My Initial Thoughts On Channel 4's 'The Circle'

21 Sept 2018

In my opinion, reality TV has been stagnant for some time. We're all used to the formats and programmes that have been running for years, so it was about time we had something new. We all know how Big Brother works and we know that Love Island dominates UK TV ratings over the summer, so how could something be made that would compete with these two huge names. In steps the Channel 4 producers, ignoring all the warnings from Charlie Brooker's incredible dystopian-tech-sci-fi-social-media-is-the-devil show, Black Mirror, and creating a brand new reality game show based around a new form of social media. At the time of writing this, I've watched three episodes and I have a few thoughts about it that I'd like to put out into the world.

But first of all, if you haven't seen the countless ads on Channel 4 or all of the tweets, The Circle follows the residents of a block of flats who are competing to win £50k. They are not able to leave the block or meet any of the other inhabitants - they must only communicate through The Circle social media platform. This is a voice activated system that allows them to chat to other players privately or in a group, post updates and many more things that I think will be revealed over the course of the programme. In order to win the money, someone must come out on top as the most popular after being rated by the fellow players. Sounds exactly like Black Mirror, right? But because none of the people within the show can see each other, they can post whatever they like to make themselves more likeable. They can lie about every aspect of who they are, share over-exaggerated updates and basically just catfish their way to the top.

So to sum up the premise of the show, it's Big Brother meets Black Mirror meets Catfish. To me, that sounds pretty interesting and I was pretty excited to watch the show, but there are a few things I've questioned since tuning in. It has also been pretty apparent that not everyone was keen on this idea for a format, as the first episode only pulled in an average of 1 million viewers, despite Bake Off seeing 5.5 million viewers in the time slot before. This isn't ideal for a brand new reality show, however, I'll chat a bit more about that later in the post.
I'm going to start off this chat on a positive foot. I really am hooked on this programme. I'll admit, the first episode fell a little bit flat for me and was the catalyst for the concerns that I'm going to be talking about further on in the post, but I thought I'd watch the second episode in order to make a proper judgement on it. Nothing really exciting ever happens in the first episode of reality shows anyway - we're just introduced to the characters and are given a feel for how the show will work - and this was the case for The Circle. But things certainly got taken up a notch in the second episode as we witnessed our first blocking (I won't say who got blocked - no spoilers here!) and were left on a big cliffhanger.

That is something that, in my opinion, a show needs in order to keep people coming back. While many of us haven't been able to click with any of the players involved yet (or at least I haven't at this point), a great big twist or a cliffhanger is always going to bring me back for the next episode. It's that need for satisfaction of closure - I need to know how it's going to end and this is why I'm hooked. If every episode was as beige and empty as the first one, I don't think I would continue watching, but the producers have shown that they definitely have some plans in store by giving us such a great big shock in the second episode that I absolutely can't tear myself away.

As I mentioned, I haven't been able to click with any of the players yet, and this is somewhat of an issue for me. It's very difficult to relate to anyone in there, even though they are just 'real people', but I think that this has a lot to do with the celebrification of reality show contestants. With the likes of Big Brother and Love Island producing celebrities out of every day people, it's going to be difficult for any new reality show to find contestants that aren't going to play up to the cameras in order to get a celebrity career from being involved. It's hard to decipher whether anyone's personality is being amplified because of the cameras or whether they genuinely are how they are coming across.

For example, I can't stand Freddie because he is unnecessarily loud and is constantly on his feet, gesticulating wildly, making him come across as a bit of an attention seeker. That might be completely harsh of me, but I can't help but think "surely he's not like this in real life?" because he's just a bit too much. Obviously he isn't here to speak for himself, but it does make me wonder whether his flamboyant nature is emphasised because he hopes it'll land him a TV career once the programme has ended.
Another positive that I've taken from the show is how Channel 4 are aiming to contrast it against the reality programmes we know and love by introducing more 'intellectual' conversations. In the second episode, we were introduced to news feed, where the players can keep up to date with the news on the outside world. They read an article on Sadiq Khan and Brexit, then began to talk about it in the group chat. Now yes, this was a basic conversation and it's very clear that no one in the group has any advanced knowledge on politics, however, it was refreshing to see people that would otherwise be deemed as unintelligent by the likes of Piers Morgan talk about current issues (yes, we had that Brexit and trees comment from Hayley in Love Island, but this chat in The Circle was much deeper, I promise). A debate was also started about gender fluidity and the players' opinions on gender in general. Let me tell you, the results from that were very eye-opening!

The 'type' of people involved are also widely varied. If you're looking for a programme full of characters that will make you want to hit the gym and spray tan, this isn't it. Instead of the typical Instagram model types, The Circle has successfully chosen to show a range of people. We've had a lady in her 40s, a black single mum, a gay man, and I'm hoping there'll be many more to follow suit. It's rather refreshing, and while I love Love Island, having to watch works of art hand-carved by angels every day doesn't half make you feel a bit inadequate, so having a variety of people is a great touch.

Now, while that is all well and good, and I found the cliffhanger to be so good that it left me wanting more, I can't but have strong negative feelings towards the programme. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying watching it so far and I will most likely watch the whole series, but I can't help but worry about the message it is sending to its audience.

