Reality TV has faced no greater existential threat — not the rise of prestige cable, not audience attention span, and certainly not good taste — than the rise of social media. The genre that habituated 21st-century Americans to the rancorous, odd, and simply gross ways their countrymen might behave on camera generated a taste for candor, one that’s even more easily sated by people speaking directly to camera without a producer in between. The lack of social-media content, for instance, on the recent revival of “The Hills” — a show whose participants ought to have been doing nothing but discussing Instagram — felt like a rear-guard action against an encroaching force far more powerful.
Which makes “The Circle” — the first reality show of which I’m aware to integrate a social network into its DNA — unusual, and compelling as test case if not always as television. The show is effectively a spin on “Big Brother,” sequestering competitors and forcing them to interact and, eventually, to eliminate one another. The key difference is that the competitors’ interactions occur entirely on a faux social network created for the game, one that’s “voice-activated” and thus generated by contestants speaking aloud their social-media posts to each other. Eliminations are based, in theory, on who is the most likable and “real” in their posts and photos.
Much of the show’s early frisson comes from the fact that two competitors are masquerading as someone entirely other than themselves in the game; both players use women they specifically refer to as “the girl next door.” (There’s an interesting, vaguely queer dynamic at play in the case of a straight man using photos and the persona of his girlfriend to get ahead; at one point, choosing a picture to share with his competitors, he declares, “That works, because it highlights us in all our glory.”)
But each competitor is putting forward a persona, even if they are using their own names and images. This is rudimentary stuff; the idea that the social web is a staging-ground for our ideas of ourselves is both intuitive and one that has been explored in art as early as 2010’s “The Social Network.” But seeing it in practice is vaguely thrilling, if only because it so effectively removes the aspect of social performance that underpins most reality TV, and most of reality. Rather than doing the work of social mirroring, one contestant simply stares deadly ahead and blandly says “laugh my ass off” in response to another’s weird and off-color joke; contestants often look baffled or frustrated by one another while expressing enthusiasm and support. These moments buoy the show through long segments of strange, performative behavior on the contestants’ part; they only have themselves to really talk to, and they’re poor company, nattering away. (When told a housemate is a chef, one competitor declares, “Honey, he can bake this muffin!” It gets little better.)
As if to emphasize that format matters more, here, than potential breakout characters, these include stock types: A swimsuit model who insists she is really a “dork” at heart (“girls who stick together are pretty girls! Emoji heart send” she intones at one point to her voice-activated computer), a “Jersey Shore”-esque meathead, and a skeptic of the entire project. “I think social media is our modern-day bubonic plague,” this fellow insists. “It’s actually the devil.” His critique of social media appears to be the degree to which it privileges insincerity and punishes frankness; soon enough, he’s caught up in the game, too, evaluating competitors based on how genuine they seem to him. That “genuineness” — being a big dork, or having a smile that seems honest, or being good on TV playing the part of oneself — is itself a performance, and an increasingly valuable one, appears to occur to him not at all. It’s in this ironic distance between competitor and viewer that “The Circle,” a flawed but deeply interesting addition to the reality-TV canon, gets its charge.