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Warning: This piece contains major spoilers for The Circle seasons one and two.
INKOO KANG: Skill-based competition shows have long been considered reality TV’s saving grace: If it showcases talent, creativity and flair in the search for America’s next top singer/chef/glassblower/drag queen, the genre can’t be all bad, right? But Netflix’s mega-popular The Circle — which concludes its gloriously chaotic (and, in the end, surprisingly moving) sophomore season today — proves that reality competitions can be trashy and satisfying, as long as the game the contestants are playing is engineered smartly enough. (Also see: Netflix’s Love Is Blind.)
Adapted from a British game show, The Circle is exhilaratingly stupid: a popularity contest waged online through selfies, two-sentence bios, group chats and private DMs by competitors isolated in their own apartment units. Delusion has long been a mainstay of reality TV, and we’ve got two varieties at work here: the competitors’ often wrong perceptions of how they come across to other people in their social-media self-presentations, and the personae they project onto their fellow players based on the tiniest and flimsiest of data. There’s $100,000 on the line, which inspires some contestants to catfish, or pose as someone of an ostensibly more preferable sex, size or generation in the hopes of racking up likability points.
Lovia, I feel like I converted you into The Circle fandom very easily. What do you think is so appealing about this very dumb yet very addictive show? And do you think it says anything about our online lives at all?
LOVIA GYARKYE: You did convert me! To be honest, you really sold the show, and if it weren’t antithetical to your literal job, I would say you should be their ambassador. I didn’t go into The Circle expecting much — it’s safe to say my personal bar was in hell — but after a handful of episodes I was hooked.
The show indulges in and rewards the artifice of social media. Season one led with an earnest theme of searching for authenticity. The question that haunted the show’s contestants were variations of: “Will people accept the real me?” But what does it mean to be “real” online when every platform offers you an opportunity to curate your image (Instagram) or your thoughts (Twitter)? The show queries this sentiment and reveals that even the quest for authenticity, to present a “real” self, can feel like a performance. Part of that has to do with the fact that social media has broken our brains and warped how we relate to one another. When you’re getting to know someone, there is always a chance that they might not be who they purport to be, but online life has probably heightened that paranoia.
Season two pushes the envelope even more and embraces the freedom of crafting an online persona. It felt less about, “How can I present the most real version of me?” and more like, “How do I create and craft authenticity? Who do I want to be and how do I make that person feel real?” That, to me, feels true to how some people approach life online these days. It’s less about presenting a fixed version of yourself and more about using the freedom to be whoever you want to figure out who you are.
On a less fake-deep note, the show is also surprisingly fun! I was wrong about how much could be made out of watching people sit in a room for roughly two weeks, talking to each other through private messages and group texts. Michelle Buteau is an incredible host, too. She provides spot-on commentary on the ridiculousness of the contestants’ behavior — like when she calls out Savannah for her aggressive tactic to get the other players to turn on Terilisha, or how Mitchell never wears a shirt, or even how Chloe’s obtuseness feels unbelievable at times. She not only adds texture to the show, she’s the voice of reason. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what The Circle says about our online lives. Also, I want to know what you thought about the changes in season two!
KANG: After season one, I wasn’t sure where else the show could go, which is why I didn’t bother with Netflix’s French and Brazilian variations. Boy, was I lacking in imagination. Season two introduced a whole new set of game elements (and producer meddling) that made the season spectacularly unpredictable. The reality show I most associate with The Circle is Survivor, which is similarly premised on eliminations via alliance-building. But every Survivor episode begins and ends the same way (as do most reality competitions, from The Bachelor to The Great British Bake Off). I’ve always appreciated that on The Circle, the number of contestants to be booted out is never set in stone, and the schedule for eliminations seems wonderfully arbitrary. Sometimes, the kicked-out participants are replaced by new players. On season two, a pair of “blocked” contestants, Jack (who posed as sorority girl Emily) and Lisa (who pretended to be her boss, *NSYNCer Lance Bass) were snuck back into competition by the producers under the guise of a fake profile they named John, who they hilariously decide to make a gay psychic. (Are psychics likable? I wouldn’t say so, but I do find the idea of an elderly gay psychic a lot more endearing for reasons I can’t sort out!)
