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Status Update: ‘The Circle’ Is the Perfect Reality Show for the Social Media Age

Netflix found a way to turn Facebook-style posturing and brand building into a competition—and the results are glorious

Netflix/Ringer illustration

STATUS UPDATE: The Circle is a reality show on Netflix. It’s an American version of a show with the same name that started in the U.K. in 2018. And it is perfect.

STATUS UPDATE: The Circle is a “social media competition.” What that means is …

OK, you know how on most reality show competitions there’s a group of players on an island or in a mansion or whatever and they’re all trying to win some kind of prize? The Circle is the same as that—it starts with eight players trying to outlast each other to win $100,000—except all of the interactions among the players take place on a social media program called The Circle (picture Facebook, except you can access it only when it wants you to and only in the ways it wants you to, and also there are no Nazis). Nobody knows who anybody is in real life, they know only what they’re seeing on the screen in front of them. So rather than trying to figure out a way to make people like you in real life like you would on, say, Survivor, contestants on The Circle have to figure out a way to make people like them on social media, which requires a much different skill set. Every so often, the players all have to rate each other from I Like This Person the Most to I Like This Person the Least. The two most popular players (and sometimes the single most popular player) then have to choose someone to block from the group.

STATUS UPDATE: Several of the players on the show are catfishing the others. One guy, for example, is named Alex and he’s married and kind of dumpy and, in real life, has probably often been described as “a little bit weird.” So instead of uploading pictures of himself to his player profile, he uploads pictures of a very handsome, extremely in-shape guy named Adam. There’s all sorts of stuff like that going on: A different guy is on the game pretending to be his girlfriend; two other women are on there pretending to be other women; one guy posts real pictures of himself, but his mom is also with him coming up with stuff to post during status updates and group chats. It’s a lot to explain to someone who’s never seen the show, but not a lot to understand when you’re actually watching the show—which is exactly the way talking about social media works, by the way.

STATUS UPDATE: Part of what makes The Circle so great is how despite early assumptions that a show like this would lean into the loneliness heavy internet users might feel has been baked into their bones, it somehow does the opposite. Once the novelty wears off several episodes in, everything and everyone begins to feel ultra humanized. The isolation somehow begins mushing people together through their TV screens. It’s incredible to watch happen. There are of course fun and funny moments on the episodes that speed the show forward (the guy pretending to be a woman, for example, is routinely invited into woman-only chats, and every single time he gets invited in he’s two or three sentences away from tipping his hand), but there are also big philosophical moments that ground everything in a I Wasn’t Expecting This Water to Get So Deep way. Watching a catfish having to process why they’ve chosen to catfish feels like peeking inside someone’s diary.

STATUS UPDATE: To address a point from earlier about how this show requires a different skill set than traditional reality competition shows, here’s an example: In the very first episode, we meet Karyn, a 37-year-old lesbian from New York City. Karyn has many likable qualities: she’s funny, she’s charming, she’s smart, she’s engaging. But Karyn decides she might be more successful on the show as Mercedez, a slimmer woman whose pictures she found on the internet that she describes by saying, “Guys see her, they usually drool. When girls see her, they usually wanna be friends. She’s Fenty all the way down, and I am not. So why not make myself approachable?” For a good few episodes, her strategy mostly works. But when all of the players are given a chance to add another picture of themselves to their profile page, someone comments that the new picture Karyn chooses doesn’t match with the other pictures that Mercedez has posted. (It’s a picture of the same person, mind you, but it’s a picture that appears philosophically out of sync with the others.) It’s a tiny misstep, and one that most people probably wouldn’t even recognize, but the players in The Circle pounce on it, and ultimately it’s the reason that Mercedez eventually gets sent home. As soon as her new picture went up, the whole group turned on her. And just like that—because of a simple picture somebody said didn’t quite fit with her other photos—she went from being one of the more powerful players on the show to not being on the show at all.

