Netflix’s US remake of a UK reality-TV hit retains the clever, vaguely dystopian premise, and it remains a fascinating social experiment.
The Circle (Netflix) is a US remake of a popular British reality TV show with a clever, timely concept. Much like Big Brother — the American remake of which has enjoyed several seasons, by the way — that concept sees various contestants move into a house together. The twist, though, is that they all have separate rooms and don’t physically interact — instead, they craft social media accounts and slide into each other’s DMs. As an idea, it gets right to the heart of how detached our always-online culture really is, and how normal we have allowed exclusively digital conversation to become. But it makes for a fascinating setup for a reality show, since, fittingly, almost nobody really is who they claim to be in their made-up profiles.
Some of the fictions are more elaborate and obvious than others, but the theme of how much is real and how much is a front remains, and remains endlessly engaging. Keeping the contestants separate also limits the kind of despicably performative behavior you see in such shows when there’s an audience to impress. The peeping-Tom vibe of Big Brother as it once was, when contestants were normal people plucked from normal lives and not fame-hungry maniacs fervently pursuing magazine deals, is more prevalent here than it has been in virtually any version of that show which has aired in the last decade at least.
While the premise mandates less explosive confrontation and silly shenanigans than you’d typically find in a reality show, The Circle goes out of its way to contrive competitions and such, and clever editing prevents the various hopefuls from feeling too distinct and isolated. Thanks to toned-down personalities vying for the enticing cash prize, this is the rarest thing: Reality TV that is tolerable and doesn’t encourage you to actively wish ill on the participants. Not all of them, anyway. With The Circle, Netflix undoubtedly has a hit, and for once it seems to have earned it.