Reality shows such as MTV’s “The Real World” and CBS’ “Big Brother” have boasted about being social experiments where strangers are shoved into the same house and forced to live with each other 24/7. They are known for delivering a lot of literal in-your-face drama, as the close quarters and high-intensity of differing opinions, let alone additional game elements (at least in the latter) press on people’s stress points. But “The Circle” does the opposite: It takes strangers and isolates them in their own individual spaces, allowing them only to communicate through a special social media app for the show. They can get real with each other through words and emojis and uploaded images — or they can choose to play as a totally different persona.
“What I really love about the format is the comedy it can give you — and the comedy comes from people saying one thing publicly and another privately. I’m a really big fan of stuff that is comedic first and dramatic second,” executive producer Tim Harcourt tells Variety.
“The Circle” began as a U.K. series from Studio Lambert and Motion Content Group but was picked up by Netflix for three new formats: American, Brazilian and French. The American one is the first out of the gate, and in putting it together, Harcourt didn’t want to assume the audience had seen the original. Therefore, he felt it was “good to keep it relatively simple” when it came to the games-within-the-game and the pacing of contestants developing friendships before eventually booting them out — only to meet new contestants in their place.
“It was a high concept, and we didn’t want to confuse people. But there are lots of twists and turns we can now do going forward.”
Here, Harcourt breaks down what he was looking for in casting Americans for “The Circle,” how many catfish are the perfect amount, and how the streaming binge model affected the structure of episodes.
The series first started in the U.K., premiering its inaugural season in Sept. 2018. It featured a total of 15 contestants over the course of the 18 episodes. These contestants lived in individual flats (it was a British show first, after all) and only communicated via a specially-designed social media app that allowed them to upload select images and videos at specific times, as well as message each other privately or in group chat settings. Since these contestants couldn’t see each other, they could choose to enter the app as themselves, or catfish the group.
The contestants are tasked with rating each other at various points, with the top rated ones becoming influencers and the others being put at risk of being blocked by the influencers. Once someone is blocked, they could choose one other contestant to visit face-to-face before leaving the show.
“The gameplay naturally forces them to remove each other from the game, so the format has enough in it to feature drama. In ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Survivor,’ there are also game elements that can [kick someone out] but this is just them, in their bubble, having to turn on each other,” Harcourt notes.
Netflix ordered the American adaptation of the show “off the back of the first season in the U.K.,” Harcourt recalls. But the U.K. version was also renewed, and the second season there launched in Sept. 2019 and ran 22 episodes over almost a month, concluding in Oct. 2019.
“The U.K. version runs in real time: We’re making it and turning it around in a 24-hour period. The audience is able to interact with elements of the game that don’t burst the bubble of the game, but adds extra factors in,” Harcourt says.
However, the American first season is 12 episodes, available in bingeable chunks over three weeks on Netflix, with the first batch of episodes dropping New Year’s Day and the subsequent ones coming Jan. 8 and Jan. 15.
Inside their individual spaces, the contestants on “The Circle” are alone, but Harcourt notes the show “isn’t a game show about isolation, about solitary confinement.
“We didn’t want them to get too lonely,” he continues. “Each person has a producer and a camera operator reminding them at certain stages, helping guide them through the gameplay, sometimes helping them to articulate their thoughts. But once they’re up and running into the game — two or three days in — they’re flying; they really get into the rhythm of how it works and how it plays out.”
The amount of drama and intrigue on the show, and the success of it, is dependent upon the contestants engaging with each other through the social media app. This app is the only connection to any outside world elements they have, although it doesn’t deliver them news or entertainment other than what comes from the other contestants. They were not allowed to bring phones, laptops or any other devices into their spaces because the producers didn’t want to risk them looking each other up online. Harcourt says they did allow contestants to bring in books and magazines, and during downtime of filming they would occasionally allow them to “watch a drama on Netflix or something like that,” though.
Harcourt shares that “no one really needed prodding” to engage with the other contestants. Being alone in their space with no real distractions had them eager to reach out and make connections, and once flirtation entered the game, that affected how often people were messaging each other, as well.
“We did an actual test with five people. Initially we were [concerned] it’s got a couple of disadvantages for a TV show: People are in their own space with nobody else. But quickly we learned the juxtaposition of them and the interactions and energy and comedy and some drama,” Harcourt says. “As for people talking to the voice activated platforms, it was through how we edited it that we were able to make those conversations feel like they’re traditionally a conversation between two people that just happened to be in a different space. The difficulty is when you wanted to get in their heads, you had to make it very clear they were just thinking aloud, so that’s when you have to slow it down and make it clearer.”
