What Makes Netflix's The Circle So Compelling?

And why did I spend an entire weekend watching people dictate text messages?
  • Resident bro Joey Sasso in a screenshot from The Circle. (Netflix)
    Resident bro Joey Sasso in a screenshot from The Circle. (Netflix)

    Warning: This post contains spoilers from the first two weeks (episodes 1-8) of The Circle. 

    Over the course of the last 20 years, a lot of reality shows have claimed to be social experiments. Survivor, Big Brother, basically any show that observes its cast or contestants in artificial living conditions claims to be some sort of social experiment. They're our ant farm, our Sims game, our Stanford prisoners waiting to be experimented on. With Netflix's new reality game show The Circle, I'm starting to think the experiment might not be on the contestants but on us, the viewers. After eight episodes (the final four episodes drop on Wednesday) and one cliffhanger that actually had me shout "Nooooo!" out loud, I have to ask myself and anyone else hooked on the series "Why is this show so compelling?"

    When asked to explain what The Circle was after watching one episode, the best I could come up with was "Big Brother meets Instagram." Seven episodes later, I've got no better description. Based on a format originated in the UK, nine strangers enter an apartment building and live in completely sequestered dwellings. They never meet, and they only interact via the big video screens in their rooms called The Circle. (The Circle also directs the actions of the game, including competitions and the rankings/eliminations of contestants.) Since they never see each's other's faces, only communicating by dictating text messages and sending profile photos via The Circle, the contestants are free to play as themselves or to pass themselves off as some assumed identity (i.e. catfishing).

    So, is the intrigue about seeing those catfish unmasked? Sort of. Thus far, of the 13 people who have passed through the house, five of them have been playing as catfish, with only one of them Karyn — playing as "Mercedeze" — having been eliminated and unmasked. The episode 8 cliffhanger ended with newly entered contestant Sean on the brink of telling her fellow contestants that she's been fronting as a skinny blonde. Both Karyn and Sean are plus-sized women passing themselves off as skinnier, more conventionally attractive women, and that aspect of The Circle does hold some interest. The show is refreshingly matter-of-fact about these women, where other shows might be more aggressive, leaning on their poor self-image and their lack of confidence. Here, they just state plainly that they don't think other people would be drawn to their real selves. Which is a bummer and says a lot of really terrible things about living in a society, but The Circle doesn't try to use that to impart any kind of lessons about self-acceptance. And by letting the audience sit and simmer in the idea of whether Karyn and Sean are right or wrong, it keeps the audience in the hot seat. It's certainly a better depiction of catfish than Catfish (no matter what Nev Schulman says).

    But the catfish are just one element of what makes the show so compelling. Is it the cast themselves? Maaaaaybe... There are a few memorable cast members. Lovable underdog Shubham is a perfectly cast protagonist. Cool girl Sammie has a good heart and a good bullshit detector and is very fun to watch. Alex (catfishing as hunky "Adam") started off as a repulsively overbearing flirt, but he's learning to modulate his communication skills. Chris has some fantastic one-liners and is a generally fabulous presence. And then there's Joey, created from scraps of footage found on the floor of the Jersey Shore editing room, whose big, loud, bro-y asides have made him an unlikely fan favorite. They're some interesting folks, but if I never encountered these people again in my life I'd be fine.

    It can't be the game itself. It's far too simplistic to even bother playing along. Each episode, the contestants rank each other, with the top ranked player getting to eliminate someone. But then, as folks are eliminated, new people are added in their place. This zero-sum conception of a reality competition is very British, those Brits being concerned with long-term continuity and empires that go on forever and ever. American reality shows narrow their casts one by one until a winner emerges, much like America prefers to diminish its resources, world allies, and chances to avert environmental collapse one by one until none remain. In any case, it isn't chess these contestants are playing, it's barely checkers.

    The closest I've come to explaining The Circle's allure is that it reproduces and game-ifies this life of social-media interaction we've all created for ourselves. The "Big Brother meets Instagram" thing isn't a dig. It's the whole point. If you've ever struck up a friendship with someone via Twitter, or conducted part of your real-life friendships via Instagram comments or Facebook messages, there's a flash of familiarity in seeing it turned into a game via The Circle. Contestants need to learn to modify their interactions with each other in order to benefit themselves. They diversify their communication styles depending on who they're talking to and what they need their relationships with various people to be. Shubham needs to show vulnerability to Sammie, loyalty to Joey, and honesty to "Rebecca," because that's how each value him. Alex ("Adam") comes on way too strong and flirty with "Rebecca," which earns him a degree of mistrust, but he learns to show more of his chill, sensitive self to Shubham and Joey.

    So maybe The Circle is a social experiment on both sides of the camera. One being conducted at a refreshingly low-intensity, with a chill and funny narrator/host (comedian Michelle Buteau) and featuring the comedy stylings of Joey. Either way, I'm on the hook, and it sounds like I'm not the only one, so let's descend into this madness together.

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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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Circle, Netflix, Joey Sasso, Michelle Buteau, Reality TV