In its first US-based season, the premise of Netflix’s reality competition show The Circle was alluringly abstract. Eight contestants from across the country would move into the same apartment building and only interact with each other—albeit never face-to-face. Instead, their sole social interactions were limited to a social media platform called the Circle, where they could craft profiles, send group and private messages, and play different get-to-know-you games with each other. Each episode would end with contestants ranking each other based on how likable or genuine they came across in their social media and online interactions, with the most popular Circle user then receiving the power to axe another user of their choice. Whoever most successfully lived in this strange version of isolation without pissing anyone off too much, or revealing that their supposed true social media-self was far from true at all, would end up being voted by the other cast members to win $100,000.
Living alone, never leaving the apartment, having relationships that existed solely online? In February 2020, when The Circle’s premiere season wrapped, this sounded like pure fantasy. Cut to Season 2, which premiered in April: We’d all been living in the Circle for the past year and then some. In fact, as the season began airing, we were finally coming out of our forced solitude, as vaccines became widely available across the US and states began relaxing their lockdown restrictions. Would The Circle be as much fun to watch now that we were finally finding some healing for our collective trauma?
Turns out, yes, because The Circle is still at its heart purely a game show about outsized, ridiculous characters who use far too many hashtags and fall easily for other people’s fakery. This season was rife with old men masquerading as young men, Lance Bass references, romantic drama, and misplaced trust. It wasn’t social satire or commentary on the lifestyle we’d all been living since March 2020: The Circle was, is, and always will be just a fun experiment in how social media perverts authenticity.
I circled (heh) up two fellow Circle lovers, Slate audio producer Daniel Schroeder and Slate staff writer Heather Schwedel, to have a no-holds-barred Circle Chat with me in honor of Season 2’s climactic finale. Below, we discuss the show’s themes of ingenuity, friendship, and hot brothers.
Allegra Frank: Circle, open Circle Chat.
To my Slate Circle fam: Truly sad to see this season end already 😢 Despite taking place at the tail-end of a global pandemic-fueled quarantine, The Circle’s second season was an absolutely joyous time-killer—not a waste of time, but a show that made the hours wile away quickly. #BingeIt! Over the course of the 13 episodes, I really found favorites among the contestants, was caught up in their strategic catfish-hunting to suss out who among them was really genuine about their social media presence, and also laughed. So much. #LoveToLaugh. This is easily the funniest reality game show I’ve ever watched, and because The Circle is so predicated on people’s personalities, real or fake, it allows for a truly character-based dramedy that rivals any of the best fictionalized TV out there. #TBSHasNothingOnTheCircle!
Okay, I’m dropping this Circle Chat conceit, because the one thing that grates me about The Circle is its contrived way of presenting instant messaging. Too many hashtags! No one uses hashtags in texts! That aside: Were you guys similarly in love with The Circle Season 2? What did you find most obsession-worthy?
Heather Schwedel: I was prepared to squeal over how much I liked Season 2 with you guys, but am I about to have a Terilisha-style sudden, dramatic change of heart? I enjoyed it, but I can’t go all the way to “absolutely joyous” and “funniest reality game show I’ve ever watched” with you, Allegra. I mean, I watched Project Runway at its peak. But I can’t actually throw you under the bus like someone on the show might; The Circle definitely brightened up my last few weeks. To me, this season was quite fun, and really improved on Season 1, but it was more the background viewing I was looking for while I folded laundry and did my skincare routine than a revelation.
Daniel Schroeder: I adored this season of The Circle. I think I’ll split between you both and say that I laughed deeply at so much of this season, like Chloe doing literally anything, and all the awkward conversations between surprise roommates Jack and Lisa. Funniest reality TV for me goes to some chaotic mess like Finding Prince Charming, but we’re not here to talk about that. I was intensely in love with the first season of this show and was so relieved that my love hadn’t stalled following a global pandemic that left us much like the Circle cast. They did a great job mixing things up like adding in the Joker, but as with all reality TV it just comes down to the casting. And this group nailed it. Could’ve watched that finale dinner party for hours.
Schwedel: They really did cast well this season, didn’t they? I liked the contestants in Season 1, but Chloe, I must agree with you Daniel, is a gem, as were “Trevor,” “Emily,” Courtney, and the rest. I think the conceit of having a few contestants with special hooks—Chloe was on another Netflix show; Lisa was pretending to be Lance Bass but actually did have a legit connection to Lance Bass; Mitchell was trying to avenge his mother and brother after they lost Season 1—really helped.
Schroeder: lol Mitchell had all the charisma his brother wished he had.
Schwedel: Sidebar: No. I thought Mitchell might be the cuter brother, but when Ed showed up on screen again in a late-season video message, I was brought back to the light. Team Ed as long as his beard isn’t too gnarly. But sorry, proceed.
