“What if phones, but too much.” Daniel Ortberg’s six-word description of Black Mirror ended up reflexively inspiring “Playtest”, an episode in the programme’s third season. That joke could also have been the entire pitch for Channel 4’s latest reality TV show dolled up in the clothes of a social experiment, The Circle, in which a collection of the usual reality TV stereotypes are placed in apartments and encouraged to catfish their fellow contestants in the hope of winning £50,000. The first episode, which went out last night, introduced us to the cast, which includes a digital marketer pretending to be an oncologist (“They didn’t even question it!” she crowed in delight) and a gay man pretending to be an odious straight lad, with a recently deceased dog (he also delighted when the others fell for this ruse).
The Circle’s hook is that unlike its reality TV antecedents, such as Big Brother, which is shivering its way to an overdue demise with a final series on Channel 5, face-to-face conflict isn’t on the menu. Instead, the participants are each sequestered in their own apartment and forced to communicate via a bespoke social network that comes off like the unholy love child of LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram with an unpalatable pinch of Tinder thrown in. The conclusion of episode one ended with a particularly uncomfortable date conducted via private message between a barman from Norwich and what he thought was a pretty young woman, but was in fact another young guy using his girlfriend’s pictures to aid him in the quest for the cash.
As far back as the BBC’s notorious Joy of Text night of programmes in 2001, TV commissioners have been trying to make what we do on our phones into compelling television. But The Circle is no more enjoyable than the Joy of Text’s disastrous speed texting challenges and faux-intellectual debates about how SMS was set to dissolve society’s very fabric. The pacing is deathly slow, as contestants dictate their messages to the Circle (which we’re led to believe is voice-activated but is patently the work of put-upon researchers hunched over keyboards) and read out replies. All this as the moral is tediously repeated: You never know who you’re talking to online.
That moralising feels particularly hollow coming from Channel 4, a broadcaster with a long history of commissioning shock documentaries and which, after all, was the original home of Big Brother. Television tends to take this high-handed and disapproving attitude to social media, as if it’s a rockstar who used to be all about sex, drugs, and smashing the system, but now makes sedate albums of lute music and has enough cash to hide any scandals that come up. There’s also palpable jealousy: This used to be the screen you were obsessed with but now we’ve got to share you with the one in your hand. In The Circle’s case, it’s difficult to justify handwringing about people pretending to be something they’re not on a social network when that’s exactly what you’ve cast them to do.
That’s all before you start even looking at the question of taste. The Radio Times’ multimedia editor, Sarah Doran, was spot on when she noted on Twitter: “When there’s a serious Stand Up 2 Cancer ad during the break for The Circle, a show in which a woman is pretending to be a cancer doctor to win money.” The woman in question justified her decision to set herself up as a fake junior doctor with the excuse that it’s a valuable lesson about how fake social media is, before going on to deliver the now highly cliched reality TV monologue about how she’s there to win. That one contestant who is taking part with her infant child accompanying her feels the need to hide that fact, or that the one gay man is playing a sexually aggressive straight man, bring up wider societal issues, but it feels like the place to best unpick them isn’t a heavily hyped reality format.
Rather than an indictment of social media, The Circle actually says more about the banality of its producers and the executives who commissioned it. With time, money and a platform, they’ve created a miniature version of the social media world we live in and expect us to see it as somehow profound. Of course the online world is stuffed with scammers, creeps, criminals and frauds — we dragged all that stuff in from the outside world –– but how many people are you friends with because you met them online? How many couples do you know that first got together through a connection on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or online dating?
The Circle is like a push poll, where the pollster puts forward a loaded question to get the answers they wanted in the first place. “Isn’t social media awful?” It says, building its competition to foster deceit, cruelty and lies. “See,” it cries as the contestants, encouraged to create false impressions of themselves, lie and dissemble to win, “Social media is the worst!” You’re unlikely to see jokes, compassion or fellow feeling on The Circle, but that’s saying nothing about social media, and everything about what reality TV requires to generate drama. And it feels like we’ve been having that debate for decades.