Every few years, it feels as though the world of reality TV needs a bit of a shake-up. No, not in a ‘celebrity doing things to a pig on live television’ way - but not in a ‘simple rehash of an existing programme’ way either.
There has to be a happy medium - a way to move the format forward - and Channel 4’s intriguing new show The Circle could well be the one to do it.
The arrival of the new show in the same week it was announced Big Brother is coming to an end suggests we can divide reality TV into a pre- and post-BB world. Whether deliberate or not, it helps wrap things up in a neat little package. In order to fill the gap, a new premise is needed, one that belongs in 2018 rather than one that could exist at any time.
For The Circle, the focus is social media. Seeing as many of us probably spend at least as much time on social platforms as we do watching old-fashioned TV, this makes a whole lot of sense. It’s already been dubbed “a low point for reality TV” by some outlets, but actually, we’re erring on the side of “potentially extremely interesting”.
But what exactly is it?
How does it work?
As they put it, “‘The Circle’ is a brand new reality show where being liked is everything”.
The contestants, or ‘players’, as they have been dubbed (there’s no pretence here - it’s presented as a game, because that’s what it is), will all live in the same apartment block in London and compete to be the most popular person in The Circle.
However, they will be isolated from one another, never meeting face-to-face. Instead, all interactions will be conducted through a specially designed social media app.
The only things they’ll see of each other are what they choose to share, meaning that players can be “whoever they want to be… Younger, fitter, a totally different person”.
Contestants can rate their rivals, to the point where those rated highly gain more power and those with negative feedback could end up ‘blocked’, or eliminated from the show.
It makes for interesting dynamics, where smarter players may try to make alliances and force out those they see as rivals for the £50,000 top prize, in much the same way that contestants on The Weakest Link would combine to vote out individuals who would otherwise have been destined to win the quiz show.
It seems as though the key is to ensure you’re popular enough to enjoy the perks, but not so popular that others see you as too much of a threat - a delicate balance.
It all feels very ‘Black Mirror for people who think Black Mirror is cutting social commentary, and who use the phrase ‘makes you think’ unironically’. There are two sides to it, though.
On one hand, it could become a commentary on how we use social media to create false versions of ourselves, exaggerating our positives and hiding anything which might see people look upon us unfavourably.
On the other, though, it’s a chance for us to examine how we react to others’ social posts, and whether we take them at face value even when we know how much tweaking and massaging of the truth goes into our own.
Some of the lies told will be much bigger than others: on one end of the scale we have a contestant pretending to be a doctor, which might not require too much in the way of manipulation, but at the other end of the scale is a gay man acting straight for the purposes of the show, and a man ‘playing’ as a woman, using photos of his own girlfriend.
Who is involved?
Maya Jama and Alice Levine will present the show, while many of the ‘players’ going into the show have seen social media play a big part in their day-to-day life.
These include a model who gave her career a boost after posting photos online, a self-described ‘Insta queen’ and a social media producer. The test for them will come in how well they’ll be able to make the shift from manipulating social media novices to manipulating manipulators: would you change your behaviour if you knew everyone else was well-versed in your usual tricks?
However, the contestants themselves, and the characters they are playing, will sometimes be very different.
Not everyone going in is extremely ‘online’, though: there’s one contestant who is said to hate social media, though maybe she’s playing a long game and has begun adopting a persona even before going in.
We also have one contestant bringing in his pet, and another taking her daughter in with her. That could make for interesting dynamics - for example, what would happen if one day they decide to just stop acknowledging the existence of their pet/child on the profile they curate for other contestants, leaving everyone else wracked with self-doubt. Did they just imagine the child? Have they been losing their mind and seeing a non-existent turtle after days without human company?
When does it start?
The first episode of The Circle airs at 9:15pm on Channel 4 on Tuesday 18 September, and according to promotional material the contestants will be spending “up to three weeks” getting to know one another.
New episodes will air daily on weeknights.
The relatively open premise appears to open it up to the addition of new contestants, too, though future plans are naturally being kept firmly under wraps for the time being.
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(Images: Channel 4)