For a show that's released a marathon four seasons in a little over two years, it shouldn't surprise that The Circle would be suffering from some creative exhaustion as it headed into season four. After its first season charmed audiences with its low-fi, social-media-based strategy gameplay, and Season 2 perfected the formula with some engaging characters and a perfectly executed catfishing champion, the show's third season struggled to find a groove and ended up limping across the finish line with an unpopular winner. Season four premiered earlier this month with a mandate to get The Circle back to the kind of fun and addictive reality competition we fell in love with, and lo and behold, it delivered. With the season's final episode dropping today, what was it that brought the show back from the brink?
The premise of The Circle is so simple, it can be infuriating to first-time viewers that this is actually a TV show with a (as of this season) $150,000 prize. Players are isolated in separate little pod suites of an apartment building where they play a game of social strategy, connections, and alliances, all via a social interface known as "The Circle." All communication is done by text messaging — either to the group or in private chats — and the only visual information is conveyed through photos. This has always meant that players can — and are often encouraged to — play as "catfish," i.e. pretending to be someone they're not. Catfishing has brought The Circle some of its most memorable characters, and it's also provided the thrust for a ton of game strategy over the seasons. This makes sense since there's so little concrete motivation to target any one player over another that sniffing out catfish and voting them out gives the gama purpose. Besides, nothing bonds strangers better than a shared task that ostracizes a third person for a perceived social sin (in this case: being ingenuine).
The problem, as it presented itself over the show's first three seasons, is that hunting down catfish became the only motivation for voting anyone out, meaning that players who were catfishing had only one route to winning the game: staying completely undetected, as season two champion DeLeesa did when she catfished as her hot husband Trevor.
Was there still catfish hunting in season four? Absolutely. The first player eliminated, Paul, was targeted mostly because he was really Parker, Paul's 21-year-old daughter, who turned out to be pretty terrible at portraying a 56-year-old man. But as the game progressed, further catfish were suspected but ultimately allowed to keep playing their game and were either protected or targeted in the game based soley on their social connections. This is how it went with "Carol" (really Carol's son John), who by the midpoint of the season everybody more or less assumed was not really a 56-year-old woman. But she was an asset to players like Bru, a 25-year-old radio host and TikTok personality, and so he kept her safe over other, more "genuine" players. This feels like a good evolution in the game, one that will allow catfish to roam free and play their own games, whether or not they're found out.
Even if you checked out in the middle of the show's lackluster season three, you probably remember the saga of poor Michelle, who survived the first episode's Blocking only to have the blocked pair, sisters Ava & Chanel, get to choose to clone one of the remaining players, and they picked Michelle. The rest of the players then had to vote for who they thought the real Michelle was, and with only a day's experience to go on, they chose wrong. In the span of just a couple day, no only was Michelle eliminated, buit she her identity stripped from her. That twist was a gag, but that didn't make it any more fair to Michelle. No such unbalanced twists came in season four. In fact, it ended being a remarkably twist-light season, aside from the participation of a certain late '90s pop group that we'll get to shortly.
This was maybe the best thing about this season's The Circle: the horny energy was off the charts. Whether it was sex therapist Alyssa and her vulva pillow giving "Carol" (really Carol's son) advice about how to spice up her marriage or the heavy flirt energy Parker was giving John when they met up after she got Blocked, the air was thick with sexual tension. A lot of this centered on Yu Ling, who formed a "throuple" alliance with Alyssa and Bru that included a ton of suggestive three-way talk amid their strategy sessions. Yu Ling would ultimately abandon her throuple alliance, a development that coincided with her engaging in some borderline-sexting talk with "Nathan," who she thought was a cute 22-year-old horndog but who was in fact Alex, a 28-year-old married (and mortified) catfisher. In a game where strategy can come and go, the horniness of the contestants was the true constant of the season and avery welcome development.
If season two was the highlight of The Circle's American run, its MVP was its winner, DeLeesa, who managed to catfish her way through the entire season, masquerading as Trevor, her own husband. Trevor flirted his way around the game, memorably hooking Chloe into what she sure seemed to think was a genuine relationship, en route to the win.
We never expected to see Trevor again, except there he was in episode 7, entering the game as a new player. And since his face would be too recognizable to play as himself, he played as "Imani," one of his wife's friends. And since strategy apparently runs in the family, "Imani" got right to flirting, hooking the eager Eversen into a flirtatious alliance that lasted all the way to the finale. In the finale, the bulk of the fireworks were in watching the other players, all Circle superfans, reacting to the Circle royalty in their midst.
The best and biggest twist of season four was the revelation that one of the players — "Jared" — was a catfish who was being played by none other than Emma and Mel B from The Spice Girls. The introduction of celebrity players was perfectly deployed for a four-episode arc that gave the contestants a reason to freak out, set them on a mission to discover which one of them was a pair of Spice Girls in disguise, and allowed Emma and Mel B to bump up the ultimate prize for the season to $150,000. The four-episode arc didn't drown out the rest of the season, but it was long enough to feel like a substantial part of the season and not just a brief cameo. Emma and Mel got to really play the game, work social strategy, and were ultimately successful. If the U.S. ever does an all-celebrity season (season five maybe??), these two would make a great start to the cast.
All thirteen Season 4 episodes of The Circle are now streaming on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.