I used to dislike reality television. I don’t know exactly why, but I had the false idea that reality shows weren’t interesting, or didn’t have enough depth. Slowly, however, I have begrudgingly started to watch shows like “Love Island,” “Too Hot to Handle,” “Survivor” and more, and I can see the appeal. But the one that fully proved me wrong was “The Circle,” and by the time the third season rolled around this fall I was hooked and determined to watch every episode as soon as possible.
The first season of the Netflix series came out in January 2020. The premise is deceptively simple: Who is the best at social media? Eight contestants move into an apartment building where they are given access to “The Circle,” a social media-like platform where they create a bio, post pictures of themselves and chat with other players. They are not allowed to interact with other contestants face-to-face unless they are leaving the show, giving them the freedom to lie about their identity and catfish each other. Players periodically rank their fellow contestants, and the two top-rated individuals must come to a consensus on who to kick off the show. The season three contestants are eclectic, fun to watch and hilarious. They range in age from Daniel, a 20-year-old college student, to Michelle, a 52-year-old mom from South Carolina.
In every moment of this show, drama is in no short supply. People both real and “fake” strike up romances with others from behind their screens. One individual gains access to an extra profile, a mysterious ghost hunter used to spy on fellow players and glean their true intentions. One person is “cloned,” and other players have to vote on which of the two versions of the player is the real one. The nature of the ranking system makes it really hard to predict who will win in the end—when players vote for the winner, some do so strategically, voting for less popular players to increase their own chances of winning, while others choose their closest friends and allies.
While the show flips between incredibly silly and nail-bitingly dramatic, many of its moments reflect wider societal issues. As many fans have pointed out, race at least somewhat separates the two main alliances that eventually develop, with one group forming an alliance that is majority white against the other alliance, which consists almost entirely of people of color.
Although this isn’t the result of explicitly racist intentions, it is a glaring example of how racism can affect everyday interactions in insidious ways. And although the alliances are less contentious than they have been in previous seasons, many players feel very loyal to their teams and will do whatever it takes to get everyone else out. Yet these devotions can blindside players from their own privilege and racial biases, leaving questions about the true intent of some of the players’ decisions.
At one point, Sophia, a member of the majority-white alliance catfishing as her older sister Isabella, aggressively pushes to vote out Kai, a member of the other alliance. She later questions this path of action, wondering out loud why she was so insistent on booting out Kai. While Sophia never says the word “racism” in her epiphany, she is white and Kai is Black, which raises questions about her true motivations. When fans called her out for this on Instagram , she continued in the same vein, commenting from her account @sophialayne, “Now this moment I will speak on and say how uneducated and dumb I was for that. I was reading into it strictly from a strategic mindset.” While she and Kai seem to have made amends at least judging from social media, Sophia still hasn’t addressed the possibility that her actions stemmed from racial bias.
Naturally, this is a show where identity is a recurring theme. One of the funniest moments of the season centers around Nick, who flirts with two women, Isabella and Ashley. But Isabella is really Sophia, a lesbian catfishing as her straight sister trying to forge an alliance with Nick. Sophia visibly grimaces as she composes suggestive messages to Nick, who is none the wiser. “I’m gonna have to put my straight game on,” she says to the camera. “I mean, I did this for so long.” Other catfish, such as Rachel, a straight woman playing as a straight man named Jackson, don’t have as much success. As Sophia explains, because she was in the closet for so long, she already has experience performing heterosexuality. This insight allows her to convincingly play the character of a straight woman.
Meanwhile, Nick also flirts with Ashley, who is really a gay man named Matt catfishing as his lesbian best friend. When Nick first reaches out to Ashley, Matt is incredulous. “If he’s flirting with me, then Nick, your gaydar is horrible,” he says. “Our profile is gayer than Elton John in a crop top.” But no matter what the pictures on Ashley’s profile look like, Matt has full control over the personality that he crafts for her on The Circle. And because Matt himself is attracted to Nick, he decides that while real-life Ashley might be gay, her Circle counterpart is going to be bisexual. Matt flirts back with Nick not as himself, but not fully as Ashley either—the character he creates seems almost like an overlap of their two personalities. In this way, sexuality is very fluid for the contestants on the show. While this is partially a product of the format, it is also a reflection of how the messiness and complexity of human emotions complicate identity labels even in the real world.
The way that gender and sexuality overlap and intertwine in this show makes it very interesting to watch. The final episode, which reveals everyone’s true characters, reads almost like the end of a Shakespearean comedy, where mistaken and secret identities often come to light for the first time and hilarity ensues. It is so illuminating to watch people pretend to be someone they’re not and to watch people question others’ identities, even when they are expressing their genuine selves from behind the screen. While some will undoubtedly describe “The Circle” as trashy, I think it is a deeply interesting, thought-provoking and at times heartfelt show.