TV Review: “The Circle”

The social-media-themed reality show’s second season has a bumpy start, but ultimately shines thanks to spot-on casting.

The following review contains spoilers for the first four episodes of season two of “The Circle.”

Fans of the first season of “The Circle” had high expectations ahead of the premiere of the show’s new season. The Netflix series follows a rotating cast of strangers who seek to dupe, flatter, and #finesse their way to $100,000. What made the first season a success was the chemistry and charisma of the cast, as well as the unique social-media-based gameplay. Replicating that success with a new cast and an old formula posed a challenge for the show’s creators. Fortunately for the show’s fans, the team behind “The Circle” rose to the occasion. The second season of “The Circlestrikes reality TV gold once more, delivering a promising mix of comedy, drama, and heartwarming moments.

Just like any other reality show, strong casting is a deciding factor in the watchability of “The Circle.” Unlike “Survivor” or “The Challenge,” physical fitness is not necessary to play and win “The Circle” — it’s a social game that’s all about strategy. The way to win “The Circle” is to make connections through chats and challenges and become popular enough to be one of the two highest-ranked players each week. Those two players are the influencers, who have the power to ‘block’ one of the non-influencers. Thus, the cast isn’t exclusively made up of twenty-something “gym-bros” — although one or two make it onto the show. Instead, the season two cast includes 58-year-old Lee, a novelist from Texas pretending to play as a younger man; 22-year-old Chloe, an alum of the steamy Netflix series “Too Hot To Handle”; and former NSYNC member Lance Bass who, as you can probably guess, isn’t played by Lance Bass. While there isn’t an immediate substitute for the bromance that dominated the first season, there are some relationships that are equally fun to watch, particularly between the catfishing players who think they have each other all figured out. 

The first week the players spend on “The Circle” is not drama-free. A misunderstanding over one of the influencers saving a specific player from elimination puts a riff between much of the cast. This is the first real ‘drama’ of the season, and it’s drawn out across several episodes. Normally, this would make sense — petty drama is part of what makes reality TV entertaining. However, the dispute occurs so early in the season that it’s hard to feel connected to the cast, and thus sympathetic to either side. I found myself more interested in the comedic moments when a catfish almost revealed their identity than any of the he-said, she-said bickering.

Allowing players to ‘catfish’ is a scenario that could only happen in the world of “The Circle,” a world that provides unique fodder for reflection on our often-fraught relationship with social media. Audience members see how easy it is to misinterpret a comment or misjudge someone’s personality based on their profile picture. For example, hardly any player suspects that young, crazy-haired River is actually being played by a middle-aged man named Lee. Each time a player comments that they think River is honest and genuine, the show cuts to Lee to remind us how they’re falling for a trick; the same goes for any other catfish the cast believes is real. 

With only two American seasons, “The Circle” is still in its infancy. The end of the fourth episode promises a new ‘inner circle’ twist to shake up the game, but otherwise the show’s format sticks close to that of the first season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as when pioneering a new show, it’s best to continue with what’s worked. For “The Circle,” that means giving the cast’s personalities time to shine — whether it means showing B-roll footage of a player failing to cook basic meals, or a private message exchange where two players bond over being raised by single parents. “The Circle may be a show about becoming popular on social media through perfectly-curated photos and messages but, as in real life, the most compelling moments are the ones that are unplanned and authentic.

Grade: B+
Created By: Tim Harcourt of Studio Lambert
Release Date: April 14, 2021
Rated: TV-MA

Image courtesy of The Daily Beast.

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