The Circle is a new social media reality show, launched in the week that Channel 5 has finally confirmed what viewers have known for years. Big Brother, once the undisputed king of reality shows, is dead as a dodo. It’s strange times indeed in telly land. The Circle was trailed heavily on Channel 4 for weeks, with each advert being a full instruction manual for the show, not really helping the initial audience reaction that it was overly complicated. Then before and after every ad break the presenters Alice Levine (My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast, coming to HBO in 2019) and Maya Jama (dunno, off some youth radio show at a guess) took the opportunity to again explain the rules in painful detail. We get it – you’re expecting the audience to be on the thicker end of the education spectrum.
So this is the start of three weeks of Alice and Maya talking about a bunch of people talking to themselves in their pokey little flats, sorry apartments, with an all-knowing Alexa console for company unless they’ve had the foresight to bring their own baby or turtle for company. The twist on the classic Big Brother format is that they don’t ever meet face-to-face. All contact is conducted via a specially-designed social media platform – the eponymous Circle. The total number of contestants vying for the £50,000 prize is eight which is surely more than enough. But apparently people who get evicted get replaced! Dear God – is this Black Mirror? Is three weeks actually eternity? Will it ever end?
So down to the fundamentals – how do you get people to like you? Are you true to yourself, as every Insta bio assure us is the way, the truth and the light, or are you more controlling of the image you portray to the world. Do you edit out your bad bits and concentrate on your good bits, both in your personality and your physicality or is it slightly repulsive to be so obviously manipulative? Is all this false advertising even ethical? Some of these contestants have said fuck ethics and they’re halfway to scamming retirees out of their pension as a sketchy African prince.
40 -year-old Jennifer is a game changer I was initially on board with. An older lady (for this frighteningly young demographic anyway) who says she’s taking part to make a point about the shallow Instagram generation. Unfortunately that point seems to be “I’m better than you”. She did so well for about the first five seconds of her anti-social media manifesto until she revealed her game plan was to impersonate a doctor because they’re a trusted profession. Worse still, she chose an oncologist – now that’s a bit fucking weird. And then jarringly in the first ad break we had a serious and sensitive advert for Stand Up to Cancer. Maybe Channel 4 didn’t quite intend it to play out like that but it was a bit sickening.
The Circle might be a very handy way to use social media as it work via voice commands and text-to-speech which will improve the contestants spelling loads (probably thanks to the show’s interns, typing 65 words of gibberish per minute). It was pretty pathetic watching grown human beings ask out loud for a particular emoji. And it’s handy for the viewer to have their names written next to every photo and message, because honestly even the winner of the World Memory Championships would struggle to remember who each person is without constant prompting.
Youngster Alex is playing a character called Kate, allegedly using photos of his real-life girlfriend and seems to be catfishing a lad called Freddie, a screechy gay man “playing it straight” who is pretending to have a dead dog for the sympathy vote. Genelle is trying to keep the fact she has a small baby quiet. And estate agent Richard has brought his pet turtle with him for company and he’s clearly the stand-out star of the show. So, if you’re keeping count, that’s one dead dog, two live catfishes, one baby and one turtle. Personally I’m hoping that in a shocking twist Richard’s turtle will win the money, swimming off into the sunset with the lovely narrator from Bolton who easily has the best job on the show; to punctuate the collective self-obsessed narcissistic nonsense.
It’s half tempting to continue watching to find out exactly how they propose to measure popularity and what sort of challenges the contestants will be expected to carry out, given the confines of the show and their little living quarters. The first batch of contestants seem so wacky that they can’t possibly be genuine members of the public – there’s got to be an element of scripted reality. Who on earth would say yes dear boyfriend of mine, of course you can go on a flirty reality TV show and catfish people with my photos.
But I’m no expert – I’m closer to Jennifer’s age than Freddie’s. It was all so different 20 years ago when all you had to do for overnight internet popularity was make a few off-colour jokes and flash the merest hint of nipple on a grainy webcam. And yes, who hasn’t used filters to soften crows feet or hide a spot or two on a profile photo? That’s the acceptable end of the spectrum, right? How far will people on The Circle push it, and how sympathetic will the other contestants feel when they find out they’ve been lied to. Is honesty worth much in 2018 or is it all about the likes? The Circle hopes to find out.
The Circle is on Channel 4 for the next three weeks, or all eternity, depending on your point of view. Catch up with episode 1 now on All4 and see if you can figure out if it’s all worth it.