I’ve always turned to reality TV in times of stress. When the first coronavirus lockdown forced us inside last spring, I devoured Netflix’s Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle before sinking into a rewatch of Love Island’s chaotic second series; 40-plus hours of flirting and fighting stretched before me as the ultimate distraction. It feels like cotton wool for the brain, serving as an insulative barrier between me and the doomscrolling.
But nearly a year into the pandemic, the novelty has worn off. After a winter spent stuck indoors and not seeing friends, I don’t want to watch beautiful people frolic around in swimwear, but rather TV that speaks to the national mood without directly referencing the pandemic. When The Circle USA dropped on UK Netflix on New Year’s Day, it became clear that others had been seeking this distraction too. It may have been filmed back in 2019, but the 12-episode series manages to represent this moment better than nearly any show, with its central aim to explore the difficulties of building connections without physical contact.
Based on Channel 4’s reality series of the same name, The Circle USA is Big Brother for the influencer generation. The contestants share a building – despite what the shots of the Chicago skyline want you to think, the show is filmed in Salford – but live in their own self-contained apartments. The only way of communicating with each other is through the Circle, a social media platform built into the screens spread throughout their flats.
On the show, as with real life, the internet makes it hard to know if everyone is who they say they are. Catfishing for the whole game is difficult but can be done, as proven on the first UK series which was won by comedian Alex Hobern using his girlfriend’s pictures. On its US counterpart, we have three outright catfishes, while others lie about their relationship statuses or appearance to seem more approachable. All the while, people form connections based on what they’re told and who they believe they’re talking to, while those deemed least popular by their fellow players are “blocked” and eliminated. The contestants rank each other throughout the competition, with the most popular player winning $100,000 at the end of the show.
Isolating the contestants is the perfect facilitator for reality TV drama, with each player’s loneliness and boredom making them more likely to put their trust in strangers. We watch with excruciating omnipotence as Shubham describes how he’s “never had a relationship” like his one with Rebecca, who he thinks of as a sister, all the while unaware that he’s being catfished by Rebecca’s real life boyfriend Seaburn.
But as cringe-worthy as these moments are, it’s a feeling many of us can relate to after a year of maintaining relationships with friends and family through social media or meeting new people on dating apps alone. Shubham doesn’t know when the show will be ending and if he’ll even meet Rebecca in real life before she’s eliminated from The Circle, much like it's hard to plan for a future when we don’t know when things will return to normal. Is he really that naive for believing that he’s formed and maintained a legitimate connection through the internet when it’s all he has?
The show also highlights the limitations that occur when only using written communication in early stages of relationships. The players dictate their words to the Circle, yet comments are misinterpreted without the knowledge of each other’s vocal tics and senses of humour. The audience sees newcomer Miranda attempt some light-hearted flirting with Sammie on arrival, only for the other girl to perceive her as a two-faced user. It’s a frustrating yet instantly recognisable scenario, only topped by watching flirt-with-a-heart-of-gold Joey dictate to the computer: “I’m currently naked in the bathroom shaving my body, wanna help me with my back?” Trust me, nothing will give you an existential crisis about the fundamental ludicrousness of sexting like this show.
What makes these moments feel even more directly relevant is the lonely boredom with which they’re paired. This isn’t Love Island, where contestants can fill their time discussing what the “freshest” number is and whether Brexit will mean we won’t have any trees in the future. The players are alone, with only themselves for comfort. They instead take part in a veritable who’s who of clichéd lockdown activities, from jigsaws to drawing to playing ping pong with themselves (nope, not a euphemism).
But despite this loneliness and the knowledge they could be being catfished at any moment, there’s a surprising lack of scepticism on The Circle USA. Friendships are formed; players put their trust in each other, even knowing that it could be misplaced. They know that digital conversation can’t capture the nuance of human contact, but still give it their best shot, because not trying seems like the far bleaker option.
When a contestant is blocked from the Circle, they’re given the opportunity to visit another player, with the remaining contestants anxiously pacing in their rooms as they await the potential arrival after weeks spent alone. “If someone gets blocked can you come visit me?” Joey shouts into the abyss. “I honestly need the company and I look cute today.” If that’s not a slogan for the past year, I don’t know what is.
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