It did take an adjustment, he admits, for contestants to narrate their thoughts, as well as read aloud their messages. Even though the contestants could easily choose how much of their true selves they shared with each other, they were being filmed at all times, and there would often be a pause in their reactions as new information was given to them. They not only had to think about how they would react to the other contestants, but also how they would react to the audience watching their private moments.
“We had games where they had the opportunity to be nasty to each other, but I think people respond really well to warmth and friendliness. Where the grit from our format is that although people can be really nice to each other, in the room we can get inside their thought process and we can hear perhaps their thoughts are slightly more nuanced towards a person than they are promoting,” Harcourt says.
“We wanted people from lots of different backgrounds. Other reality shows, whether it’s ‘Real Housewives’ or ‘Jersey Shore,’ they’re all one gang of quite similar characters. What ‘The Circle’ gave us the opportunity to do was cast a very diverse net across the United States,” Harcourt says. “One of the positive things social media does is it can connect people who otherwise might not have come into contact with each other, so I thought it was quite nice to replicate that in the casting.”
Looking for individuals who all had a strong handle on how social media worked, even if some of them didn’t like it, became important because of the specifics of the gameplay in “The Circle,” but it wasn’t the most important thing. Harcourt stresses the desire to keep the show balanced when it came to gender of contestants, as well as the importance of diversity in backgrounds.
Harcourt says between 20 and 25 individuals were “cleared to play the game” — although the show only starts with eight of them. Production had the others standing by, but Harcourt says there was no “sixth sense of who is going to replace who”: If a woman got blocked, they would bring in a new female contestant, whereas “if we lose a man, we want to put a man in.” Harcourt says members of the production team would decide who would be the right fit depending on who just left the game, acknowledging that with 15 contestants, not all who were possible players end up on the show at all.
What Harcourt finds most interesting after having done a season of “The Circle” in the U.S. is that “the Americans were better game-players: slightly more tactical, slightly more strategic — not in a mean way, but they really understood that the game was critical.” But at the same time, he also found “the Americans were a lot more loyal than the British players, so they brought a different sensibility.”
Although even from the first episode contestants are building bonds and vowing to have each other’s backs, the greatest example of that loyalty, Harcourt says, will reveal itself at the end of the season.
“There is a person who has an opportunity to promote themselves to potentially win the game, but it would mean turning on somebody who they had a very strong friendship and bond with. At first they sort of break this person down, but then they have a change of heart and realize they can’t do that. I kind of think in the United Kingdom the outcome of that would have been different — that the person would have been stabbed in the back,” he says.
Without spoiling the total number of catfish in the Netflix inaugural season of “The Circle,” Harcourt admits he and the rest of the producing team were hyper-aware of the complications this game element could bring a new audience.
“For the first episode of a new format, we didn’t want to have too many people catfishing because it could be confusing to track. In my head it should be two or three people who were catfishing or embellishing who they are from the beginning, but then we have the ability to increase,” he says.
Each contestant’s individual space is decked out with screens in every room (yes, even the bathroom), so that they can continue conversations as they go about their daily routines, from cooking to putting on face masks.
The success of the show hinges on the technology of the social media app the contestants are using. Should it go down or even buffer or lag in delivering messages, it could throw everything out of whack. Contestants are only granted certain permissions within the app at certain times. For example, while they always have the ability to message each other and start a conversation about the game or just what they’re up to in that moment, they can only upload photos when the game prompts them to. Everyone starts out by uploading one profile photo, choosing from specific, pre-populated albums with which they entered into the game. Uploading another photo, or even a video, can be a prize for winning one of the games-within-the-game, as is seeing a video from loved ones back home.
“Some games were really good for bonding them, some were really good for them learning about each other, some were good for testing who’s a catfish, some could have been more divisive,” Harcourt says.
But the technology the production team relied on to cut together the show is just as integral. The American version of “The Circle” filmed over a 15-day production schedule, but despite not airing episodes daily, Harcourt and his team still kept a daily editing schedule.
“We cut the stories and delivered episodes every day,” he says. “It was the same system [from the U.K. show so that] we knew what things were working, which cast was popping. We were making story decisions as we cut it; we could change the game or move elements of the game around as the story developed.”
Working with Netflix, Harcourt says, provides a new kind of freedom for the show. While making the U.K. version for broadcaster Channel 4 means adhering to traditional story structure so that every episode ends on “exciting, dramatic narratives to make you really want to come back and watch the next day,” there is more flexibility “to not structure it conventionally” for the streamer.
Some episodes do end on a person getting blocked and leaving the game, but others leave off on lighter moments. What was most important to Harcourt was to structure the 12 episodes of the American version “around the amount of ratings, influencer chats and blockings we wanted.”
“You become a bit more of a slave to the format,” he says of making the show for a broadcaster, “and what we loved was to let these characters develop and get to know each other because that makes the format more dynamic.”