Has My Brain Melted or Does Netflix's New Reality Show "The Circle" Have Empathy?

Is this show kind of...woke?

Assuming the way one chooses to spend New Year's Day (not to mention the first day of the new decade) sets the precedent for everything that follows, I've made a grave, grave mistake in 2020.

I'm not sure what sort of productive things a well-adjusted person might do on New Year's Day. Perhaps they clean their home or start a new book? As for me, I spent my entire day marathoning The Circle, Netflix's latest American reality competition show adapted from a British reality competition show of the same name, and I'm fairly certain that says everything you need to know about the state of my life.

The Circle is basically just like Big Brother––a bunch of young, hot, dramatic messes are locked in a living space with no access to Internet or TV, with the ever-present chance of elimination and a cash prize for the last person standing––except instead of the housemates hooking up and fighting in-person, all interaction takes place on a social media app guessed it… "The Circle." I think it's supposed to take its name from a social circle, but it could also be referring to the shape of a frying pan, because The Circle fried my brain.

Netflix the circle Netflix

Oh, one more thing: Contestants can pretend to be anyone they want on The Circle app, so a huge chunk of the show revolves around the housemates trying to figure out who amongst them is a catfish. To be clear, the prize money is solely based on which person is the most popular based on their fake social media presence, so there's no real in-game incentive to specifically target people you think are catfishing you. And yet, the players become obsessed with outing the catfish for some reason. Both housemates eliminated, or "blocked," within the first four episodes were chosen because people thought they "weren't who they said they were." The housemates were wrong. Both times.

In theory, one could argue that The Circle is attempting to make an important statement about the contrast between social media and the real world, how at the end of the day everyone is being fake online. We're never judging people on social media for who they are, but rather for the image they project, whether it's an idealized version of themselves or another person entirely. But could anyone really delude themselves into believing The Circle could be that deep?

No, The Circle's entire M.O. is to bring the loudest, most unreal personalities together to...mostly get along?

Wow, okay, so watching The Circle is a really weird experience for anyone well-versed in trashy reality TV. Maybe it's the fact that none of these people are actually interacting with each other in-person, thereby removing most of the potential housemate conflicts that arise in similarly conceived shows; but for the most part, all of the housemates are surprisingly nice.

Take, for instance, Joey Sasso, a macho, 25-year-old bro whose entire personality is "Italian stereotype" and who constantly shouts, "YEAH, BUDDY!" as if real humans have catchphrases. The second The Circle introduced me to Joey Sasso, I knew I was going to hate him. Right off the bat, the dude starts talking about shirtless selfies and d*ck pics. I was positive that Joey was a DoucheBro with a capital "D" and also a capital "B."

The Circle Joey Sasso This guy.Netflix

And then…

He's kind of not. Don't get me wrong, the dude is annoying and kind of gross. Yes, he desperately slides into the DMs of pretty much every woman (or man pretending to be a woman) in the apartment to compliment them on how beautiful they are in their profile pictures. But at the same time, he's oddly sensitive. After finding out that an eliminated player he accused of being a catfish was actually the real deal, Joey seemed to feel genuinely distraught and guilty about mischaracterizing another player. Joey, who is also really big on family, gets emotional during a conversation with another housemate, Miranda, who tells him that she spent her childhood moving around foster homes.

After Miranda explains that she values her experiences because they made her stronger, Joey writes: "Your positive outlook on life is truly inspiring, I would be happy to welcome you into my family with open arms. You're so brave to share your story, you have my respect." His response brings Miranda to tears.

Stranger yet, despite his "alpha" attitude, Joey doesn't start beef with the other guys, either. In fact, he develops an adorable bromance with Shubham, The Circle's youngest, sweetest, and most down-to-earth player, who seems fully intent on being his most genuine self. By the end of the fourth episode, very much to my surprise, I actually kind of liked Joey.

But if I kind of like Joey, does that mean The Circle is working? In a game about making snap judgments based on curated information, does The Circle assume that we, as viewers, will immediately judge someone like Joey, only to reveal that our snap judgments weren't fully correct? Could The Circle really be that introspective about human interaction in the Internet Age, or is my brain actually a puddle of mush, its synapses desperately firing into a hollow abyss?

I'm not sure, but I'm starting to think that maybe I made the right choice starting out 2020 by watching The Circle on Netflix. That, or I genuinely need to be hospitalized.

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