I don’t really watch reality TV. Sure, I’ve watched Project Runway, the old Real World, and the Great British Bake-off, but those are different (I tell myself). You won’t catch me watching Real Housewives, The Bachelor, Love Island (or any reality TV show with “love” in the title), or the dozens of other shows that make up the massive industry that is reality TV. For the most part, I find that reality television shows say horrible things about our society and the people who inhabit it — and not in a good way. That was until I watched The Circle, on Netflix.
The premise is simple enough: eight people living in an apartment complex, sequestered from one another, only able to communicate through a social media platform. But through group chats, DMs, and the hijinks producers seem to put the cast through endlessly, the premise becomes much more complicated. The Circle tackles a very fraught social phenomena of the unpredictable and predictable ways we behave in online spaces.
The young millennial cast includes a perfectly plucked range of types: There’s a Jesus-loving, gay, makeup-obsessed young man from Dallas (Chris); a self-proclaimed Italian “bro” who works out all the time and loves his family (Joey); a no-nonsense young woman who is, first and foremost, smart, but not afraid to post sexy selfies (Sammie); and an earnest South Asian dude who has never used social media but works in VR (Shubham). Then there are the catfishes: a guy playing his girlfriend (Seaburn/Rebecca); a guy playing another guy he thinks is hotter (Alex/Adam); a black butch lesbian playing a black cis straight woman (Karyn/Mercedeze); a fat woman playing a straight-size one (Sean). This is not an exhaustive list of everyone on the show, but you get the idea.
The Circle begins with how we all start on the apps — deciding what to put on our profile. This is an important strategic decision on the show, and in real life, because your profile is your first point of contact with the digital world, and you only get one chance to make a first impression. And there’s $100K at stake! Deciding what to put on your profile can just be good fun, but it can also be telling of a deeper assumption about how you believe people are perceived and treated. For example, Alex, who is pretending to be “Adam,” chooses to use what he considers to be a sexier avatar for himself. Alex believes he can win this game with his personality, but also with the looks of the hot guy he’s created.
But Alex reveals himself to have fairly distorted ideas about how a conventionally hot man navigates these platforms, and maybe even life. Unsurprisingly, his personality changes as he assumes his avatar — he becomes obscenely flirtatious and profoundly inappropriate. The person who responds to his come-ons is “Rebecca,” aka Seaburn, another catfish playing a heavy-handed game. At one point in a “woman”-only chat, the conversation turns to menstruation. Rebecca confesses that the left side of her body hurts because of her period, leaving the rest of the women in the chat confused. Gender, like hotness, is an illusion online. And Alex and Seaburn are so invested in their own acts, they don’t notice the other is probably faking it.
Catfishing seems to be the best option for people who believe they will not be successful in The Circle if they play as themselves. They recognize, somewhat rightfully, that a certain type of body, appearance, or attitude is what garners the most attention online. (Incidentally, the most conventionally attractive blonde swimsuit model was the first to be voted off because everyone thought she was a catfish. She wasn’t.) Take Sean, for example, a plus-size social media influencer — someone whose job it is to create space for and elevate fat women — who chooses to play as her straight-size friend because she doesn’t want to deal with the baggage that comes with being fat online. Sean, ultimately, hates having to “fake it” this way and comes out, first to a smaller group and then to the larger. Everyone (except Shubham, whose earnest belief in “being yourself” is both awe-inspiring and vomit-inducing) thinks she is beautiful and understands why she felt she had to do what she did.
Social media is often doused with this idea of authenticity. Authenticity is “rewarded” with follows and likes and engagement, even when people aren’t really being authentic. Philosophers have long argued about whether authenticity is possible, and not just online: Ostensibly, we are always “putting on a face” or code-switching to navigate the world and communicate effectively. This is where The Circle is at its strongest, because it chips away at the idea of an authentic identity. Watching the players interact online as they predict one another’s behavior, or even try to connect on a real level, while navigating the game they are playing in competition with one another makes you realize we are all playing this game.
It’s not always malevolent, but it is often manufactured. You can be honest, forthcoming, you can even invest in someone emotionally through online interaction, but how authentic can communication be that is filtered, packaged, produced, and then distributed by a giant corporation?
The final episode of The Circle is an anti-climatic, weird montage of what happened during the whole season, a lot of which isn’t particularly memorable until they finally announce a winner. It is not divulged how or why this person wins, but the winner is Joey, someone many viewers found annoying in the beginning, who thinks he looks like a young Robert De Niro, loves blondes, calls himself a “mama’s boy,” and never has a shirt on. Joey manages to defy what we expect him to be: a bro that’s just trying to hook up with the girls. Don’t get me wrong, he is that; but he also appears to be caring and kind, consent-driven, and deeply invested in the stories of his castmates. The connections he forms with everyone feel like they are from the heart. He traffics in what turns out to be the most important currency on the show: being yourself. But we don’t know Joey; we only know what Joey presented to us on the show.
When they finally meet, everyone clearly feels extremely close to one another. The closeness between the characters is disarming but realistic. Most of us know this in our own lives: Social media has the potential to help us build bridges across differences in powerful and interesting ways. It strengthens existing bonds and creates new ones that can be as simple as a friendship or as involved as building a global movement. There is also a cautionary tale in it, however; cyberspace can be a vat of your own projections and assumptions about others. At the end of the day, you can only trust those relationships so much because online you only know as much about someone as they choose to tell you.
The Circle is squarely in the camp of what I consider cringe-worthy reality TV — people I would probably never be friends with engaging in a mishmash of varied reality TV show shenanigans. But as I sat there working through my judgment of these people isolated in their own rooms, talking to one another through a chat app with strangers, what seemed tragic became eerily familiar.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue