Inside ‘The Circle,’ Reality TV Gets a Social Media Filter


LONDON — “Message: ‘Hey girls, hey. I want to start this chat just to get to know all of you. Girls who stick together are pretty girls.’ Emoji heart. …”

Alana Duval, 25, from Brownsville, Tex., begins a group chat with three of her seven fellow contestants. They are sitting in separate apartments, never meet in person, and they bond and back-stab only through online profiles and a voice-activated social media platform.

It may not immediately strike you as a killer television format. But the drama had already begun.

“How old is Alana again?” wondered another contestant, Samantha Cimarelli. “Because she’s acting like she’s in high school.”

When “The Circle” debuted in Britain in 2018, cultural commentators were skeptical, to say the least. The Guardian predicted “fame-hungry nitwits sitting alone in their pants spewing small talk online,” and asked if the concept heralded “the coming of the apocalypse.”

But the series, a reality competition show in which “anyone can be anyone,” soon became a cult hit. Within a month, that same newspaper was hailing it as “one of the standout TV shows this year,” and Netflix snapped up the global rights. A 12-episode American version debuts on Netflix Jan. 1, and Brazilian and French versions are in the pipeline.

Contestants craft their online profiles with the focus and precision of a brain surgeon. While some opt for full-frontal honesty, others exploit the artifice of social media to experiment with their identities — or purely to help win the $100,000 prize. Past impostors, known as catfish in social media parlance, have switched gender or sexual orientation, pretended to be their sons or girlfriends, and even invented babies and dead pets.

But how did producers turn this flurry of emojis and hashtags into binge-worthy entertainment? (Ultimately, the show is mostly scenes of solitary people talking to themselves and their screens.) Is it an ennobling social experiment, as its producers — and many of its contestants — suggest? Or is it a descent into the worst inanities of contemporary online discourse? In 2020, does it matter?

“We’re in a social media era — that’s how we’re going to be defined 1,000 years from now,” said Shubham Goel, a virtual-reality designer from Danville, Calif., who is a contestant on the American version. “I think the show really encapsulates the world more than any other thing at this time.”

Producers clearly hope they have distilled the essence of our times. Ratings for the British “Circle” have been modest (1.2 million viewers on average), but the series has been catnip among 16-to-34-year-olds: The first season was Channel 4’s “youngest profiling” show in six years, according to the British TV industry magazine Broadcast, drawing half its viewers from that sought-after demographic.

“The starting point I’d had is: What would a reality show look like where people never met face to face?” said Tim Harcourt, the creative director of Studio Lambert, which produces the original British series and the international versions for Netflix. “At the same time, I had also been toying with a ‘Rear Window’-style documentary where you could visually see all these people in their apartments, living out their lives, but they were atomized.”

The two strands came together when Harcourt heard that Channel 4 was searching for a reality-show format centered on social media.

“Quite quickly I realized I had a much more simple game of communication and of masks,” he said.

Sometimes those masks can help a contestant’s efforts; other times, not so much. In the British version, James Doran, a 26-year-old recruitment consultant, morphed into Sammie, a single mother with an angelic baby — the guise he felt would be most likely to prevent his competitors from voting him out. He reached the final.

Busayo Twins, meanwhile, a 24-year-old black woman, became Josh, a trust-fund kid “with a white savior complex” pictured on his snowboarding holidays. She said she had wanted to subvert “the stereotypes attached to black confident women that they may be angry or aggressive.” After a cake she decorated appeared to show the imprint of long fingernails, she was suspected of being a catfish and “blocked.”

Other players’ experiences complicate the very idea of authenticity. Duval, a white, blonde model with more than 80,000 Instagram followers, used her real identity in her profile, which featured a professional-looking portrait and declared, “Tacos all day every day.” Her status was immediately in jeopardy.

One of the series’s hallmarks is its diversity, and not only in demographic terms — not every player is as practiced as Duval in social media. Goel, 23, described by Harcourt as “probably one of my favorite all-time reality characters in any show,” is an earnest Indian-American techie who described social media as “our modern-day bubonic plague.” But “The Circle” eventually won him over.

“I brought a Shakespeare book, and I was playing a lot of Ping-Pong against the wall,” he said in a phone interview. “As the game went along, I kept losing my hobbies because I was so enrapt in my connections with these people.” He said he still communicates with his fellow contestants on a private Instagram group. (Their season completed filming earlier this year in Manchester, England, where every version is filmed.)

Amid the naked gamesmanship engendered by “The Circle,” beautiful human stories emerge. In the second British season, Georgina Elliott, 22, uploaded a photo of herself wearing a bikini and an ileostomy bag — to raise awareness of Crohn’s disease. It helped cement a friendship with Paddy Smyth, 31, who had started by uploading only pictures of himself without his crutches. (He calls them “glam sticks.”) He had wanted to hide his cerebral palsy.

“It’s not that I’m ashamed or scared,” he later told Elliott by dictating to his TV screen. “It’s that I wanted to feel what it would be like for once to just be me and not be that disabled guy.”

Elliott responded with the hashtag #ProudOfYouProudGayDisabledMan. Both ended the virtual conversation in real tears, and Smyth soon opened up about his disability to the rest of the group.

Not everyone is quite so smitten. Helen Piper, a professor of television and film studies at the University of Bristol, believes that the “obligation to perform,” which has been at the heart of reality TV for decades, has been “turbocharged” by the pretense encouraged by social media.

“I think the whole moral, touchy-feely thing that they’re talking about is a bit of a facade,” she said. “It’s substituting for a kind of more robust moral framework, in which people could really be themselves. They can’t just be a single parent, they have to be a single parent who’s ‘struggled’, who has to narrativize that process.”

The fact that a catfish won the first British season, she added, shows how hollow all the talk of “authenticity” is.

“But we’re all spinning narratives of ourselves now, that’s the world we’re in,” she said. “The personality is everything. The performance is all.”

Few have been as central to TV’s transformation in that regard as Peter Bazalgette, who as a British TV executive at the turn of the millennium helped take the Dutch reality series “Big Brother” global. At the time, he received no shortage of easy criticism, but he believes reality TV has played a part in fostering open-mindedness, citing winners of “Big Brother” who were gay, transgender, or had Tourette’s syndrome.

At its best, he argued, reality TV showed the “humanity behind the stereotype.”

“It’s a very clever format,” he said of “The Circle,” “and it touches a very contemporary nerve — the uncertainty we feel in what I like to think of as the digital dystopia. Are people what they seem online?”

Eventually, that format ensures that all players, regardless of strategy, must confront such tricky questions unfiltered: When a contestant is voted out, he or she is allowed to meet one other player in person. Those exits can be complicated, but the five contestants interviewed for this article expressed overwhelmingly positive feelings about their time on the show.

Karyn Blanco was one of them. After a straight male contestant is eliminated from the American version early, Blanco must reveal her true identity to him. She had posed as a willowy 27-year-old named Mercedeze, who is intentionally vague about her sexuality, using photos donated by a stranger. In reality, she is a 37-year-old lesbian from the Bronx.

In an unguarded moment, she confessed: “I did a catfish because all my life I’ve been judged. I’m not ugly, but I’m not feminine. So it’s really the fact of just showing the world you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Still, the acceptance she received after unveiling her true self “pretty much revived my faith in humanity,” she said in a phone interview.

“I feel as though it made me just look a little bit differently towards men as far as why they’re so protective of their ego when it comes to me being around,” she said. “I just learned a little bit more about myself and the power of perception.”


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