"I would like to be perceived as a real-ass bitch in a fake-ass world," says Chris Sapphire, a 30-year-old, openly gay, openly Christian Mexican American "hood spiritualist hustler" from Dallas when he sets foot into his apartment on The Circle, Netflix's reality competition series that's become an internet obsession. That line perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the show and its contestants, who set out to be likable enough to make them worthy of the $100,000 prize. The Circle isn't just your average competition show; it's a commentary on online culture and how those of us who participate perform identity and authenticity—and it's wildly entertaining.
The series—a remake of a U.K. reality show of the same name—is hailed as a social experiment: seven strangers are picked to live in what appears to be a large apartment complex, only instead of having their lives taped as they steal each other's peanut butter or hook up in a jacuzzi, they're closed off from actual physical interaction. Players only interact by chatting and taking part in challenges via DM or group chat on a voice-activated social media system called The Circle. At the end of each day players are asked to privately rank each other, from favorite to least favorite. The two highest ranked players become "influencers" and are tasked with choosing one player to be "blocked," or kicked off the show. Of course, there are twists. As it goes on the internet and in Lifetime movies, not all the players are who they say they are. Those who enter The Circle can either be themselves or cosplay as someone else, catfishing their fellow contestants to a pay day of $100,000. Players attempt to sniff out catfish while convincing their fellow players that they are genuine (even when they're not). Once a player is blocked, they can then meet one person still in the game IRL and reveal their true identity. Whoever is left standing at the end wins the prize money. But in order to get there, they have to be well-liked, and considered to be genuine, and the road to the finish is paved with hilarious missteps, outright fakery, and real moments of sweetness.
Sure, contestants make alliances. After all, it is reality TV. But in a game that's effectively competitive catfishing and Instagramming, contestants often struggle with creating the version of themselves that will get them ahead. While Chris chose to play as wholly himself—as did 23-year-old Indian-American VR engineer Shubham Goel (a fan favorite who's given the nickname Shooby), 25-year-old New York mama's boy Joey Sasso (a clear progeny of the Jersey Shore universe), 25-year-old Texan model and alleged taco enthusiast Alana Duval, 26-year-old free spirit Miranda Bissonnette, and 27-year-old Chicagoan cutie Bill Cranley—the other eight contestants bend the truth about themselves to varying degrees. Both Antonio DePína, a 24-year-old professional basketball player, and Sammie Cimarelli, a 24-year-old bisexual woman from Miami, compete as themselves except they say they're single, believing that it would give them an advantage. Ed, a 23-year-old bro showed up with his mom, Tammy.
Others full-on catfish the competition, including 37-year-old Black lesbian Karyn Blanco, who plays as "Mercedeze," a hot, slim, and heterosexual Black woman; schlubby wife guy and opera aficionado Alex Lake, 32, enters The Circle as younger, hotter, and thirstier "Adam"; social media editor Sean Taylor, a fat white woman, decides to use her slim, modelesque friend's photos; and Seaburn Williams, an adorable, goofy 29-year-old Black man, plays as "Rebecca," his actual real-life girlfriend. These players consider their catfishing a strategic move in the game, and they're given license to do so without the repercussions that lying about your identity usually come with. This creates hilarious moments, like when "Rebecca," aka Seaburn, attempts to talk periods with the other women and scrambles hard when attempting to commiserate on cramps. Or when "Adam" attempts to flirt his way to the top but has no idea how to approach women considering he's been with his wife for 11 years. But in some cases the catfishing is a means to make a social statement.
Karyn/"Mercedeze" believes that her tough, masculine exterior scares people off, and would be a detriment to her in the game. She thinks playing as "Mercedeze" would allow people to get to know her without any preconceived notions, and that her sexuality and the way she chooses to embody it will not be seen as a threat. She reminds viewers and players to "never judge a book by its cover," and when she's blocked in the competition she decides to visit Chris to applaud him for not being scared to be authentic. Sean, on the other hand, chooses to reveal her true self while in the game, saying while that she loves herself, the internet is a cruel place for fat women, and she was worried of how she'd be treated. Both these moments provide an uplifting respite in a show where a dude removes his shirt in preparation for sliding into a model's DMs. (Yes, it's Joey, sending a "so word on the street is you are crushing on me hard right now." It's TV magic.)
As contestants peruse their folders of photos, they hem and haw over what looks attractive but not too sexy; what's flattering but not overly filtered; what represents them, or the version of them they're playing as (and perhaps, deep down, wish they could be) at their very best. It holds a microscope to the ways in which we, for a lack of a better term, brand ourselves online, carefully packaging profiles and messages with likes and follows in mind. And with six figures at stake, it adds the pressure to make the right choice. Players focus hard on their screens and strategically verbalize their carefully formulated thoughts adding plenty of LOLs, OMGs, and emojis to soften their image. They speak in hashtags, saying a "#VirtualHug" or "#YouAreBeautiful" instead of, you know, just saying "Sending you a virtual hug" or "You are beautiful." It forces viewers to ask themselves, "do I really do that?" And the thing is, yes. Yes we do. Tone can't be heard, and those who find their jokes or flirations misread suffer the consequences. Take for instance Miranda, who says in a group chat that Sammie is probably the catfish because she's too good to be true, with an added winky face emoji to make it clear she's flirting. It was misread and Miranda found herself on Sammie's bad side.
Online communication is a high stakes game. A bad tweet can get you canceled; an unflattering photo reveals that you don't always look great; we are always hashtag doing it for the Gram. The Circle has brought that reality to our screens in a way that's telling of our current world. The show asks if it's possible to be your authentic self when clout can translate into major prize money, and if we're ever really real online. Even if you're not on a reality TV competition, personal branding has become central to our online lives. The Circle has managed to capture it all. And for that reason it's a completely fascinating viewing experience
The Circle holds a mirror to our actual online behavior, and the anxiety and thought that goes into creating an appealing version of self in a way that no show has been able to capture. Watching it is like watching yourself, alone in your room, trying to compose the perfect text to the person you like and seeing all the cringe effort that goes into a single "hey what's up."