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.
With this new series of The Great British Bake Off Channel 4 is spoiling us. Can you remember way back to last year when we watched the first series after Love Productions split from the BBC through our fingers as the nation waited to be able to say “I told you it would be rubbish!”. Can you remember our collective confusion, bewilderment and joy because it was still good, maybe even better than before? It was very much the London 2012 Olympics of food-based competitive TV shows. What a glorious time to be alive (and able to properly digest gluten)!
And with Sandi, Noel, Prue and Paul making a glorious return to the tent on Tuesday nights there’s a new generous helping of sister show An Extra Slice on Fridays. Fortunately Jo Brand, the consummate professional that she is, was fine with the move from the Beeb to Channel 4 and nothing much changed at all. But now the show is settled the programme makers can confidently make some long-overdue changes. Extra Slice suffered because it always felt very rushed in the half hour format that Channel 4 inherited from Auntie Beeb, and of course the adverts we were all loath to accept ate into that time, so it was 23 minutes of telly at best. Speaking of adverts in Bake Off, who would have ever guessed we’d miss Dr Oetker and his choir of irritating singing cakes. Amazon spent £5 million on the prestigious slot to advertise the Echo and all they can come up with is forgettable line drawings? “Alexa show me an advert worthy of 6.1 million viewers”.
Forgive me for not knowing until now who the Chicken Connoisseur is. I am in my 30s and I still haven’t got my head around the many millions of creative ways people use YouTube and how they have an immediate connection with their audience that the old dinosaurs of terrestrial TV can only dream of. Superstars are born, made fantastically wealthy, and crash and burn overnight. This much I know is true. I also know I’m playing catch-up. I swear I was standing in a Blockbuster choosing which video to watch just last week, but of course that was at least a decade ago.
So kudos to Channel 4 for giving Elijah Quashie his own TV series. This is a guy from Tottenham who made his name in 2016 reviewing chicken shops in The Pengest Munch. Important work, steering the nation away from disappointing fast food. He’s a critic who knows what he likes and he’s happy to give his opinion delivered in his own authentic style. There’s a lot of working class black slang going on here, but it all makes sense. Although again, I did have to look up peng which means handsome or fit as in “This is the pengest penguin in the world” which I’d pay good money to hear David Attenborough say on Blue Planet.
It’s always exciting to see Sarah Lancashire back on TV. I’ve been a big fan for a little while, since Happy Valley really, and drama lovers will agree that she’s a big draw for a new series. Writer Jack Thorne has another ripped-from-the-headlines story for us and hopes are high as he wrote National Treasure broadcast in 2016 which won the best mini-series BAFTA. That was about historic cases of sexual abuse, drawing on various high-profile scandals involving celebrities. This is about vulnerable children under the care of social services and calls to mind some recent real-life cases.
Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam Grayson, a Bristolian social worker who decides to offer unsupervised visits between 9-year-old Kiri and her grandparents. Kiri is a young black girl about to be adopted by a middle-class white family and social services agree she ought to know “where she came from”, and have a chance to develop links with appropriate members of her birth family. While Kiri is on her visit, she goes missing, apparently abducted by her ex-con birth father Nathaniel. This is all made clear in the first 30 minutes, so knowing the laws of TV drama, this means literally anything could have happened to her.
It’s been a long while since I started a new Scandi thriller. I’ve been struggling with some pretty serious health problems. Turns out concentrating on anything when you’re really ill is extremely bloody difficult. I guess it’s why mindless daytime tv does so well. And concentrating on high-quality drama with subtitles is completely out of the question. My top tip for sickies is fairly short YouTube content, but avoid ones that make you laugh too hard, so you don’t bust any stitches, or ones about eating nasty things, so you don’t start puking again.
But the wonderful Walter Presents peaked my interest in Norwegian drama series Acquitted. Aksel Nilsen is a very successful Kuala Lumpur based businessman who returns home to little Lifjord after 20 years away to finally confront his unhappy past. Aksel is pouty and good looking, extremely well-groomed and manicured to a shine. In his beautiful bespoke suits he looks like a Ken doll crossed with a perfume advert (pour homme, pour femme, pour Norway). He’s done alright for himself in KL, with a corner office, a beautiful successful wife and a bolshy teenage son. His colleagues all have perfect English spoken in English accents; Nicolai Cleve Broch as Aksel does very well, but it’s his swearing that lets him down. He gets a call for help from Lifjord’s major employer, drops everything and chases off to the other side of the globe to try and save the town.
Busy mother of two Jo (Indira Varma) has a lovely boyfriend in Danny (Luke Treadway). who has moved in to her suburban home and is adjusting to family life. On an otherwise normal day some mystery person drops a bombshell. On the school run Jo receives an anonymous text message alleging her boyfriend is having an inappropriate relationship with her 11-year-old daughter Katie.
We see Jo over the course of an agonising day sitting at home in an empty house, dwelling on the message, snooping around but getting no answers. Nothing really happens, but it all happens on Jo’s face thanks to Indira’s gut-wrenching acting. Danny is sexy, and it seems Katie and her friends have noticed judging by their comments on Instagram. Is Danny predatory? Worse still is Katie reciprocating? It’s a very uncomfortable thought but it’s close to how young women think. What is harassment? What is flattery? The lines are blurred when children are still learning the boundaries, and people can and will take advantage. “She’s at that age” is a catch-all for unusual teenage behaviour, but what if something unpleasant is provoking it?