Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first eight episodes of The Circle Season 2, which are currently streaming on Netflix.
If there’s been one persistent problem with the various iterations of The Circle to date, it’s been that the contestants on the social strategy reality show have seemed to consider finding the fakers more important than winning.
A primer for those who haven’t yet watched the addictive Netflix reality TV competition: The Circle is a popularity contest with a twist. The series isolates a handful of contestants in their own lofts in a Manchester apartment building. Their only way to talk to each other is through “The Circle,” a social network of sorts that allows for group chatting, one-to-one conversations, and more. Every couple of days, they must rate each other, with the most popular in The Circle rewarded with power — and the least popular at risk of elimination.
The show’s signature gimmick is that not everyone is who they say they are. While some come in playing as themselves, others make slight alterations to their personal stories to come across as more compelling, while still others adopt entirely new identities — or “catfish” personae. On the current American season, 20-year-old Jack is catfishing as his sorority girl pal Emily. Deleesa, a particularly savvy social player, is catfishing as her husband, Trevor. And most eye-popping of all is Lisa’s choice to catfish as “Lance,” a 41-year-old former boy band member. Yes, Lance Bass’ personal assistant is catfishing as him.
But while just last season the American show featured vociferous catfish hunting among those in The Circle, this season has taken on an entirely different tack. Greater game strategy has trumped talk of catfish, leading to the first three players blocked all being people who were playing as themselves: Bryant, Savannah, and Terilisha. Even when the competitors finally got around to blocking some catfish (namely Emily and Lance), their IRL counterparts, Jack and Lisa, were immediately given a chance to team up and come back into The Circle — as another catfish.
The message of the season, both from the players and the greater game, is clear: catfishing is a valid social strategy, and it isn’t enough to just block those who you think are faking it anymore. If you’re too shady or off your mark, you’ll stand out — but if you’re smart and can stay under the radar, you can thrive in the game.
Because there have already been so many seasons of The Circle internationally — the series originated on the UK's Channel 4 before Netflix licensed the show's international rights for its various properties worldwide — the metagame of the actual competition has shifted rapidly. Despite the UK edition only premiering in the fall of 2018, we’re already in what feels like the third “era” of the game. The first, which was just the original UK season, used an entirely different rating system and thus is largely incomparable to later seasons. The second, which encompasses the UK’s second season, the US’ first, and the sole season of The Circle Brazil, largely focused on catfish-hunting, with a particular emphasis on stamping out the fakers among them.
About halfway through the Brazilian season, however, something shifted. Some players openly questioned the purpose of focusing on the catfish, and the strategy became more complex. Still, Marina, a woman playing as herself but with some very slight alterations (career, age), was the winner of the season. The same went for The Circle France, which was won by non-catfish Romain, but that season was much more strategic in nature, and served as a bridge to the third — and current — era.
This new era, which started in earnest with the third UK season (after an abbreviated and very catfish-obsessed celebrity season), is even more strategy-focused than the Brazilian and French series. There’s still discussion about who could be a catfish, but mostly as a way to discuss other issues of trust with a player. For those you do trust, it’s barely an issue. Take Syed, an uncle figure from the third UK season, who young YouTuber Hashu chose to play as. Fellow players like Manrika and Tally admitted freely that they didn’t believe he was really Syed, but connected so strongly with him that they didn’t care — Manrika even told him as much.
Manrika was also part of perhaps the most audacious bit of catfishing we’ve ever seen, as she (playing as herself) fell head over heels for a British paratrooper named Felix. Only problem: Felix was actually Natalya, a military police officer. She dealt with guilt over her and Manrika’s connection all season long, and the two had a difficult meeting when they both made the finale. Still, “Felix” paid off for Natalya: she and Manrika were the top two players of the season, with Natalya taking home the £100,000 prize.
Which brings us back to the current American season, in which players like “River,” a 24-year-old gay student who is actually 58-year-old gay writer Lee, are thriving in the game. Moreover, they’re much more compelling as characters than later entrants playing as themselves: there’s more intrigue to the game they’re playing. Jack and Lisa, aka Emily and Lance, merging into one new player promises even more catfish shenanigans.
Again, the catfish hunting hasn’t abated entirely. Jack got exposed by being unable to do makeup in a Jonathan Van Ness-hosted mini-challenge, and was eliminated for it. But that was more about his former allies no longer trusting him, not that he was catfishing. The strategy of the game, which got off to a rip-roaring start when former allies Savannah and Terilisha turned against each other fast, has taken precedence in The Circle. The game is changing, and the show is becoming about much more than exposing fakers.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see things change again soon. (Interestingly enough, since so many of these seasons shoot simultaneously, the metagame seems to evolve organically, rather than in response to what’s come before.) For now, though, we're living in the age of the catfish. The fakers are living their best lives — even if they’re not actually their own.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.