After a year of Zoom calls, virtual happy hours, and friendships confined to screens, “The Circle” should have sent me screaming into that good night with abject horror. And yet, a whole season later, I mostly find myself wishing I had more.
Based on a British format, Netflix’s reality series is one of its most surreal (which, if you’re at all familiar with Netflix’s slate of reality shows, is saying something). Each contestant is confined to their apartment, where they spend most of their time talking to themselves as cameras and mics pick up every word. The only way the cast interacts with each other is through a constructed social media network dubbed “The Circle,” which allows them private messages, a public news feed, and occasionally, icebreaker games that inevitably stir up more drama than anyone expects. Every so often they have to rank each other, and the top two “influencers” decide who to send home. In short: it’s a literal popularity contest that somehow, incredibly, manages to be more fascinating than annoying.
People can play as themselves, or they can “catfish,” i.e. play as someone else they think might have a better chance. This is always a revealing strategy, especially when it backfires (as it does in season 2 for the woman who plays as her boss Lance Bass, who many of the contestants are apparently too young to recognize). Either way, “Circle” contestants have to be clever, intuitive, and genuine enough to ward off any backstabbing that might cost them the $100,000 prize waiting at the end of this particularly high stakes popularity contest.
Watching contestants walk around their little boxes of apartments dictating texts to send (e.g. “Circle, message: hi girl, heart emoji, how are you doing today? Hashtag ‘got your back’”) feels like the kind of dystopian twist that’s made “Black Mirror” seem increasingly irrelevant in recent years. On “The Circle,” the simulation of a world enacted entirely through a newsfeed is just how life works.
The U.S. version was strange enough when it premiered in January 2020, but Season 2 dropped April 14, a solid year into the pandemic that has kept so many confined to their homes. Now, watching “Circle” players wile away the hours with puzzles and online drama is far less of a novelty than a pressing reality. Before I began watching season 2, I thought of it much the same way I felt about all the shows created in quarantine about quarantine: why would I subject myself to a series that just echoes my own claustrophobic experience right back at me?
Unfortunately, the second season of “The Circle” is so well-produced that I had no choice but to get sucked right in, to the tune of watching eight episodes in a row completely by accident. (This approach, for what it’s worth, was not what Netflix planned, having made the unusual call to roll the season out over four weeks.) If I had spent the last year of my life in the fluorescent “Circle” apartment instead of my own, I might’ve lost my mind faster, but I at least would’ve had more fun.
The key to any reality show, but especially one in which people have to be entertaining completely on their own merits, is casting. At first, Season 2 appeared to go down a relatively safe route of enlisting mostly telegenic 20-somethings (though in fairness, maybe that age group was simply more available to film the season under last summer’s strict COVID protocol). But it found gold in contestants like Courtney, a canny pop culture obsessive who fancied himself a “Circle” expert, and Lee, a Texan man who’s spent decades ghostwriting erotica and ended up playing as a 24-year-old version of himself who could be openly gay.
Bringing in Chloe Veitch from “Too Hot to Handle” — Netflix’s deeply strange reality show that strands hot people on an island and forbids them to do anything sexual — could have just been a network synergy gimmick. Instead, Chloe’s flirty earnestness and hilarious monologuing has made her a fan favorite. Then there’s Bronx mom DeLeesa, who decided to catfish as a single version of her husband — a choice that came in handy with Chloe, who surprised herself by falling for a man she only knew through text. Without spoiling a thing about how it all ends, I will just say that the final ranking is correct, and well deserved.
All the while, there are twists and games designed to stoke tension and probe at underlying dynamics that threaten to explode. Gameplay can be as fierce and cutthroat as anything you’ll see on “Survivor,” albeit with facetious emojis. But for the most part, “The Circle” is a revealing, surprisingly deft experiment in how relationships can develop online, where you can be anyone and find those you vibe with no matter where they are. Even when they’re not playing real people, the “Circle” cast forges real friendships with each other, because what else are they supposed to do. As we now know too well, there are only so many puzzles you can do on your own before craving some human connection.
“The Circle” is now streaming on Netflix.