A contestant on The Circle. | Netflix

The new reality show treats being fake on the internet like it’s normal. Good.

It’s fitting that The Circle, Netflix’s unassuming new reality competition show, actually has two premises — one real, one fake.

The fake premise we can sum up as: “Big Brother, but on the internet.” For the duration of the game show, its contestants compete to become a social media platform’s most popular “influencer” to win a $100,000 prize. The contestants all reside in a single building (meant to be somewhere generically American but really filmed in England along with all the other different regional variants of the series) where they’re prevented from having any contact with the outside world or each other — except, that is, for the in-house group social media network.

Contestants can only communicate virtually through a platform called the Circle, and thus must use their assortment of profile pics to represent themselves to one another. Naturally, there are several “catfish” among them — i.e. people using fake pictures or even assuming fake identities, to try to game the system and gain more popularity. If contestants become popular enough, they become “influencers” with the power to “block” the least popular players, hence ejecting them from the game — at which point they find out who was real and who was fake.

So far, this probably sounds like a setup for typical reality show drama. But that’s because you haven’t gotten to the real premise of The Circle. Improbable as it might seem, that premise boils down to a subversion of the famous reality TV code: What if everyone was here to make friends?

Unlikely as it might sound, The Circle differentiates itself from other relationship-focused reality competition shows by emphasizing that, in fact, its contestants really like each other — or at least, they’re really good at pretending they do. It’s less Big Brother and more The Great British Compliment-Off. And Netflix viewers seem to have embraced it as genuine.

Granted, the most popular contestants are the ones who win, so the “everyone is friends!” premise doesn’t always ring true. Even on the show, not everyone buys it: One late-stage contestant, Ed, is part of a handful of those who are added into the mix as the game continues on, as other contestants leave — that is, get “blocked.” When he shows up (with, secretly, his mom, who mostly just makes passing judgments about the other contestants), he immediately questions the motives of everyone around him. When another recent arrival confesses that she has been using a fake persona, instead of being horrified, the other contestants make her feel welcome and reassured.

“I say we just keep firing off compliments and being fake like everyone else,” Ed scoffs to mom. But unfortunately for Ed, that’s just not the way things work on The Circle.

With a few exceptions, the core group of contestants — the five who started and all ultimately finished the game together — make the choice time and time again to support and stay loyal to each other. The group’s ride-or-die mentality means that instead of working their way up through the ranks, most people who come into the Circle to manipulate it are pretty quickly seen through and dispatched.

Their group loyalty, along with the show’s format, allows The Circle to present a decent spectrum of attitudes and approaches to virtual identity, all while giving its players plenty of room to just be themselves. While The Circle is never very deep, it is extremely transparent. And that allows it to play with and explore a number of tropes related to authenticity on the internet. There are several ways in particular the show subverts our expectations — both for a show about the internet and the reality show format.

The Circle embraces inauthenticity as part of human nature

Historically, one of the biggest and most fear-mongering tropes about the internet is that it allows people to hide themselves from you, with the built-in assumption that if someone is hiding or pretending to be someone they’re not, their motives must be purely duplicitous or malevolent.

The Circle doesn’t bother to do any of that. Instead of treating “being fake on the internet” as a shocking betrayal, The Circle embraces it as something we all do in big and small ways, often in the service of making friends and fitting in. The most obvious examples of this are during the group chats. Repeatedly, we see contestants faking their way through these chats; popular early entrant Sammie has a tendency to rattle off enthusiastic phrases like “LOL” and inflections like exclamation points with a completely deadpan expression. (She also, hilariously, throws shade at all the other girls’ swimsuit photos — then calmly tosses up a photo of herself in only a halter-top and underwear.)

Memorably, contestant “Rebecca” — a male player named Seaburn, whose entire strategy is pretending to be a shy girly girl — frequently gets way out of his depth in chats with the girls and has to resort to saying generically nice, caring things until he’s on safer ground.

In one moment of pure sadism, newcomer “Adam” (really Alex, a shameless manipulator pretending to be an athletic singleton) challenges all the other men in the group to do a round of pushups together. After eagerly agreeing, almost all of them keep their seats. The sole exception is fan fave Shubham, a.k.a. Shooby, who brands himself on authenticity and loyalty and usually never wavers. Rolling on pure trust, he does all 50 pushups and then, checking in with the others — who have all lied about their own progress — claims that he’s going to go do some core exercises. Sure, same, the others all agree, with copious amounts of eyerolling.

On The Circle, none of this is weird or even suspect — it’s just how humans are, and it’s fine.

The show also understands that internet anonymity can be freeing

You might think that all the attention to the humanness of fakery — to the regularity and reliability of surface-level inauthenticity — would make everyone seem shallow and false. But instead, The Circle has the opposite effect: It makes space for the rarely acknowledged truth that virtual anonymity can allow people to express deeper levels of authenticity, without the hindrances imposed upon them by social expectations and judgments. As a case in point: Most of the “catfishers” have socially induced reasons for wanting to be someone else, which are usually explored and made clear to the audience.

One of the most moving moments in the whole series arrives when Karyn, a 37-year-old lesbian masquerading as an unrealistically glamorous femme fatale named Mercedeze, gets blocked and shows up to reveal herself to Chris, the Circle’s one openly gay man. Here The Circle benefits from not adhering to a rigid reality TV structure, and, because it’s relying on the Netflix binge cycle, it can get away with playing with narrative structure to form longer, well, character arcs, if you will. That’s why it takes six episodes — the show’s midpoint — to get to this moment in the show: the first time a catfisher has unveiled themselves.

