The best reality show I watched this year unfolded not on my TV but through an app on my computer screen. In April, a month into quarantine with no end in sight, some friends asked if I wanted to play a virtual version of “The Circle,” Netflix’s already lockdown-friendly series in which contestants live in separate apartments and communicate solely through texts and social media posts. This version would take place entirely over the messaging platform Discord, with occasional voting and challenges scheduled throughout the weekend. On a Friday, I figured I’d play a couple rounds, talk to a few people and call it a day. By Sunday night’s “season finale,” I was screaming in thrilled anguish on our Zoom reunion call, where I found out I came in second place to an eleventh-hour addition who had the good grace to be embarrassed by his win.
In those first few months of the pandemic crisis, stuck at home for who knows how long, finding a way to pass the time meant getting creative (unless you have children, in which case the idea of being this desperate for entertainment must be a laughable concept, and fair enough). There were only so many recipes I could make, FaceTime calls I could endure, shows I could watch, without losing my mind. This iteration of “The Circle,” helmed by writer Kevin O’Keeffe, gave bored TV fans like me a way to live out our erstwhile dreams of playing the reality show game from the comfort of our own homes.
As it turns out, we were far from the only ones to think this way. Whether using social media platforms like Instagram or Discord, meticulously re-creating challenges or throwing together loose approximations, fans reproduced the reality-show experience online to have fun and make connections when both those things felt impossible. And as O’Keeffe puts it, “asking people to give up a full weekend when they can go out in the world is a much bigger ask than asking people who are trapped at home, desperately craving something to do.” If we had to be bored, in other words, we might as well be bored together.
Take comedian Matt Rogers. With little else to do, the “Gayme Show” host spent the first few months of quarantine immersed in the world of “Survivor,” steamrolling through 29(!) seasons in just a few months. “When I was a kid watching ‘Survivor,’ I think I was probably the most excited about the physical challenge aspect of it,” Rogers says. “But now as an adult, what I really like about it are the social hierarchies and the maneuvering you have to do in order to succeed.” The next step of his newfound fandom, he reasoned, might be getting cast on the CBS show. Much to his surprise, a variation of that opportunity came along at the height of the pandemic in the form of “The Quarantine Island,” an online-only simulation that promised Rogers he could play the game of “Survivor” — or at least that crucial social aspect of the show that he loves so much — without leaving his living room.
“I knew Matt was a fan of ‘Survivor,’ so we reached out,” says “The Quarantine Island” creator Kelsey Krasnigor, “and it was so much fun to watch him play.” A devoted follower of the show, Krasnigor came up with the idea of a virtual “Survivor” to entertain her friends during those especially lonely first weeks of quarantine, even as she balanced a day job as writer’s assistant on Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” By the time Rogers joined the second “season” of her experiment, however, it had become a much more ambitious and all-consuming game that plays out on Instagram, Slack, Zoom and YouTube. “Every single day you’d wake up, and the first thing that you would do is check the Slack to see what had happened and talk to your allies and enemies,” Rogers recalls. “I was stressed out!”
Rogers made the most of his virtual time by embracing the role of an unrepentant villain, and in a dramatic twist worthy of primetime, was voted out by his closest ally (and fellow comedian) Mary Holland right after their two teams merged. He was disappointed, but concedes it was a nonetheless educational experience should he ever apply to be on the series itself. And hey, even if it didn’t pan out for him this time, at least it helped the days go by. “In ‘Survivor,’ you’re not doing anything else but ‘Survivor,’” he points out. “So quarantine was the perfect setup for a game like this.”
A couple weeks into New York City’s lockdown, Thi Lam and his roommate, Rance Nix, were feeling the same way. Officially restless enough to want to shake up their lives beyond taking high-stakes grocery store trips, they went looking for a project. “Just being doers and people who have ADHD who live in New York City, we get trapped in the mindset that we have to be doing something,” Lam explains with a laugh. Back in March, Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” — a series in which couples only meet face to face once they agree to become engaged — was still a social media phenomenon in which Lam and Nix saw potential. They made an Instagram (@loveisquarantine) and sent a Google sheet to a bunch of single people they knew, betting that some would be down to try something different. It paid off; they soon had 30 individuals willing to go on blind FaceTime dates and send them short “confessional” reaction videos, which Lam would then post on Instagram with colorful commentary.
