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.
In an era of 90s reboots could there be a more perfect presenter than Scarlett Moffatt to take over from Davina McCall on Streetmate duties? The original dating series ran on Channel 4 from 1998-2001 and had a whopping 45 episodes across 4 series. Before she was Ms Big Brother Davina was mainly running down streets searching for eligible singletons like Anneka Rice chasing a helicopter (a 90’s reference that won’t help millennials understand what I mean). Likely couples were set up in the street and then sent off together on a date.
A simple dating show like this is even more relevant these days, as people grow sick of using dating apps that encourage fakery and catfishing. Isn’t it exciting to meet people in real life with none of the technical gubbins getting in the way. Streetmate was always rawer and more authentic than any other dating show on tv, then and now. Having the presenter make the play reduces the very real awkwardness and takes the embarrassment out of what could be a hugely embarrassing situation.
The promise of a shock is an excellent hook. Who can resist? We might not admit it but we’re all interested to see freakish behaviour in others and we’d love to know what goes on behind closed doors. This compulsion is at least half the reason for the success of Big Brother and other supposed ‘reality’ tv shows. As an audience we don’t want to be calmed or soothed or reassured; we want to be shocked! We want to be outraged or astonished or moved in some way. And for quite a lot of people, the darker the better.
This is also why the most outrageous actions are always on the advert. A good recent example is Bear Grylls’ vehicle The Island. The voiceover says “someone is going to die” and a contestant falls of a rocky cliff! OMG! What happened? Did he die? Tune in to find out! Well no, of course he didn’t die and he didn’t suffer any major injuries either (despite the consensus that he was an awful person and probably deserved getting bashed up a bit). Do you think even in 2016 they would have been allowed to broadcast an accidental death on a reality show? No. Obviously not. But in that moment, in that 30 second advert, we are swept up in the supposed drama and we HAVE to know what happens!
Don’t worry, it’s not suddenly become culturally relevant again, if it ever was. And you’re right, it’s not something I normally watch.
Do you remember back in the heady days of 2000 when Big Brother started, when it was billed by Channel 4 as a grand social experiment? Turns out the social experiment was on the British public – how long would we put up with this intrusive, demeaning, ridiculous shit for? And we were all sucked in – I was foolish enough to expect a quality programme. What I actually saw was a bunch of slightly unhinged people stuck in a claustrophobic environment, becoming increasingly paranoid and unpleasant as the weeks dragged on. Every series ended up with arguing (usually full-on screaming and crying) about some perceived slight or whose turn it was to do the washing-up. Who needs telly? I could have looked in the mirror if I wanted to see that.
Hunted was trailed hard by Channel 4. Almost as hard as the fugitives were trailed by the all-powerful surveillance team in the control centre and their operatives on the ground. I’d been really looking forward to the show but found the first episode a bit disappointing. There wasn’t enough preamble about the format or why or how they’re doing it. I understand they’re trying to make the viewer feel something of the chaos the participants are thrown in to, but the speed and the panic of being forced to flee their homes with only 60 minutes notice (Go!Go!Go!) was exciting enough. A proper introduction would have been fine. Thank goodness the production team decided each set of participants needed a proper trained cameraman with them. If this was all filmed on shaky GoPros like a British Blair Witch Project I’d have turned off inside the first 10 minutes.