Settle in, because this is going to take a second.
It’s New Year’s Day and Netflix has just released the first batch of episodes from its newest reality series, The Circle, and you might be thinking: Why is it called that and what does this thirsty selfie have to do with it and can I watch if I have trypophobia? (Aka a fear of holes — aka circles.)
The Circle‘s title refers to the “voice-activated platform” of the same name that is at the center of the series. Everyone on the show uses it, talking to it out loud (“okay, Circle…” the same way you would your Alexa or Google Assistant).
It’s not a helper like those, though. The Circle is basically a private social-media website, seemingly operated by the players’ voices. Think of it like your Facebook wall crossed with your Instagram direct messages and a viral Reddit thread, plus or minus a few free phone apps like Heads Up!
With The Circle, the show’s players can message one another, trade photos, make jokes, play games and more.
That shirtless photo you’re thinking about, which Netflix tweeted last month, was of Joey, one of The Circle‘s contestants. The 25-year-old and self-proclaimed “proudest mama’s boy you’re ever gonna meet” is one of eight people introduced in the first episode.
Their goal? Become the most popular contestant throughout the season and win $100,000.
The twist? They’re all living in total isolation in an apartment building, only able to interact with the other players via The Circle. Anyone can be anyone they want to be: themselves only better — or someone else entirely.
Periodically, they have to rate the other players and the most-liked of them receives the power to eliminate some of the others. At least, that’s how the show starts out. And when they aren’t strategizing and/or making virtual friends, they have to entertain themselves all alone, in the old-fashioned way: by talking to the cameras that cover their apartments all day long.
What all of this adds up to is a show in which a bunch of strangers are made to try and out-friend one another, all while acutely aware that everything they’re saying and doing might be totally fake: liking someone else’s post because it might make them an ally or flirting with the new girl so she more easily believes a lie.
But it’s not as manipulative as it sounds, exactly. Just because everyone involved knows it’s a game, that doesn’t stop their brains from mixing up what’s pretend friendship and what’s the real thing — that invisible boundary between them trying to get to know someone else to help win a game and then realizing that, all of a sudden, they do feel like they know the other person and want that person to like them back.
Basically: Eight people hang out on the internet together for several days in an apartment building in Manchester, England. Bonds are formed. Lies are told. Truths are revealed. Lessons are learned. And multiple contestants quote that old cliche about books, covers and judgment.
(Oh, and can you watch The Circle if you have trypophobia? Probably! The apartment building they all live in is adorned with a giant circle that sometimes turns neon, but that’s really the only shape you have to watch out for.)
With all that setup in mind, here’s what else you need to know about The Circle: Netflix is releasing it in three batches of four episodes each. The rest of the season will premiere on Jan. 8 and Jan. 15.
But if you find yourself hooked between New Year’s Day and the next week, there’s more Circle content elsewhere: The Netflix version is adapted from a U.K. series of the same name that has already aired two seasons. A Brazilian and French version have also been filmed.
“It’s sort of like a sassy Big Brother, but no one ever meets each other — with a dollop of Catfish, but not in a negative way,” host Michelle Buteau told PEOPLE recently. She added, “It’s entertaining but also important.”
An episode very long on setup, The Circle‘s series premiere introduces eight players in bite-sized bits, letting you see layers later on. They are:
Chris, a 30-year-old freelance artist and graphic designer (and “hood spiritualist hustler”) from Dallas. “I would like to be perceived as a real-ass bitch in a fake-ass world,” he jokes, before joking again, “Sounds like Miss America.”
Next is the aforementioned Joey, a slick-haired bartender from Rochester, New York, who immediately tells the bread that he will not be eating it and tells the camera he knows people like his gym selfies. Then he shows off his Robert De Niro impression.
Third is Alana, 25, of Brownsville, Texas. Remember that she is a model — that will be important later. “I get judged by other girls because they just don’t want their boyfriends to look at me, but there’s so much more to me,” she says. Judging people is bad (which is something people in The Circle will soon be saying a lot) but also for $100,000 what else can they do? Sorry, Alana!
Fourth is Seaburn, a 29-year-old case worker in Boston who will be playing the game differently from the first three players so far. Unlike them, he’s not going to be himself. He’s going to be “Rebecca,” and use his girlfriend’s photos.
While the first four players make themselves comfortable in their new apartments and set up their profiles on The Circle, the remaining four players are introduced.
Shubham, a 23-year-old virtual reality designer in California, will soon be called “Shooby” so feel free to use both names. “Honestly, I think social media is our modern-day bubonic plague,” he says in his intro. So he fashions his casting as a bit of resistance, to show that sincerity can be successful even up against what he expects will be lots and lots of fakery and flattery from everyone else.
The sixth player, 24-year-old behavior technician Samantha from Miami (aka Sammie), isn’t shy about the number of pictures of her butt that she shares online and she’s a “huge flirt,” plus she’s bisexual. But remember! There are layers to the players! Just stick with it.
Seventh is Antonio, 24 and a professional basketball player. He’s “really tall” and “attractive” (his words) but he’s been catfished before, so he knows the risks. Another boost in the game: His girlfriend has given him permission to flirt as needed to succeed.
