The following article contains spoilers for seasons 2 and 3 of The Circle.
Netflix series The Circle had such earnest beginnings. The popular social media competition started as more of a social experiment than a game.
In season 1, players made game moves as prompted, but the show focused primarily on the relationships formed from heartfelt conversations between players. The only real “twist” in the pilot season was new players entering the game as others were eliminated. By the end of the season, viewers felt a little more assured in social media’s ability to create genuine connections. Speaking for myself, I was pleasantly surprised at how wholesome the show ended up being.
Considering how well received the first season was, where did things go wrong?
Put simply, the series is now overproduced. With the second and especially third season, it seems the show is committed to going as far in the opposite direction of the first season as possible. Perhaps as a strategy to keep audiences invested in (and binging) the episodes, producers have architected various twists to spice up the gameplay. With no exceptions, however, these twists have been bad. If anything, they’ve made the show less enjoyable to watch because they’ve made the game predictable.
Starting with the current season, the first horrible twist was what the show did to contestant Michelle. A sweet Southern woman in her 50s, Michelle was unassuming to start the competition. She was on her way to being well-liked among the players. But after the first blocking, which saw influencer Ava and her sister Chanel eliminated, Michelle’s prospects soured. Upon elimination, Ava and Chanel were offered the chance to continue in the competition as a clone of another player of their choosing. They chose Michelle, and thus were introduced to the remaining players as “Blue Michelle.” The real Michelle was renamed as “Orange Michelle.” In order for Ava and Chanel to stay in the game, they needed to successfully convince the other players to oust the real Michelle. Essentially, they had to somehow be more Michelle than Michelle herself.
Immediately, Ava and Chanel were aggressive in their attempts to trick players. They wrote long messages saying flowery things of little consequence. In a mini game where both Michelles had to explain the backstory behind real photos from Michelle’s life, Blue Michelle gained the upper hand. Despite the real Michelle giving specific details about minute parts of each picture, the players upsettingly believed Ava and Chanel’s vague fabrications more. This led to a final decision on which Michelle to keep, and expectedly, the players chose to block the real Michelle.
At risk of sounding dramatic, this twist might be the cruelest ever created for reality TV. The hurt in Michelle’s eyes when she realized she’d failed at being herself was painful to watch. Especially considering how absurd it was that the cast fell for Blue Michelle’s overacting. In a general sense, this twist was flat-out unfair. It clearly targeted one player, one that was likely at a disadvantage with social media to begin with. It was reminiscent of season 2, when Courtney was given The Joker identity by eliminated BFF Savannah. Courtney used that power to sabotage Savannah’s enemy Terilisha, as the producers likely anticipated him to. His badmouthing of Terilisha to the new players led to her inevitable blocking. As the first twists in their respective seasons, each one was set up to target specific players to eliminate from contention early. It felt like the producers were creating clever scenarios to rid their least desirable winners from the competition under the guise of “gameplay.”
The second twist in season 3 involved tech nerd Nick. He decided that his nemesis this season would be Kai, a bubbly and down-to-earth person who became influencer for the first two elimination rounds. Clearly threatened by her popularity, Nick began rallying numbers in an attempt to overtake her.
One of these was Calvin, the chef. But Calvin began developing feelings for Kai, which she reciprocated. Ironically because of his buddy Nick’s newly-formed side alliance, Calvin ended up being eliminated. Even though he visited Kai and expressed his commitment to root for her, when given the chance to actually help her in the game, Calvin had other ideas. He was notified as he was leaving that he could give a “popularity boost” to a player of his choosing. He chose Nick. The boost Nick was given came in the form of a burner profile that he could use to improve his social standing in the game. As ghost hunter Vince, he sang his own praises to the other players, and in turn received enough high rankings to earn an influencer spot. After achieving this popularity boost, Vince was taken out of the game and revealed as a fake profile to the contestants.
That this twist was bestowed upon Nick speaks to yet another annoying tendency from the series. The Circle gives critical game privileges to uninteresting or obnoxious players. Nick getting his popularity boost was reminiscent of Jack and Lisa from season 2 being offered the chance to re-enter the game together as a catfish — despite offering viewers little entertainment during their respective runs on the show. Nick is similarly hard to root for, with a smarmy confidence that borders on arrogance. Twists are more fun for audiences when they involve players we’re inclined to root for.
Indeed, the fact that The Circle seems to cherry-pick who the twists will be used on is contrary to what reality competition savants have become accustomed to. For example, a major twist in Survivor every season is the Hidden Immunity Idol. Through regular physical or mental trials, every player has the opportunity to win clues about where to find the Idol, and in turn obtain it. And because every player enters the game knowing about its existence, the Hidden Idol is incorporated into game strategy.
Similarly on MTV’s The Challenge, the twist of infiltrating a team and stealing a new partner is a stipulation that everyone knows about from the beginning of a season. Thus, players can nominate others for elimination or throw themselves into one as a strategic way to change the power dynamics of a partnership or alliance.
For a game to be fair, everyone has to know all of the rules. Reality TV viewers know that the genre is to varying degrees pre-determined, still, a good reality show will create an illusion of free will with its stars so viewers can suspend their disbelief. Even if major plotlines aren’t truly real, producers have to at least make the events feel realistic. All players must be given the chance to participate in the game to its fullest extent. Through The Circle’s secret twists, it was frustrating to see the producers’ hands in every major turn of the game in seasons 2 and 3. The alliances and rivalries felt forced; the influencers and blockings were predictable; and the visits after eliminations have rarely made sense.
For example, why wouldn’t the real Michelle visit someone besides her clone after her elimination to prove she was real? Why would Calvin give Nick the popularity boost when he was more loyal to Kai? How could players not realize Vince was Nick when Nick’s name was always first out of Vince’s mouth in chats? All fingers point to producers wanting certain players to advance and others to be eliminated. What’s worse is that the benefactors of these twists have made it to the final in most cases. Why would audiences want these players to win, knowing that they were basically given cheat codes at crucial points in the game?
The producers probably feel that they’re being clever by incorporating hidden twists into the game. In actuality, they are creating a game that undermines the intelligence of both players and viewers. The game would feel instantly more believable if all game elements were revealed to players upfront. This way, people could actually create strategy that anticipates power shifts rather than strategizing under the façade of a level playing field.
It’s a shame to see the quality dip so drastically with such a promising concept. If you’re looking for a game show driven by player ignorance instead of intelligent, holistic gameplay, look no further than The Circle. For on this show, the entertainment comes not from the contestants playing the game, but from the game playing them.
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