The age of the social experiment on reality TV has hit a rough patch. Stalwarts of the genre like Survivor and Big Brother have become wildly inconsistent. The former throws too many twists into the mix, while the latter leans heavily on casting archetypes. The competition shows, which once promised real glimpses of human behavior, have become more interested in the game.
And even when those shows do get into social experiments these days, they usually butcher them so badly that you want them to stop. Survivor's recent failure in dealing with unwanted sexual advances dismayed and depressed fans, while pervasive racist and sexist behavior cast a pall over Big Brother 21, culminating in a fascinatingly dismal crowning for winner Jackson Michie. Point being: Whether they're actually trying to be social experiments or not, these shows are no longer suited to exploring human behavior in a reality TV context.
Instead, that mantle has been taken up by The Circle, Netflix's American adaptation of a UK format that begins on New Year's Day. The series, which will drop four episodes a week for three weeks, is like Big Brother in that it features players living in a building together. Where it differs, however, is that they never interact — in person. Instead, the eight players (which, in a Love Island-esque fashion, are replaced by other players as the game goes along) interact solely through a social media network, called "The Circle."
Isolated in separate apartments and given multiple TV screens that are connected to The Circle, players must participate in social games, write profiles, upload photos, and chat with their fellow players. At the end of each cycle of gameplay, one player is Blocked, meaning they're eliminated and out of the game. If the idea of watching people talk to screens all day sounds boring to you, trust me, I thought the same — until I found myself bingeing every episode of the series via screener in one day. It's an addictive gem of a show, one that really functions as a social game first and foremost.
Like Big Brother and Survivor, the ultimate purpose of the game is to reach the end. That means being well-liked enough to stay atop the social rankings — players must rank all their fellow house guests every round — but not so socially threatening that you become a target. Having to do this solely over text-based chat means saying all the right things, keeping in touch with everyone regularly, and staying apprised of who does and doesn't like who. The social games are fun, and do sometimes come with rewards, but there's nothing game-changing involved — players live or die by their social strategy.
There's an extra wrinkle, though: Some players choose to play as catfish, misrepresenting their identities on The Circle. So there's a natural paranoia that permeates the game: Who is who they say they are, and who's lying to get ahead? It's a fear that feels all too real in the time of Instagram stalking and making friends on Twitter and Facebook. Moreover, it's a twist that would never work on Big Brother, utilizing The Circle's specific format to up the stakes.
What's most appealing about The Circle is the relatability, the idea that all of us are playing a version of this game in our daily lives. Unlike its predecessors, The Circle is the perfect reality competition show for this moment, with a remarkably savvy understanding of how social interactions work in 2019. Not every aspect of the show clicks — there's some clunky pacing, especially in the first few episodes — but once you plug into this network, you'll be addicted before you know it.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.