Last is Karyn, 37, from New York City. A “1 million percent lesbian,” she knows how quickly people can make assumptions about her more masculine appearance. So she’s playing the game in reverse: as the skinnier, shinier Mercedeze, using photos from “some random chick” she found.
With their move-ins all done, the players finish their bios, complete with a profile photo, age, relationship status and brief description. Some opt for truth, others for lies and still others for the tinier embellishments that occur a thousand times a minute online. (Sammie, for example, has been in an on-and-off relationship for “a long time” but declares herself single.)
Then the real game begins: Before they can even meet each other, the eight players have to rate the other seven from most- to least-liked based solely on their profiles. Joey gets clocked as a “frat star,” which is only partially wrong. Alana’s modeling is, indeed, an issue for some of the other players.
Rebecca (aka Seaburn, who is pretending to be Rebecca) raises some initial suspicions about being a catfish, which is right, but so does Shubham, which is … ridiculous.
Soon everyone is messaging everyone else and then splitting into private chats to message in even smaller groups. Shubham, who hates social media, nonetheless is thrilled with himself for thinking of a clever comment while chatting (because it’s fun when you do that, Shooby!).
Alana, continuing to misstep, starts a private, girls-only group called “skinny queens” that makes Sammie bristle. Online, tone and nuance are that much harder to communicate and it’s that much easier for people the read the worst into what you wrote. This will be important later.
And then there is the first group game, kind of: The players have to vote yes or no on a series of ice-breakers such as whether you should pee in the shower. (The group is evenly split on that one.)
Joey, shirtless, tries to flirt with Alana.
Antonio, clueless, chats up Mercedeze not realizing Mercedeze is not real.
All along, host Michelle Buteau sasses and snarks for those of us at home.
At last, the results from the first popularity vote is announced.
Shubham comes in eighth, followed by Mercedeze and Rebecca, as if the game’s two catfishers might be on thin ice.
In first place are Antonio and Sammie, giving them the joint power to immediately kick off, or “block,” one player — after they deliberate in the influencer’s lounge.
So they do, settling on someone who “we don’t think they are who they say they are.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Antonio tells the group in announcing the elimination, which Shubham notes is just the sort of thing someone says when they have to eliminate someone on a reality show.
The blocked player is …
She isn’t surprised.
“Obviously, I’m a model, so they wouldn’t think that I am who I am,” she says. Then she says that she “definitely did not expect this at all.” (Sometimes we lie even to ourselves!)
“I didn’t get to talk to them and I didn’t get to explain who I really am,” she says to herself, alone in her apartment, to no one. “I am real.”
But wait, Alana doesn’t get kicked out without one surprise: She gets to visit one player in person before she goes.
Unusual for some competition shows, The Circle will not end every week on an elimination. Some episodes don’t have any eliminations at all.
In this case, the second episode starts with Alana going to confront Sammie, but she’s not nearly as mad as you might have imagined, even though she says, “I’m very mad at you!”
You can tell, when they’re face-to-face, that she’s kidding. Sammie tells her, “It really didn’t seem like it was gonna be you,” and Alana tells her, “You should have fought for me more.” But if Sammie also brings up the “skinny queens” chat and her belief that Alana was shallow and maybe a little catty, fueling her downfall, we don’t see it.
With that, we are into episode 2. In order to keep this recap from being 5,000 words long, I’m going to take you through the dramatic, strategic and comedic highlights. But as quick as I can.
With Alana out, the remaining players are allowed to update their statuses (Chris picks a Bible verse) and then the socializing continues. Chris messages Sammie, Shubham messages Joey, Mercedeze (aka Karyn) and Antonio talk about how Antonio chose Alana over her for elimination and Antonio and Joey talk about several things but it kind of sounds like they’re fighting between their nice words.
Alana returns for a final video message, wishing them all the best, instead of announcing who she met in person or whether they were a catfish, which would have majorly upended the game. This will be important later. Bye, Alana!
The group plays an actual game, which is basically Heads Up!, in which one of them has to describe a celebrity to the others without using the person’s name. Maybe it’s just the editing but most of them are very not good at this. Chris Hemsworth gets described as having “gorgeous blue eyes” and Fonzie from Happy Days is “one of the most influential leaders of the pack from our past.” (Huh?)
At one point someone mentions Scary Spice and someone else doesn’t know who she is and I am sad now.
Most important this episode, however, is a group party that The Circle throws for all of them, complete with food and drinks and decorations, with a secret guest: a new player named Miranda, who will be playing herself. (Twenty-six and from Lake Tahoe, Miranda describes herself as “spontaneous” and a “free spirit.”)
She’ll be taking notes — really, she has a note pad, as do some of the other players, which you see from time to time, which is … smart! And the other seven have their party, alone, together, all dancing and enjoying themselves in their individual apartments in the same building.
Then they show off their new profile photos, some of which (Sammie’s pantsless pic) are more candid than the others. And they play “never have I ever” in a group chat while Miranda watches — not exactly from the shadows but metaphorically speaking.
