Netflix's 'The Circle' Is the Best TV Show About the Internet 1

Certain ideas just sound objectively gross. Giving babies cigarettes, for instance, or mayonnaise-flavored Jell-O. The Circle, a US reality television show in its first season on Netflix, has exactly this sort of forthrightly nasty premise. The Circle pushes its contestants to behave as clout-chasing, manipulative shut-ins for the privilege of appearing on a streaming service and the chance to win $100,000. The tagline: “How far would you go to be popular on social media?”

A show about people alone in their rooms trying to be cool online—could anything be more cursed? The Circle is a remake of a UK program of the same name, and reviewers frequently invoke Black Mirror to convey its plot—the spooky episodes, not that nice one where the old ladies fall in virtual-reality love. Black Mirror comparisons are obvious, as the show has constructed a myopic setting designed to highlight what it’s like to be constantly logged on and desperate for attention. Less expected is how good the show is at demonstrating the highs and nuances of digital life. I intended to watch one episode out of curiosity about how bleak it sounded. Then I kept watching. And watching. (The first eight episodes are available now, with another batch coming next week.)

In The Circle, contestants rank one another, and the two top-ranked players must kick one competitor of their choosing off. They start with eight people, and new players are occasionally introduced as replacements. The group will ultimately vote on a single winner. As in almost all competitive reality shows, alliances are forged, tears are shed, secrets are revealed. The Circle borrows liberally from Big Brother, with its personality-based jousting and constant surveillance, as well as Love Island, with a quippy narrator guiding the audience through the episode. But The Circle has a technological twist: Its participants are living in isolated single-occupancy apartments, and can interact with one another only through the online avatars they create, which are then connected by a voice-activated screen known as “the circle.” Another catch: They don’t need to tell the truth about who they are, and several players elect to catfish their competition, posing as characters they concoct with other peoples’ pictures. One of the contestants, a belligerent Italian party boy named Joey, appears to have based his entire personality off Jersey Shore reruns—and he’s one of the authentic ones. The Circle uses the vocabulary of social media to convey its stakes. Losers aren’t sent home, they are “blocked.” The anointed players become “influencers” and are awarded Twitter-bird-blue checkmarks next to their photos. They are no place in particular; the show uses establishing shots of Chicago and Milwaukee but was actually filmed in England, as location aggressively doesn’t matter—all of the action takes place in front of the screen.

Reality television is now a tested route for wannabe influencers who want to wedge themselves into public consciousness and then monetize, monetize, monetize. The Circle dispenses altogether with the notion that anyone might be participating in a reality program “for the right reasons” by making the subtext the whole damn show. It’s a highly contrived scenario, but from within its artificial limits a surprisingly naturalistic portrait of what it’s like to communicate through the internet emerges.

Contestants have to speak their text messages at the screen, and one of The Circle’s pleasures is watching people try to posture as approachable and friendly solely through text. One instructs the device to add a number of i’s to her Hiiiiiiiiii to strike the right nonchalant tone. Emojis are frequently deployed. When conversations peter down, people invent excuses to end them, even though everybody knows that nobody actually has anything pressing to do—a behavior familiar to anyone with Gchat or Slack open all day.