Netflix’s “The Circle” has one massive flaw in its otherwise brilliant dystopian social media scheme: you have to watch people dictate hashtags and emojis. Seriously: “hashtag this, hashtag that, crying-laughing emoji, eyes emoji — eggplant emoji?” How about we hashtag stop. Does anyone unironically hashtag in their text messages? Well, if you do, “The Circle” works really well as a public service announcement against continuing to do so.
“The Circle” is a reality competition show where contestants’ interactions are confined to a “voice-activated” social media platform by the same name. Each contestant is otherwise bound to their personalized apartment; and, with no face-to-face contact required, they can choose whether to play as themselves or catfish the other players. The dictation of emojis is a necessary quirk of the way the players communicate with each other; in a faceless world, they need digital ones to emote with — obviously, we do this all the time. What most of us don’t do is think about our emoji selection with the names of the emojis themselves, let alone say them out loud in conversation.
The incessant hashtagging has producer meddling written all over it — and for what? Most hashtag attempts are at best tangentially related to the action on screen and at worst situationally inappropriate. There’s nothing like a hashtag to destroy any semblance of emotional resonance. Dear producers of “The Circle”: Please, spare us from this hashtag hell. There has to be a compromise-level of hashtagging we can find. Okay, enough about the hashtagging — it’s just that annoying.
Truth be told, while hearing emojis get the speech-to-text treatment is also annoying, it’s more annoyingly clever. “The Circle’s” setup confronts us at every step with just how desperate our primitive approximations of communication in the digital space are — sometimes, you really do hate to see it.
Of course, we don’t watch reality television for deep social commentary — we watch reality television for entertainment. In its second season, “The Circle” wrings far more mileage out of its premise than its first. The casting team have outdone themselves with each contestant, not only delivering on real personality, but also on gameplay strategy. For most reality shows, celebrity contestants are glaring publicity stunts, but on “The Circle” they are opportunities for more concept-driven drama.
Two weeks into this season, and we have Chloe Veitch from Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle” and Lance Bass of NSYNC — played by his assistant Lisa Delcampo. Veitch pumps in much needed Essex-energy, and plays the game like it’s “Love Island,” to hilarious effect. Delcampo’s middling efforts to avoid detection while catfishing as Bass are cringeworthy, but at least show another one of the endless possible strategies. Yes, these castings are a ratings grab — but one that actually changes the game.
The biggest shake-up of this season is the messy introduction of the “Inner Circle.” When accessed, it gives the players the ability to speak anonymously to new members of The Circle before they enter the game — an immense power in a game of popularity.
But the Inner Circle recipient is chosen by an eliminated player on their way out. After elimination, contestants are usually allowed to choose any player to meet in person. However, when the Inner Circle is in play, the eliminated player is forced to choose the person who they think will win — or, really, who they want to win. The result is that potential drama is lost — if the eliminated contestant would have visited someone else — and they wind up having a disproportionate effect on the game. It’s a shame, because the potential power of the Inner Circle adds a welcome layer of strategy to this nightmare universe.
Despite some missteps, most of the changes made since the first season help “The Circle” tremendously. The editing is snappier, the boring elements are cut back and the concept is more fully utilized. Now, if they’d just stop hashtagging everything, we’d have a proper reality TV staple.