STATUS UPDATE: The five best, most interesting, most invaluable players on the show are the five who ended up making it to the finale. There’s Chris, who’s from Texas (he produces the most amount of laughs per episode). There’s Shubham, who’s from California (he starts out hating social media and then stumbles into winning several within-the-show competitions and realizing that he has a fondness for it). There’s Sammie, who’s from Florida (her funniest running bit is that the men on the show try to flirt with her and when they do they think they’re doing a bang-up job, but she’s on her side of the screen making gag noises and grossed out faces). There’s Seaburn, who’s from Massachusetts (he’s pretending to be Rebecca, his real-life girlfriend). And there’s Joey, who’s from New York (when the show starts you think you’re going to hate him, but after listening to him talk for 45 seconds you are absolutely smitten). Each one of them is just different enough that watching them become friends with each other is intriguing—but each one is also similar enough that it makes absolute sense they would become friends on the internet.

STATUS UPDATE: Everything Shubham does and says is delightful. There’s a part at the end of the season before the winner gets announced when the final five players all meet each other for dinner. Shubham is the first one to arrive, followed by Seaburn (who’s supposed to be Rebecca). When the two meet, of course Shubham is perfect in his open-mouthed shock. A few minutes later Sammie shows up, and immediately recognizes Shubham from his photos. She’s confused by Seaburn, though. And Shubham, a wonderful angel of light and love, covers his gigantic smile with his right hand, points at Seaburn with his left, and then, in the most charming moment of the season, says through his smile and through his teeth and through his hands, “It’s Rebecca.” It’s perfect. It’s so fucking perfect. It comes pouring out his mouth, the words “It’s Rebecca.” You can watch it 60 times in a row and it only gets funnier, and sweeter, and more endearing.

STATUS UPDATE: One of the things that happens on The Circle is each time someone is kicked off the show, they get to choose one person to meet before they go. Every time someone got kicked off, Seaburn, who was pretending to be Rebecca, would turn into a twisted knot because he didn’t want to be exposed as a catfish. When it finally happens, though—when he finally hears his door open and realizes that someone is going to see who he actually is— it’s another catfish who’s standing in front of him. And listen, it’s hard to fully describe how all-caps-and-italicized GREAT the payoff is to see these two guys standing in front of each other, figuring out that they were both catfishes, but it’s exactly that: all-caps-and-italicized GREAT. It’s like a scammer reunion. And it is beautiful.

STATUS UPDATE: It doesn’t make any sense that someone sitting alone in a room talking to a TV for two weeks could be entertaining at all, but Chris is totally captivating in that context. He’s Tom Hanks in Cast Away when Hanks is stuck on that deserted island for four years by himself without anyone to talk to or be with. There has to be an even money bet somewhere that Chris is going to spin his appearance on The Circle into his own show.

STATUS UPDATE: Chris and Karyn (who was pretending to be Mercedez) meet up after Mercedez gets eliminated. And watching those two bounce compliments and love back and forth make it clear very early on that The Circle is going to be a sneaky emotional show. As soon it was over, it felt like (a) we needed Chris onscreen as much as possible and (b) Karyn going home was going to be a real crusher. (Not counting the thing when the final five people meet up right before the finale, the Chris and Karyn meeting was my favorite IRL interaction. It was just so endearing and compelling watching them see each other, realize the insta-connection they had, and then become fast friends.)

STATUS UPDATE: A lot of people will say The Circle is a “good-bad show” or a “trashy but satisfying show” or a “guilty pleasure show.” And they’ll do so because it’s a reality TV show about people making friends on the internet. But fuck that. It’s a genuinely good, legitimately fun show. You don’t need any qualifiers. It’s good. IT’S A GOOD SHOW.

STATUS UPDATE: Joey, who opened the show by saying people regularly tell him he looks like a young Robert De Niro and whose voice sounds like his trachea has been sitting in a humidor for six weeks, wins the first season of The Circle. He was just the right amount of fun (like the way he would start shouting “SEND MESSAGE!” whenever he’d start getting worked up during private message sessions), just the right amount of threatening (he was the first one to confront another contestant in a way that made it clear he did not like them), just the right amount of sincere (minus the confrontation, basically every interaction he had with someone ended with him saying that he’d die for them), and just the right amount of clever (he had the chance to eliminate a powerful player late in the game, but chose to save her because he knew if he did she would vote for him in the final ratings). It makes absolute sense that he won a social media-based competition.

STATUS UPDATE: I absolutely cannot wait for Season 2 of The Circle.