I could see someone who took The Circle seriously (which, LOL) being annoyed that producer intervention renders player strategy almost a moot point in season two. But if that intervention is going to take the form of, say, the mannequin makeup challenge — which was practically designed to root out any men posing as a woman as a fake, and accomplished exactly that with Jack — I am here for all of it! Season two was a wild ride because the producers seemed to know exactly when to amp up drama, which I care about a lot more than the actual winner.
And yet! I was so happy when DeLeesa, who posed as a single-father version of her actual husband Trevor, took that $100,000 pot in the finale! Part of me couldn’t believe I cared, and part of me was so happy for her that she played such a great game. There seems to be this reigning idea, especially on the part of men, that women have it easier online (which, LMFAO). DeLeesa’s backstory about wanting a downpayment for a house for her young family was poignant, but I was most impressed by how clever she was by posing as a kind dude — the rarest and hardest-to-find gem of all. Lisa played as Lance Bass and season one contestant Tammy gave her son Ed some pointers, but DeLeesa is the only woman who presented herself as a nice, normal man — and I can’t help but wonder if that has something to do with her win, especially since both seasons have ended with male profiles outnumbering the female ones among the finalists.
Other than the sizism addressed in season one, The Circle producers seem extremely hesitant to acknowledge any real-life institutional biases, like racism and sexism, within the game. But whether they want to concede their existence or not, I think you can see some version of them within the game play. Thoughts?
GYARKYE: First of all, we stan DeLeesa. Not only is she smart, but she is from the Bronx, the best borough in New York. I usually don’t care about what happens to reality TV contestants once a show is over (because why?), but after I finished the last episode, I immediately followed her on Instagram. So far, no regrets.
Before I move on, I do have to address that I was one of those initial skeptics of producer meddling. I remember texting you — in the thick of my season one binge — about how annoying I found the addition of new players. I was wrong! In hindsight, I think I was reacting to the after-school-special quality of that season’s relationships. How the producers meddled in season two was smart and necessary. I loved the mannequin makeup challenge, too, plus the contestants having to draw one another and the addition of the Joker character. Not only did these decisions up the stakes of the player alliances and increase tensions, they also eliminated some of the repetition and dead moments in season one. There were times during season one where I felt like I was watching Sims trapped in a room.
I agree with you 100 percent on the real-life biases within the game. Although the producers don’t acknowledge it, the players in season two definitely do. The Circle is about popularity, which introduces thorny questions about who is likable on sight and who is given the opportunity to even be considered likable. Gender presentation, age, race and sexuality all play a role in how contestants strategize. I distinctly remember DeLeesa’s introduction and how she talked through her decision to pose as her husband, Trevor. At one point, she said: “He’s handsome but he’s not considered a threat. He is going to be the nice guy, single father.” The use of the word “threat” is interesting there, right? It made me think about how often Black people in America are perceived as violent, threatening and suspicious. To essentially pacify his image, she plays up the family-man angle and makes him a single dad (to a daughter no less).
These questions still exist even when contestants feel comfortable playing themselves. Chloe — thin, young, white — does not pose an obvious threat to the others. Her looks, coupled with her naiveté, affords her a certain level of innocence, leading other contestants to either use her as a pawn or try and protect her from being used as a pawn. Whereas the white women — catfish or not — are usually given the benefit of the doubt, the Black women aren’t. Terilisha and Khat — both Black women — came in as themselves. They were honest, smart and discerning in ways I thought the other players would appreciate, but I guess not. They were eliminated soon after they arrived.
