesting characters to watch is Seaburn. The profile pictures Seaburn uses are actually his real-world girlfriend, Rebecca. Watching him struggle to flirt and sympathize with period cramps are the comedic highlights of the series.
The moments of truth come when someone gets sent home. Before they leave, the player is allowed to visit another player’s apartment. Some go after the one who sent them home, while others try to see if the connection they’ve made with a player – friendly or romantic – is real.
In these conversations, the show tries to impart lessons on how society judges different figures within itself. An often repeated line is “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But the bigger message gleaned from the show is that we really can’t stop this instinct.
The show is weirdly comforting and affirming. You are watching people navigate complex social situations and try to free themselves of the anxieties that their daily life brings them. Even removed from each other and with money on the line, these people are able to form friendships, have vulnerable conversations and be freaking horny.
Again, this is by no means peak television. But you may just find your eyes glued to the screen for every minute of it.