The Circle is not actually any “good”, per se.
It’s somewhere between Big Brother and Catfish, basically – a riff on the reality TV format for the Black Mirror age, I think someone once called it. A group of eight strangers are brought together in a block of flats, never allowed to interact face to face, but getting to know each other through what is essentially the equivalent of social media. Some of them are who they say they are; some of them, obviously, are not. As the weeks progress, people are voted out – blocked – and new contestants enter. In the end, it’s a popularity contest caught somewhere between authenticity and artifice (and authentic artifice, and artificial authenticity), with the eventual winner getting however much money Channel 4 budgets for each go around. (And then, probably, going on to become a social media influencer type with lots of brand sponsorships and so on, using all the new life skills they learned inside The Circle.)
Typically, when defending reality television, the argument is that it tells us something deeper about the human condition. It’s not hard to imagine a version of that line of reasoning drawn from The Circle: give a man a mask and he shows you his true face, and all that. Surely the show can tell us something about class, about race, about gender, about how they each intersect – about society – when all of these things are here willingly chosen, in turn reduced to (or exposed as) a construct?
Well, maybe. I am actually not convinced that is entirely true of The Circle, or, if it is, that’s certainly not its main appeal. Trying to reconceptualise it as a social experiment, or something far more highbrow than it actually is, seems to be missing the point a little bit. (Frankly, the moments any contestants tried to make points about race or privilege in any meaningfully introspective ways fell short – the format just can’t sustain it.) The Circle isn’t something that looks crap at first glance but then, gradually, reveals itself as a hidden gem: no, it is actually fairly consistently crap.
But it’s endearingly crap.
There’s something compulsively charming about The Circle, a difficult to define quality that makes it far more engaging that it really should be. Even if it’s not innovative, it’s definitely unpredictable. This man isn’t a builder – it’s his mum, pretending to be her son, to try and find him a girlfriend, on national television! The other players have somehow guessed this already, based on very little at all! What! There’s something weirdly captivating about this show – sure, it’s on for too long, and Emma Willis emphasises the Big Brother connection a little too much, but it’s just the right shade of quirky to sustain itself.
Case in point: a brief appearance from Richard Madeley pretending to be a twenty-seven-year-old woman called Judy. Richard Madeley – who occupies the exact right space between ‘technically famous’, ‘a bit odd’, and ‘affordable’ to be the perfect celebrity catfish for The Circle; next year it’ll probably be, like, Iain Stirling, and he will not be as good, because a proper comedian will be trying too hard and that’ll puncture the carefully curated illusion of it all – flirting with Zoe Ball’s son, all at a slightly off-kilt, disaffected remove, is not even remotely like anything else on television. It’s nonsense, of course, but unrepentantly so.
The appeal isn’t even in the individual contestants, not really. They were all entertaining in their ways, yes: Tim’s eccentricities, Jack and Beth’s burgeoning relationship, the sheer boldness of James-pretending-to-be-single-mother-Sammie the whole time. But, actually, they don’t matter: after all, they are basically normal people, and they’re essentially interchangeable anyway. (As evidenced by how quickly each were replaced, week on week!) Really, they’re only interesting under these particularly strange set of circumstances – once they’re on the outside, they’re just social media influencers, as though suspended in some sort of Circle-limbo forevermore. It’s hard to imagine anyone really wanting to stay up to date and in the loop about what these guys are all doing – after those few intense weeks, they’ll all just fade from the memory, in the end just as ephemeral as a tweet themselves. That having been said, The Circle had one last curveball to throw. Turns out Tim, the viewers’ favourite, the charming Robin Williams-esque monk turned theology professor, is a former UKIP parliamentary candidate, and YouTuber with strong opinions about how Pewdiepie isn’t antisemitic. Again: nothing else like it on television!
Admittedly, The Circle is something of an outside choice for this top ten list. It’s probably the most idiosyncratic pick, and certainly the most difficult to justify by any definition of actual quality you might hold to. But it does, just about, manage to claim the tenth spot – not (solely) because it’s my list and I can do what I want to, but across 2019 it’s been one of the few genuinely communal television experiences I’ve had, watching it with new housemates, and in turn it’s been one of the most fun. If this list is anything, it is largely a list about what’s been memorable about television in 2019 for me – and I will definitely remember The Circle.
(Also, Georgina definitely deserved to win.)
Check back tomorrow to find out my tenth favourite individual episode of television for the year!