Age plays a role, too. Lee chooses to enter the competition as “River,” a 24-year-old version of himself. (I think it’s worth mentioning that the producers are probably paying attention to feedback about the show. I remember in season one, Shubham said he would have liked to see older contestants on the show and this season, they technically added two.)
The players throw around the word “trust” a lot when discussing who they kick off the show or how they make allegiances. I can’t help but think of that as coded language informed by bias. Everyone (except Mitchell) didn’t “trust” Khat even though she knew something was up with River and Courtney.
Can we talk about the language element of The Circle? I mean, the fact that the players communicate pretty much exclusively over text makes the biases even more apparent, right? You never hear one another, so the tone of these messages must be interpreted. Also, the hashtags are weird and hilarious. They felt like a throwback to the days of Facebook walls.
KANG: The inexactness of The Circle’s conversations, combined with their (seemingly) extremely limited duration, is one of my favorite elements of the show. When hippie Bryant calls himself a breathwork instructor early in the season, for example, STEM student Jack snarks, “Just say you’re unemployed, homie,” while DeLeesa’s mind goes to tricking lie-detector tests. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve definitely seen this dynamic play out, where it’s always unpredictable how someone will interpret (or misinterpret) whatever you’ve posted. I love that The Circle is able to conjure entertainment out of these daily frustrations. And I agree with you about the pointless punctuations at the end of every Circle communiqué: #HashtagsRetireBitch.
If the players seemed disinclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to the Black women contestants, they also seemed to underestimate the threat of the gay male players, to their own detriment. No alliance was more solid than the one between the Messy Queens, aka River and Courtney, but only DeLeesa seemed to ever consider taking them down. (They didn’t even nail down River as a catfish when he referred to Jay-Z’s “100 Problems”!) It also doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Jack and Lisa decided to make fake psychic John a gay gramps, to whom everyone so wanted to be nice that they kept lying during the “what number am I thinking of” game by saying he was guessing their numbers correctly.
Reality competitions are all about hokey challenges and artificial environments, and in a time when we’re all so cynical about the genre, I find endlessly charming how The Circle foregrounds the ersatz-ness of its entire premise. Reality participants have said for years that they spend most of the time when they’re not on camera in social isolation with little to do, and I love that on The Circle we see how these competitors kill time, making bad food, bad music and bad poetry. Those aren’t the most riveting segments, but we do get a fairly good sense of who they are as people, whether it’s Chloe and Lee drawing the other competitors, DeLeesa switching wigs or virgin Mitchell just … never wearing a shirt. (By the way, I really appreciated how much less horny this season was compared to the last one. And I fully expect Netflix to move Too Hot to Handle alum Chloe around from reality show to reality show. If I don’t see her on Love Is Blind season two, what’s even the point?)
I never thought I’d ever go on any reality show, but I actually think I could make it to the final round on The Circle? Maybe I’m making too much of all the years I spent on AOL chat rooms as a teenager forging two-day online-only romances with strangers, but I’m pretty confident I could foster trust within some extremely bored, excitable people. Naturally, I would catfish the hell out of my fellow players. What about you?
GYARKYE: Your point about how these biases lead to underestimating certain players is a great one and I hadn’t thought about it. I yelled at my screen when River missed the “99 Problems” question and everyone shrugged it off — like, seriously!?
I agree with you on seeing how the participants spend their downtime. It also reminds me of another part of the show I liked: The rooms! I loved how each space had personality, seemingly tailored to who the contestants wanted to be. I’m thinking specifically of Jack, who posed as his blond-haired, rosé-drinking friend, Emily. He walked into his room and aptly described it as “The Barbie Dream House.” I mean, the teal walls and bronze accents were simply too much, but it works here. You can tell the show recognizes its absurdity and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
When it comes to reality television shows, I have a misplaced confidence in my abilities. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I always think I can win. I’d enter The Circle as an unassuming grandmother with wry humor and a warm heart, get everyone to trust me and then crush the competition.
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