It’s a big deal for a series that’s constantly emphasized “realness” over every other virtue, but Chris is immediately empathetic.

“We fight to show who we really are and not what the world perceives us to be,” Karyn tells Chris, explaining that she feared rejection in the Circle if she’d been open about her sexuality. “The weight that we carry, people will never understand that.” Then she gives him the queer torch to pass on to the end of the game, and I’m not crying, you’re crying.

 Courtesy of Netflix
Mercedeze a.k.a. Karyn and Chris Sapphire bond in The Circle.

The other big example of the show’s positive take on anonymity lies with Seaburn, a.k.a. Rebecca. Seaburn’s stated reason for posing as Rebecca is that as a black man in his Boston community, he’s not often allowed to express deep emotions. So in The Circle, he’s nothing but emotion.

Seaburn is a conundrum, because he’s obviously, clearly, manipulating the others for clout. One by one, the contestants, especially Shabham, all fall hard for Rebecca’s sweetness and come around to the idea that she is honest, genuine, and loving.

On another show, Seaburn could have easily been framed as the season’s ultimate villain, the master manipulator primed to make it into the winner’s circle on the strength of his lie.

Except on The Circle, the audience watches the real Seaburn on the other side of his computer screen being a pretty great, sweet, loving guy who just likes to hang out in his room cuddling with a giant teddy bear named “Sir Bear Bear.”

Seaburn may have been upselling his warm and caring side as Rebecca, but we can see that that side is real. And when he’s inevitably revealed to be someone different, after the initial shock, his friends quickly adopt the view that they’ve known who he is all along.

The main winning strategy on the Circle is to have no strategy, but rather to be genuinely nice and caring. But there are some revealing caveats.

Authenticity on the show is the obvious currency, as well as its main hurdle. Everyone’s claiming to be authentic, but they also have to rank each other by popularity after every day they’re in the game. In the world of the reality show, this is usually the point at which alliances fall by the wayside, and the game becomes every player for themselves.

Indeed, throughout the show, contestants discuss the type of strategy they should be utilizing. If they were playing the game strategically, they acknowledge, they should be downvoting other popular players and using their roles as influencers to block the players they like most, because those people are their prime competition.

But that competitive spirit never takes over. Remember, none of the contestants can see each other, so they’re all forced to place routine faith in each other’s loyalty and friendship. And in what might be a minor miracle, their faith in each other is usually justified. That collective friendship is in itself a strategy — but it’s one that works. And crucially, it’s one that the show embraces by refusing to force its final five contestants to continue duking it out and sending each other home.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t gaps in this front of solidarity. Notably, none of the late entrants into the game ever really stands a chance against the initial core group of players once they’ve bonded; the newcomers all feel like outsiders, and are framed with distrust no matter how well-meaning. Take poor Miranda, who consistently puts contestant Joey as her No. 1 pick while he routinely ranks her near the bottom, despite telling her how much he likes her. He does like her — but she’s not one of The Gang.

The contestants also seem to distrust glamor and success. In the first episode, contestants vote out a model because they think she’s a fake. (She’s not.) In the second episode, they vote out a world-traveling pro basketball player because they think he’s fake. (He’s not.) Two late arrivals who are similar types of smarmy bro (one real, one fake) are also both dispatched relatively quickly.

Additionally, It’s hard not to notice that on The Circle, each of the black players — the aforementioned basketball player Antonio, Mercedeze/Karyn, and Rebecca/Seaburn — are viewed as suspicious in ways their white counterparts (and the Indian-American Shooby) usually aren’t. When Mercedeze, whose persona was always considered by the others all along to be too glamorous, revealed herself to be Karyn, a confused Joey wonders why she didn’t just appear as herself all along. The relatively benign profile of Rebecca/Seaburn also constantly comes up for scrutiny: She’s too nice.

So like any other society, there are definite fault lines in The Circle’s cozy construction of friendship. But despite the cracks, The Circle is full of unexpected moments of genuine friendship and sincerity — moments when the contestants’ authenticity shines through despite their own manipulations and in spite of their fellow contestants’ misgivings.

Perhaps the best example of this is the way the show approaches Joey Sasso, who initially presents himself as a macho, wisecracking Italian American cliche. Over the course of the series, however, all of “Broey Joey’s” masculine posturing falls away to reveal that he’s a lot more innocent and caring than he initially appears. Among other things, despite being a huge flirt, the guy doesn’t even know what the eggplant emoji is about. Oh, and he cries when his mom sends him a message from home.

His closest relationship on The Circle is with puppy dog Shooby, with whom he forms a bond that both of them shamelessly play up for the duration of the series. There were some concerns among fans that he revealed racism in his other relationships on the show (claims he’s disputed).

Too good to be true? Maybe. But it undeniably pays off for Joey.

And that, perhaps, is the core appeal of The Circle: In an era when wholesome memes are possibly starting to strain, The Circle allows for a mix of strategy and sincerity — of genuine connectivity that might stem from inauthenticity, but is no less the real for it. In a virtual community, those connections are what matter most.

As long as they feel real, The Circle suggests, they are real. It’s a pretty subversive approach for a show to take. And the inevitable next season (the show’s been running since 2017 in the UK) might be totally different.

But for now, The Circle is an unexpectedly charming ode to connection through virtuality. We’ll take it.

Author: Aja Romano

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