The Circle Season 5, a critique
Truthfully, I am not the target demographic for Netflix's The Circle. For those unfamiliar, the show is billed as a "social media reality show."
If you know me or my YouTube channel, you'll know that I have no respect for either social media OR reality shows. But I watched it because Emily says its one of her favorite show. Since she's my favorite person... I decided to give it a shot.
Keep in mind that Season 5 is the only season I've watched. And I'd describe it as "Big Brother, except the contestants little more than look at their TV screens all season."
That might sound harsh, but it's pretty much true.
The show keeps all players isolated from each other. The only way they can communicate is through chat messages and games. Contestants are able to lie about who they are to amplify the drama. The show actually facilitates these catfishes, providing them with fake profiles and photos.
A person who uses a fictional online persona, often to lure others into some kind of a relationship.
I have to admit, part of the pleasure I've found while watching this show is knowing who the catfishes are and seeing how effectively (or how poorly) they pull off their fake identity. It's rather amusing to hear a player refer to a man playing as a woman as "she." Hello, theory of mind.
The first episode of Season 5 was full of overtly annoying and over-the-top personalities. With the subsequent episodes, I realized these introductions were basically caricatures of themselves. Emily tells me that's how every first episode of the series is. And for a show about catfishing, this first episode fakeness seems quite fitting.
The show takes place in an apartment building with each player (or team) having their own apartment. Every room in the apartment is outfitted with a television that's constantly displaying The Circle, the in-game social media platform the game takes place on.
Interactions can happen between players by means of the "Circle Chat" which is a group chat all players are involved in. The Circle Chat is only open at certain times and, in the mean time, players are free to private message each other.
Private messages are able to be sent between two or more players. This is where much of the strategy and alliances are formed.
Players must build trust and form a social bond with each other as the two most popular players become "influencers" and are safe from elimination. Indeed, they get to pick who gets "blocked" from The Circle.
Another way players can communicate is through games. Games are played through The Circle as well and often take the form of truth or dare or trivia-style games. Players are able to learn new things about each other from games and earn rewards like going on "dates" or immunity from being blocked.
According to Emily, dates are an invention of this season. Dates are when two players go into two opposing rooms and stare at the wall that separates them. They then have a private DM session with each other.
Eliminations happen in various ways. But primarily, two players are elected as "influencers" and they are required to eliminate one player.
Elections happen by all players ranking their preferred contestants from least to most favorable. The top two most favored players are then "Influencers." The influencers then must confer with each other and decide who goes home.
Meeting one other player
Once a player is blocked, they get to meet one other player of their choosing. And guess what? This actually happens face to face! Honestly, when players meet, it's categorically the best part of any episode. But we'll get to that.
However, this event is preceded by a slow motion montage of the player leaving their apartment and walking down the hall to the others'. This is usually the cringiest part of the whole show. They're so out of place in terms of tone and style. These segments feel like what you'd get if you gave a TikTok star a budget and forced them to film in landscape.
One of the most irritating conceits of the show is that The Circle is an actual piece of software that the players interact with. While I'm sure there's some level of interaction, players must do every interaction with their voice and the voice recognition is too accurate to be anything other than a producer behind the scenes.
Okay, Circle, take me to a private group message with Jessica and Marvin.
Okay, Circle, message: "I think the best thing to do would be to have a dance party, exclamation mark, exclamation mark, heart vibrating emoji, dancing woman emoji, crying laughing emoji, crying laughing emoji, crying laughing emoji, hashtag all the single ladies, hashtag dance the night away." Send message.
Yes. They vocalize the punctuation and emojis they want to use as well as the hashtags. Yes. It's even worse than you can imagine. It's almost physically painful listening to the contestants composing their messages. And I get that there are few other ways to do it but I'm forced to ask... why didn't the editor cut this stuff?
And this brings me to the most obvious problem with the show overall.
Editing, Structure, and Pacing
The show's editing is perplexing. When a player composes a message, the show often just sits there cutting between the player and the message being input into the chat box. It lets us hear them write the whole thing out.
If the editors or producers cared about brevity, they could cut halfway through the composition to another player reading the rest of the message.
But it doesn't feel like the show cares about their audience's time.
Episodes feel like they're generally 15 minutes longer than they need to be. For example, when The Circle sends an alert to all players. Let's say our contestants have just finished a game. The results of a game have been tabulated and suddenly:
ALERT appears on each player's TV accompanied with a rather grating notification chime.
Cut to two out of the eight players screaming "ALERT!" or "OH NO! WHAT COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE?" Cut to another player pacing in front of the TV: "Oh my god, I'm so nervous."
The TV displays "The results of the game have been counted." Cut sequentially to different players reading the message from their screens.
The TV slowly fades the text out, then slowly fades in new text: "A winner has been decided." Rotate through different players reading the message from their screen.
The text fades out, then slowly fades in new text: "Once a winner has been decided, the results are final." Cut to a player who reads the message, seeming shocked that the results of the game they just finished are final.
The TV shows an empty player avatar labeled "last place". Players nervously pace back and forth worried they're the loser. Slowly, the empty avatar flips over to reveal who's in last place. Repeat ad nauseum over the next six minutes.
I swear to God that's how the vast majority of the show plays out. At a plodding, bafflingly slow pace. Nothing happens and it's all prolonged to foster a false sense of drama. Player's behaviors and reactions often feel forced, unrealistic, and cartoonish. And the worst part about it is that it could be done so much more efficiently.
The nice stuff
When I was a kid, my mom loved watching Big Brother, Survivor, and other reality shows of that kind. All these shows were highly competitive and rarely cooperative. The Circle is less competition oriented and the players–at least in this season–seem to care more about each other as people than other competition reality shows I've watched. I find that fairly ironic given the fact that all the contestants know that catfish (catfishes?) are playing the game. Yet, undeterred, they seem to genuinely care about each other. And that's something I appreciate.
The highlight of any episode is when two players meet. I think the reason I like when players meet is because something actually happens. I don't find it particularly entertaining to watch people looking at their TVs all day. So when two people are actually interacting, face to face, there's actually some substance to it.
The other thing is that, because these are people who have only ever communicated via chat messages, there's this weird chemistry that people can have. It can be instant, it can be explosive, it can be shocking; but it's always human. The reactions of contestants, especially when they meet an eliminated catfish, are the most real thing of the whole show.
As I mentioned above, there are moments where the contestants truly seem to care about each other. This is because, while the cast generally suck at feigning surprise, they seem like genuinely nice people. Many of whom I feel I could be friends with.
The Circle has a lot of potential. It could be a fresh twist on reality shows like Big Brother. There could be more consequences for playing as a catfish (because, as it stands right now, there are none). Games could grants players power-ups that could upend the status quo (which they did once through the season and the build up was more satisfying than the payoff). Players could have the option to meet each other under certain circumstances. And the pacing could be vastly improved. In fact, if each episode were 15 minute YouTube videos, I'd probably absolutely love it. Mr. Beast, get on it!
But, probelmatically, it's as if the show's producers don't have faith in the format or concept of the show and believe that the fake drama is what people tune in to see.
Consequently, the show is like an enormous mixing bowl full of cotton candy that must be entirely consumed before you get a morsel of roasted asparagus. Cotton candy because it's all fluff that adds nothing to your diet. And a morsel of asparagus because it's savory and delicious, but the taste conflicts with the cotton candy you've just had to choke down.
So while there are enjoyable elements of The Circle and there are twists and moments that drew me in... knowing that it's a lost opportunity to do something really spectacular is more disappointing than anything else.
If you want a really great reality-style show, check out Jet Lag: The Game.