Best of 2019 | #10 – The Circle

the circle tim wilson viewers favourite winner paddy smyth georgina emma willis best television 2019 top ten

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!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Weekly Watchlist #8 (21st Oct – 27th Oct)

I watched very little this week. But I was doing real work! So that’s got to count for something, I hope.

Fleabag (BBC Three)

Just the one episode, from the first series, because I was channel hopping, and it was on. Hugh Dennis gives such a subtle, moving performance in this; it’s surely the best work of his career, certainly not something you’d think he was capable of from Mock the Week. But the closing moments of that fourth episode, the one I watched this week? He’s sublime.

Riverdale (Netflix)

Riverdale is very easy to criticise – and, in fairness, deserves a lot of the criticism it gets – but I will always maintain that it’s actually a much better show than its reputation suggests. Structurally, it’s a marvel; I’m convinced that Riverdale is one of the most attentively, acutely paced programs on television at the moment. I really believe that!

Superstore (NBC)

I can’t help but feel like Superstore’s solution to keep Matteo in the store after last year’s ICE cliffhanger is a bit contrived – although, equally, I wouldn’t have wanted them to lose Nico Santos, whose always been one of the best parts of the show. I’m interested to see what Matteo’s plotline will look like across the rest of the year; so far it hasn’t quite lived up to the weight of expectation created at the end of season 4, but hopefully that’ll change going forward.

The Circle (Channel 4)

I still haven’t actually caught up on this – in fact, I got spoilers for who won when I was putting together the last weekly watchlist. (Whoops.) Again, though, I’m inclined to stick with it. I sort of wish it would get a bit more popular, so there would be more writing on it – I’m convinced that someone better versed in the history of reality television would have quite an interesting take on it.

The Good Place (Netflix)

After I complained last week about the memory wipes, this episode opened with a quick joke about restoring Jason’s memories. That, I think, is probably the best I’m ever gonna get – and I don’t think I’ll ever really be entirely pleased with that.

But, yes, quite a few things missing this week. Keep managing to miss Watchmen, which is a nuisance, because I’m really curious about that. And I missed The Accident, too; I mostly enjoyed Kiri, so I was keen to check that out, but a lot of the reviews have been less than encouraging.

Tell you what, though, I’m increasingly becoming more and more conscious of just how much television there is. Which is a bit of an obvious thing to say, but I was quite struck by the fact that this week, a friend of mine started watching and in turn heavily recommending Daybreak – a new Netflix show that debuted this week, and I hadn’t even heard of until he mentioned it. There’s a lot going on there, of course, and part of that is down to Netflix’s advertising – but equally, this isn’t a small show! It’s got Matthew Broderick in it, it’s based on what are apparently relatively popular comic books!

But we’re at the point where there’s so much television that even I, someone who ostensibly watches television for a living, hadn’t heard of this show. Which is an odd thing to confront, I suppose.

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Weekly Watchlist #6 (7th Oct – 13th Oct)

Still trying to work out a format for this that actually works, given that I’m not sure I have a lot worth saying about all the things I’m watching. Getting there, though.

House of Games (BBC Two)

I really, really like quiz shows, and this is fun enough and slightly offbeat enough to be worth tuning into regularly.

Motherland (BBC Two)

Hugely disappointed by this, I’ve got to admit – this, I think, made my best of 2017 list, so I was really looking forward to its return. Which was hugely underwhelming in the end! The issue I think was because so much of this episode was dedicated to a new, fairly one-note character, the entire episode structured around one fairly limited joke (“look, the mothers have to take care of this other mother, who is acting like a teenager”). Bit of a shame, that.

Riverdale (The CW, Netflix)

Genuinely moving, in a way I didn’t think of Riverdale ever could be.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I’ll miss this a lot when it ends for the year – admittedly I do think it’s faltered ever so slightly since those near-perfect opening episodes, but frankly Succession at 80% is better than a lot of shows at 100%.

Superstore (NBC)

Something of an improvement this week, but mainly I was just trying to work out where I recognised the actress playing Colleen from. (The answer, I’m fairly sure, is SNL. Or more likely Veep, since I don’t even really watch SNL.)

The Chase (ITV)

I watch this every day, more or less – even on the weekends, when it’s not actually on properly, I’ll tend to watch a syndicated repeat. I would hate to know how many hours of my life I’ve spent watching The Chase, to be honest. And how little I’ve actually learned from it! But I’m definitely getting better at it. Eventually, I will go on The Chase, I will take the higher offer, be caught within two questions, and never watch it again.

Which would be one way to break a habit, I suppose.

The Circle (Channel 4)

Still gradually working my way through The Circle, albeit fairly behind the actual broadcast schedule – six episodes a week is frankly too much of anything. It remains unexpectedly compelling, though; it’s the first reality show of its ilk that I’ve been genuinely into enough to actually want to watch six episodes of a week. (Or, well, try to anyway.)

