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'The Circle' Tried to Grow Up. It Didn't Work

By Emma Chance | TV | May 9, 2024 |

By Emma Chance | TV | May 9, 2024 |


Netflix’s The Circle is like Survivor meets Big Brother meets The Traitors. A cast of people move into separate, gaudily decorated apartments in the same building, where they can only communicate with each other via a social-media-esque app called The Circle, on which they create profiles for themselves (or their catfish aliases) complete with pictures and bios, and message each other in private and group chats. Based on these profiles, conversations, and the occasional game, contestants rate each other at the end of each episode, and the most popular player (the one with the highest cumulative ranking) is named the Influencer, and they and sometimes the second highest ranked person decides who will be blocked from The Circle.

There was little strategy or sophisticated gameplay in the early seasons beyond guessing who may or may not be a catfish. Contestants were more or less honest in their rankings, which is to say, it was a simple popularity contest. The winners were, for the most part, rewarded for being themselves, with the exception being season 2 winner DeLeesa St. Agathe, who played as her husband, Trevor. But even her’s was a noble win, as her rise to the top was due in large part to runner-up Chloe Veitch having genuine affection for “Trevor” and ranking him highest based on those feelings.

But much like Survivor, you can’t make the same show with the same formula in perpetuity, because that will get boring. So, for season six, they threw some stuff at the wall to see what stuck. For example, there was a secret AI contestant that the human contestants had to hunt out. That only lasted a couple of episodes though, because the AI revealed itself after the contestants banned someone else under the assumption of them being AI. (Why not see how far the robot could get, I wondered?) Then, for a couple of episodes, each player took a quiz to determine who their “ride or die” was, and once they were paired up their fates were briefly bound to each other—if your ride or die got blocked, so did you (maybe?)—which incentivized them to bond with and rank highly someone they previously may not have. But when it got to who was going to be blocked, the ride or dies were each posed with a Traitors style quandary: they could say they wanted to stay and have their ride or die blocked, or they could step aside for their ride or die. If both of them said they wanted to stay or if both of them said they’d sacrifice themselves, they both got blocked.

This little problem led to Kyle Fuller remaining in the game until the very end because his ride or die chose to sacrifice themself. Kyle was runner-up to winner Brandon Baker, a catfish who played as his friend “Olivia.” It’s within Brandon’s gameplay that the problem with the new strategies lies.

Brandon was a heart-first player from the start. A nursing assistant, he wanted to play as Olivia because he’s used to being the “fat, funny, gay friend,” and wanted to see what it was like to be a hot blonde. He cried during his very first Circle chat when all of the contestants introduced themselves because he wasn’t sure if what he said was good/convincing enough. He was right, as we saw the other contestants’ reactions immediately after he sent his messages, and they were all skeptical of Olivia.

But as the season went on and more outwardly strategic players came in (new people are added partway through fairly often), the gameplay took a nasty turn—players accusing other players of being AI or catfish or simply full of shit—and sweet, innocent, friends-with-everyone Olivia gained popularity. She and Kyle bonded over losing their fathers—a genuine moment in which Brandon struggled with lying about his identity—and Kyle was protective of her after that. Her fellow players got in the habit of ranking her highest because they didn’t see her as a threat, and they wanted to get the people they thought had a chance of winning the game out first. And that’s how she won.

The biggest strategist of the season was Jordan Staff, who played as himself but used old pictures from before he lost a lot of weight because he thought he could hide his cutthroat strategy behind his formerly kind, fluffy face. Well, he didn’t. Jordan came in swinging and never let up. He clocked the most likely to win—Myles Reed—in the first few minutes, and started a campaign to get him blocked then and there. While the other contestants would end their messages with cheesy hashtagged platitudes, things like #GirlGang and #KindnessWins, Jordan mostly eschewed Circle messaging conventions, and when he did hashtag it was decidedly pointed, like #OnlyOneWinner. Other contestants could be seen doing jigsaw puzzles and cooking in their apartments, while Jordan was always frantically scribbling in his notebook and throwing up his hands in frustration. At one point he literally had a bulletin board with red string going from one flashcard to the next, like he was solving a cold case.

Despite their attempts to strategize and make it less of a popularity contest, Jordan’s behavior and attitude rubbed the other contestants the wrong way. He even turned his number one ally, Quori-Tyler Bullock, against him when they were influencers together and had to agree on who to block. Jordan was gunning for Myles and Kyle, but QT, the number one influencer that week, wasn’t having it. She got to make the ultimate decision, and instead of listening to Jordan’s rampage, she left the chat and made it without him. After that, he was playing from the bottom, and told everyone he messaged with that he knew he had no chance of winning, so just wanted to make sure the right person did win, a.k.a. not Myles.

Jordan was eventually successful in getting his nemesis blocked, but he was also right that he couldn’t win because strategy doesn’t win The Circle. Despite being the only catfish left in the end game, Brandon was the most real, and the message of the show hasn’t changed since its first season, regardless of all the efforts to the contrary: Be true to yourself and kind to others, and you will be rewarded. Especially on the internet.