I definitely have my sensible head on when I say this, but catfishing is not something to be glorified. With the rise of social media and its many updates that allow people to do much more advanced things than post bulletins on MySpace (who remembers those days?), there has been a huge increase in catfishing with malicious intent. Not everyone is doing it to try and seek love like on Catfish: The TV Show - there has been a rise in criminals using fake and embellished profiles, such as the Grindr murderer, Stephen Port, and Tom Montgomery from the documentary, Talhotblond. And while the environment of The Circle is a safe one and (hopefully) no one is there to commit a crime, catfishing is something that is allowed to happen in this programme in order to manipulate the other players. That just doesn't sit right with me.
If you've been following my live tweets as I watch the show, you'll know that the particular person above is someone that I just can't abide. This is Alex and right from the get-go, we learn that he is going into The Circle as someone else. But he's not just pretending to be any old Joe - oh no... he's pretending to be his own, real life girlfriend. That's right, he's using her name and photos, and building a personality around that in order to win. He has completely divided viewers and while I am firmly on the team of people that find his tactics disturbing and creepy (seriously, who wants to watch strange guys flirt with your girlfriend while you're in the driver's seat, egging them on?), I can't help but feel completely baffled by the team that find him funny or clever. This is not the type of behaviour that people should be applauding in the slightest and while some people may think that that's an extreme comment to make, I think it's completely valid.

Channel 4 need to take some sort of responsibility and do something to show that they do not condone catfishing outside of the secure setting of The Circle, because I worry that without a message like that, this behaviour is becoming normalised. While it is easier just to view the programme as a piece of entertainment, the angel with its head screwed on that sits on my shoulder is telling me that it is more than that. I've seen comments from people saying that the show highlights the dangers of social media, but is that the message that is being conveyed when many of the viewers see it all as a complete laugh.

Not only is there the catfishing aspect, but I can see the private chats becoming an issue. We've already seen Freddie try to start a rumour with Dan that Mitchell is gay, which is cyber-bullying. This is something that I haven't seen anyone else pick up on, and again, it could just be me being sensible, but this is something that I feel like Channel 4 needs to address.
So, if you've actually made it all the way through the post, well done you. I know it turned into somewhat of a ranty essay, but I've had a lot of thoughts since the first episode that I've wanted to get out of my head.

To summarise, this is a programme that I wish I could stop watching. Those issues that I have around the catfishing and cyber-bullying that haven't been addressed so far are sitting quite deeply within me. It's not that I've ever had experience with either of those things, but I'm just so aware of how much more prominent and dangerous both of them are with advancing technology. I'm also not a huge fan of the amplified personalities that are being played up for the cameras. I would love to know what the application form looked like for this show and whether the producers have had a say in how the players should act. Either way, this celebrity culture that surrounds reality TV has completely taken over and changed the way people 'play the game.' That being said, it's worth thinking about whether these types of over-the-top personalities make for good TV or not. Would you rather watch 'normal' people sit and talk about how social media is used, or Freddie screaming at his screen about sending dick pics? It's all very subjective.

While the negatives do slightly outweigh the positives for me, I'm still going to watch it, because like I said at the start of the post, I am hooked. I think the concept is modern and really interesting. It's different to any reality show I've seen before and I hope that it does well (as long as Channel 4 makes it completely obvious that they are against any sort of bad cyber behaviour).

As for the 1 million viewers, it is a real shame and I wonder whether it's because we're so used to the reality shows that have been on our screens for years that nothing else can compete. Or maybe it's because it wasn't advertised enough? Sure, there were ads on Channel 4, but I didn't see anything on social media about it, which is odd considering it's a show about social media. Nonetheless, there are masses of tweets about the episodes each night, so there is always a great deal of conversation surrounding the programme, showing that there is a fair amount of hype. I'm hoping that all the awkward kinks of the show get ironed out as it progresses, because there are definitely times where it feels clunky and a bit dull, but I do think that there is the potential for it to flourish.

So, I have been very honest and detailed with my opinion on this show so far, so please be kind in the comments! Have you been keeping up with The Circle? What are your thoughts?

The Circle is shown on Channel 4 every night at 10PM (aside from Saturdays).

Whould you like to comment?

  1. Great post! I totally get what you're saying - but it has really opened my eyes to how easy it is to not be authentic online. Kinda scary tbh!!

    1. It is scary! I couldn't help but be gripped by it though x

  2. I watched it from the first episode (having watched GBBO). The idea intrigued me and seemed very 'now' in the social media age where I get friend requests on Insta or FB from people who I don't even know.
    Although I do understand your concerns about 'promoting' catfishing, I take an opposite view. I work with vulnerable young people and have done various trainings that encompass exploitation, grooming etc. and I feel that 'The Circle' can actually help people to understand how easy it is to be conned by online 'friends'...look at how popular 'Kate' bad do we feel for those who genuinely like 'her'?
    This is not to say all people are con merchants on line...but if it makes us analyse ourselves, who we trust, our gut instincts and our safety, surely that is a good thing.

    1. This is a really interesting perspective! And I completely understand what you're saying, but my opinion didn't really change about the catfishing aspect at all, even after the final. I'm hoping some changes are made if there's another season! x