For a few glorious weeks, “Love Is Quarantine” was as lo-fi and fun as “Love Is Blind” was slick and stressful. The Instagram quickly amassed thousands of followers eager to find out what would happen next, including Lam’s own Brooklyn neighbor, with whom he spoke for the first time after she recognized him from a “Love Is Quarantine” livestream. Every “date night,” viewers tuned in for the Instagram Live — in which Lam and Nix would give results and opinions — as if they were tuning in to “The Bachelor.” On a roll, the show expanded its scope by featuring themed seasons like “Queer Queens,” “Essential Workers” and the wildly popular “Boomer Nite.” (If you’re assuming that the boomer contestants would be more confused by the concept than others, think again; no contestant pool better understood the notion of bonding over the telephone than they did.)
“Love Is Quarantine,” borne out of a far stricter lockdown than currently exists, is on indefinite hiatus. But Lam remains grateful for the whirlwind experience, everyone he met through it and the knowledge that he brought folks together just when global circumstances forced them apart. “A solid group of people from around the country were commenting every single day with deep theories and fan scandals. Some of them became friends with each other and organized Zoom watch parties,” he says. “People were craving any kind of connection, whether it was being on the show or being part of the madness that was the show.”
That was certainly true of my experience with the Discord “Circle.” Unlike “Love Is Quarantine” and “The Quarantine Island,” the cast was composed of a group of friends who were unable to interact in person for the foreseeable future. Since we knew each other already, we played the game not as ourselves but as “catfish” (i.e., fictional personas meant to obscure our true identities). The hope was that “The Circle” could be a decent distraction we could laugh about instead of bemoaning the state of the world. After three days of chatting, scheming and catfishing, however, the game became emotionally fraught with mistaken identities and backstabbing. The Zoom reunion session in which the shocking depths of gameplay were revealed was as dramatic and messy as any “Real Housewives” reunion special. Even though contestants were ostensibly using fake profiles, it was clear that we nonetheless ended up playing as versions of ourselves and got far more swept up in the psychological implications of the game than intended — just like the contestants who wind up on “The Circle” proper.
“What a testament to the format that an online version of the game could get people that invested in it,” marvels O’Keeffe, who had played in and organized online versions of “Big Brother” before taking on the challenge of “The Circle” in quarantine. “Obviously, with my friends, I don’t ever want anyone to get hurt — but as somebody who was trying to produce something that was entertaining, I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty close to what I would hope to get.’”
While being in a state of perpetual lockdown no doubt helped when trying to cast people willing to spend their waking hours playing a game, each of these virtual reality shows found unique ways of getting people emotionally involved. O’Keeffe’s “The Circle,” both by accident and by design, allowed contestants to escape into another personality and reality for a while. “Love Is Quarantine” made meals out of bite-size dates with infectiously enthusiastic Instagram updates that showed just how sincerely Lam and Nix hoped their participants might find love. (For the record: “Love Is Quarantine” did inspire at least one mid-pandemic cross-country move for a couple who met on the show. It didn’t pan out, but still!) On “The Quarantine Island,” Krasnigor and her team of producers re-create the immersive qualities of “Survivor” by brainstorming physical challenges for people to perform with basic household items, monitoring the Slack channels in which teams convene and crafting the nightly Zoom “banishment ceremonies” (i.e., their less ethnocentric version of the CBS show’s “tribal councils”) where everything comes to a head for a rapt audience.
Each of these creators produced transmedia reality shows that require just as much work and innovation as their original inspirations — if not more, given the particularly dystopian circumstances they’re working with. And yet as far as Krasnigor sees it, the challenges of organizing “Quarantine Island” are well worth her time, even outside lockdown. “I want to keep doing this until I have an actual reason to stop,” she says. “It’s fun for me. It’s fun for the audience. I make amazing new friends. Why wouldn’t I keep going?”