What if the real prize was the friends we made along the way?

I have never been a reality television fan. I think I may have watched an episode of The Bachelorette at a high school sleepover, but I was always dismissive of the genre as a whole. Over-dramatic, fake, and mindless: these are the adjectives I might have associated with the likes of Big Brother and The Bachelor. Everything changed when I found myself, a couple short weeks ago, avidly consuming Netflix’s The Circle with a friend.

We originally put the show on as background noise for a study session, but quickly found ourselves drawn in. The first episode was overwhelming; it’s full of bright graphics, snarky narration from host Michelle Buteau, and a series of over-the-top introductions to the show’s first eight players. But as the episodes kept rolling, The Circle revealed its true self: odd and often over-dramatic, to be sure, and yet captivating and strangely sweet nonetheless. It’s a reality competition show that, by the end, asks the question: what if everyone really is here to make friends?

You may be asking what the premise of this show is. It’s difficult to pin down; it’s been compared to Big Brother, Black Mirror, and even The Great British Bake Off. Each contestant is isolated in his or her own room, and the only way to communicate with other players is through “The Circle,” a pseudo-social media platform. Players can direct-message or group-chat each other, update their “profiles”, and occasionally play games of trivia or most-likely-to. Every so often, the players rate each other anonymously from 1-7. The two top-rated players become “influencers” and can choose to “block” — send home — one of the other players. New players are added to the game at periodic intervals. To make things interesting, contestants can choose to play as themselves or to be a catfish, adopting someone else’s photos and persona.

In order to get through the show, you have to accept some of its odd conceits and quirky structuring. There’s no continuity to the episodic format; rating events, games, and additions of new players seem to happen at random times. The show seems made for binge-watching; without clear events to mark beginnings and endings, the episodes blur together into one extended viewing experience. Then there’s “the Circle” itself, the show’s take on a social media platform. While it claims to be a voice-activated computer program, it quickly becomes apparent that the “voice-to-text” messaging feature of the show is nothing more than a producer typing out the players’ messages behind the scenes. “Do a, uh, do a smiley hug emoji,” a player might yell. “The Circle” complies, with perfect accuracy. 

But these idiosyncrasies are hardly the oddest thing about The Circle. For a show centered around social media and fake personas, what is most surprising is the genuine connections the players form with each other. I know it sounds wrong to use the word “genuine;” these are, after all, relationships formed without any face-to-face interactions. And, to be fair, there is plenty of posturing, shallow flirting, and empty commentating. The Circle is not immune to today’s cultural moments or identity phenomena by any means. But that is not what I left the show remembering. Instead, it was scenes like this: one player, tears running down her face, opens up to another in a private message about growing up in foster care without a family. The second player — a stereotypical loud, Italian “bro” from New York — is struck silent and stares at his screen for a few minutes before telling the first how strong she is, and that she is welcome in his family anytime. 

It’s moments like these that manage, so unexpectedly, to give The Circle a heart. I have to wonder if that was the intention, or if the producers expected the contestants to scheme, manipulate, and deceive their way to the grand prize. If the latter is true, they must be sorely disappointed. Even the catfishers are, for the most part, likeable, and it’s evident that real bonds are being formed within the confines of this bizarre social science experiment the Netflix executives greenlighted. 

The show begins as a popularity contest. But by the time the last four episodes roll around, the players can barely bring themselves to send anyone home. Any strategies there might have been in the beginning go out the window, and the players simply try to protect their new friends and agonize over blocking anyone. Ridiculous? Maybe. But it’s ridiculously contagious, and by episode eight that same friend and I found ourselves screaming as the winner was announced and the confetti fell.

Am I a convert to reality television? Not by a long shot. But I encourage anyone looking for a strangely heart-warming and genuinely fun show to give The Circle a chance. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry — you’ll reflect on what it means to be truly authentic in a world consumed by social media. 

Caroline O’Callaghan is a junior living in Badin and studying Studio Art and Theology. She finds social media and messaging exhausting, and being a contestant on The Circle would be her worst nightmare. Please don’t email her at cocallag@nd.edu.