That doesn’t last too too long though. And with an “oh s—!” from Shubham, Miranda is revealed as the new player.
There isn’t an elimination this episode, but there is plenty of getting-to-know you, The Circle-style: truths mixed with lies mixed with some emotional confessions, a bit of sex and a bit more silliness.
Speeding right along: After Miranda is introduced to the other players, she picks Mercedeze as the player to be her guest at the after-party (aka a private chat between the two of them).
It is … flirty! There is alcohol involved, plus hashtags about 50 Shades of Grey.
Miranda is soon making the rounds with the other players, chatting with Antonio (who does not know how to help her poach an egg, poor guy) and later starting a girls-only private chat with Rebecca and Sammie where she gets very direct about everyone’s looks and sexuality. She’s opting the most for sincerity and directness — a true what’s-up? vibe. But in a game like this, that may be the one thing that makes you look shadiest of all.
While Joey enjoys the rooftop Jacuzzi (yes, there is a rooftop Jacuzzi, I’ve seen it in person), he chats with Chris, boosting one of his two “bromances.” The other, with Shubham, is only going stronger and stronger. Shubham gushes about him and will only keep gushing! (Gushing over Shubham? Rebecca, who dubs them “an amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing team.”)
Shooby, actually, has plenty of fans — as does Chris. The two are invited to a private group chat with Mercedeze where Chris shares some concerns about Miranda. His “spirit” told him to “tread lightly.”
Eventually, it’s time for another round of player ratings. Miranda, excepted. That means the other seven have to rank each other and someone will be up for blocking.
Not everyone agrees on who that should be! Shubham loves Joey — though The Circle is not always great about showing us all the moments that make them bond so fast — but Antonio is much cooler on him. Joey returns the favor, labeling Antonio his “Darth Vader.”
Chris makes “bad ass bitch” Mercedeze his No. 1. But Antonio is sore that she wasn’t more supportive of him. Sammie, who doesn’t know anything about Shubham, makes him sixth.
Antonio loves Shooby, though, and is confident that Shooby would protect him. This will be important later.
After last episode’s game of guessing, it’s now time for a round of anonymous questions for all the players, posed by each of them (secretly) in turn. They ask all the usual stuff (who is a catfish?) with unclear results. And then the rankings drop, and …
Antonio has dropped all the way to last, with Joey in sixth.
Chris and Shubham have tied for first, making them the new influencers. And off to the lounge they go to decide who to block.
Right up front you should know that they block Antonio, who loses the game for the exact reasons he had thought he was doing okay: He did not really read the right people the right way. Much as he believes he clicked with Shubham, Shooby only feels strongly about making sure second-to-last-place Joey isn’t booted off.
“We didn’t feel a strong connection to the player,” Shubham tells the group, announcing Antonio is blocked.
Sammie actually gasps at the reveal, but there are others to come: Antonio chooses to go visit Mercedeze, who is actually Karyn.
He’s surprised, but there’s no bad vibes between them. He laughs about it and she explains: Like with Alana from episode 1 and her grousing about being a too-pretty book cover, Karyn knew that Mercedeze would give her cover to let people get to know the personality beneath where otherwise they would make quick judgments based on how she presented herself.
In his parting video message, however, Antonio tells the others that there is definitely a catfish in their midst. Now Mercedeze has to do damage control and she begins trying to — emphasis on try, since this kind of lying may not be her forte — make everyone think Antonio didn’t mean her.
The episode’s other big emotional moment belongs to Miranda. While chatting with Joey, she gets tearful hearing him talk about how close he is with his family. She says that she and her brothers were “bounced around” and then split up in foster care. It’s heavy stuff. He calls her brave, and he sounds like he means it.
There are the usual kinds of Circle-y machinations throughout — Shooby and Joey decide to bring Chris into a private group chat; Chris talks with Mercedeze about who the catfish could be, as though he is blind to cats who are fish and is talking to one right at that moment! — and the episode’s big game is a mini-riff on Netflix’s Nailed It!
Appropriately titled Nailed It/Failed It, the players have to re-create a rainbow-colored tiered cake in 30 minutes. A few of them do good. Joey makes a giant mess.
Miranda, the winner, gets to add a video to her profile and she picks a boomerang-style loop of her in a bikini. It does not go over well! Everyone, already so suspicious after Antonio’s video, tries to cross-reference her different photos and video to see if they can prove she isn’t who she says she is.
What they don’t realize is the episode is ending with the addition of another player. (Yep, it’s Bachelor in Paradise rules: The group replaces itself.)
Meet Alex. He’s 32 and unemployed and from Los Angeles. He’s an artist. He’s also a cheesemonger. And he’s so “unbearably smart” that he will not be playing himself. He’s going to be Adam — buff, athletically minded: the perfect shell for Alex’s strategy. Or so he says.
But, if The Circle teaches us anything, it’s that people say a lot of things.
The Circle airs over three weeks on Netflix. Four more episodes premiere on Jan. 8 and again on Jan. 15.