The Good Place (NBC, Netflix)

This episode wound me up a bit, admittedly. I’ve always gone back and forth on Tahani, whether I find her charming or irritating; I’m increasingly starting to think, though, that while Tahani is still this cartoonishly bourgeoisie character, The Good Place is never quite going to make “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” land as its central thesis. (Assuming that remains its central thesis, admittedly.)

The character needs to develop beyond the initial archetype – I’m not saying there isn’t some depth to her (well, I’m not saying that at the moment, anyway), but while The Good Place still sticks to that initial joke, I’m not sure it’ll ever quite be what it seems to want to be.

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Weekly Watchlist #4 (23rd Sept – 29th Sept)

weekly watchlist 4 fleabag live phoebe waller bridge the politician ben platt the good place kristen bell ted danson netflix

And another one. Still working out exactly what I want these to look like, but I think they’re starting to take shape a bit better.

Defending the Guilty (BBC Two)

Again, I’m really enjoying this, particularly as it began to fill in the rest of the cast a little more this week. I think the main thing it needs to do, and do quite quickly, is make more of an effort to characterise the lead character’s girlfriend – at the moment she’s not much more than a cipher, which would be a flaw even if a lot of the drama didn’t pivot around Will Sharpe’s character’s relationships.

Fleabag Live! (National Theatre Live)

I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so conscious of how important Sian Clifford is to Fleabag until she wasn’t in it. That was my primary takeaway, anyway, and what I kept thinking throughout this not-actually-live-but-repeat-recording-of-the-live-version showing of Fleabag that I went to see this week. (The same is sort of true of Hugh Dennis too, actually, although to a much lesser extent.)

What I was also trying to work out, though, was Fleabag series 2 – I am, I think, one of the few people for which that didn’t entirely click (although I’m of the mind that I must’ve surely just missed something). It struck me that the ending of Fleabag series 2 was an almost complete refutation of the ending of series 1 – I’ll go into this properly someday I’m sure – so I was interested to see if, maybe, that was the DNA of the spikier stage show resurfacing. Not so, though; the way Fleabag’s first series adapts the stage show is obvious, and the second series remains a mystery to me.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

If all was right in the world, Jeremy Strong would get lots and lots of awards for this. He’s sublime.

Superstore (NBC)

Superstore is an all-time favourite of mine – the cliffhanger that closed season 4 has already earned it a place on the best of 2019 list, no question. It was the sort of moment that felt like it was breaking genuinely new ground for a network sitcom, positioning Superstore as a vital, urgent piece of television, the sort of thing that genuinely earns a place in television history.

The fifth series opener threw me a little, though – I’m not sure if it was behind the scenes changes, or maybe it’s just not quite possible to live up to the weight of expectation generated by a big moment like that (I’m quite consciously trying to avoid revealing it here), but I was a tad disappointed by this. Looking forward to next week anyway, though.

The Circle (Channel 4)

This is surprisingly engrossing – it’s mostly a load of nonsense, as tends to be the case with reality TV, but there’s something about the Big Brother crossed with Catfish premise that’s becoming increasingly difficult to look away from, even before they threw Richard Madeley pretending to be a 27 year old woman into the mix.

The Good Place (Netflix)

More than anything else on television at the moment, The Good Place makes me feel slightly out of step with everyone else. I just don’t like it that much! It’s… fine. It’s nice, it’s often sweet, and sometimes I quite enjoy it. It feels friendly, and that’s neat. But by the same stroke, it’s often unbearably twee, deeply, overly saccharine, and at times it’s actually quite irritating. It’s not bad, or not bad enough to be worth some attempt at a takedown – but I do feel so, so out of step with the general critical consensus on this one, since everyone’s hailing it as the most revolutionary comedy since, well, the genre was invented it sometimes feels like.

It is very conceptually striking at times, and it’s often quite inventive – what I do find sort of notable actually is that the stretch I’ve enjoyed the most, series 3, seems to be the consensus weakest season – but for the most part I struggle to click with it. I think I just don’t find it particularly funny (I’ve always enjoyed it more when I stopped expecting it to be funny, I think), and I’m always slightly baffled when some screencap goes viral on twitter.

“Stonehenge was a sex thing”, says a CGI elephant. I mean, sure, okay.

The Politician (Netflix)

This is peak Ryan Murphy, and – I say this with genuine admiration – quite neatly filled a Riverdale-shaped hole in my heart.

Favourite show of September: Has to be Succession, really.

Best new show of September: Going to go with Defending the Guilty, actually, which I’ve been quietly impressed by.

Most looking forward to in October: Oh, it could only be Riverdale, my one true love, even now.

You can look at other Weekly Watchlists here. If you liked this article and you want to support what I do, you can leave a tip over on ko-fi, or back my Patreon here.

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