Frank: Let me cut in here to say—Mitchell is def way hotter than Ed and his annoying af mother. But The Circle is about friendship, so, no fighting, fam.
Schroeder: The way Lee kept crying at everything warmed my heart. It’s funny that the catfishers like Lee and Deleesa actually turned out to be some of the most genuine people on the show. Khat, Terilisha, and Savannah all came ready to fight and it never worked out for them. Courtney’s the outlier here as the biggest game player of all but tbh gay men just do it better.
Frank: Totally agree that the casting was exceptional this season. When it comes to the catfish versus real people battle, though, I was intrigued by how much more the show leaned into that this season. In Season 1, the top three contenders for the $100,000 prize were all exactly who they said they were; the winner ended up being the lovable meathead Joey, who never once hid who he was. As much as I absolutely adored Deleesa—as we saw her in B-roll and outside of the Circle Chat, as well as when she was role-playing as her hottie husband Trevor—I was a little bit surprised that a catfish ended up winning this thing. It seemed like The Circle was trying to say something about authenticity on social media this season, but if the final message is that being authentic is impossible, I’m not sure if I #VibeWithThat.
What did you guys think of how far the catfish went this season? Was it a turnoff or just part of the fun?
Schroeder: I was so happy to see the catfish make it to the end. For all that I was caught up in the show I never really thought too deeply about what the show might be saying. Deleesa and Lee were such strong characters to root for regardless, and seemed to be playing the game in a way that was true to their real selves. In the finale Lee kept saying that he didn’t realize he was just playing himself in his 20s until near the end, and I thought that was kind of beautiful. The sort of distance from self the catfish created seemed to allow more authenticity than those who were actually themselves. But I guess I’m just a Deleesa stan. I was screaming alone in my apartment when she pulled Scottie Pippen.
Schwedel: That was such a great moment! (And reminded me of how I just learned who Scottie Pippen is last year.) I think Deleesa’s decision to play as a catfish helped her—it brought us the Chloe–Trevor “romance” that undeniably helped her game—but I also think she could have won it playing as herself. Maybe that’s naive? For entertainment purposes, I loved how Deleesa had that “just man things” cheat sheet from her husband. We definitely need the catfish element to result in stuff like that, or Emily’s amazing mannequin crash-and-burn, or the twist of bringing back Emily and Lance (or Jack and Lisa, what names should we use, I keep switching) to play as a completely new contestant. That was another thing the producers really stepped up this season, the twists.
But the authenticity question gets at one of the elements of the show that gets on my nerves. Maybe Deleesa and Lee were “authentic,” but I think it’s ridiculous for that to matter or at all be a talking point in a game like this. Deleesa kept saying Courtney and River were playing a dirty game, but, uh, Deleesa was a catfish who was stringing Chloe along and doing manipulating of her own. As she should have been! It’s a game. This is why the whole Terilisha/Savannah drama was so deeply stupid. One of them accused the other one of lying about who was responsible for one of the blockings, but hello, they were both responsible, it was a joint decision. I know this sort of pettiness is in many ways the whole point of the show and I guess this is a perpetual point of conflict on reality TV, going back to the speech in the Survivor finale and so many utterances of “I’m not here to make friends”—should a player win for being a nice person or for being good at playing the game? I adored Chloe, but watching her come in at the top of the rankings over and over, I started to think that maybe she would skate by and win the whole season just because everyone likes a hot, nice, fun (white) girl. My favorite players and top picks to win were Deleesa and Courtney, because they really played the game. The extent of Deleesa’s strategic gameplay was revealed so gradually over the course of the season—in that conversation with Khat where she showed that she knew exactly what she was doing with Chloe, or when she so easily got Mitchell to do her bidding for her—in a way that made her win really satisfying. Plus her family. I cried. I think we all cried?
Frank: Oh, I 100 percent cried. It was so absolutely sweet that the contestant with the most sympathetic reason for competing actually pulled that win. She was able to make that down payment on a house for her fam! Deleesa—it feels weird to call her that instead of Trevor—was a deserving winner, one who by her own explanation played a version of herself with a male veneer. Reading post-finale interviews with her about all the prep work she did before entering the apartment, and how she infused her own beloved husband’s personality with some of her own to create a perfect character, affirmed for me that she was truly as much fun and as kind as she seemed. Because even though she wasn’t actually playing as Deleesa, and indeed she was manipulating poor baby Chloe, she never came across as a villain. Even Chloe forgave her for wrenching her supposed new boyfriend Trevor away from her. There really aren’t any villains on The Circle in general, which is why it’s so dang pleasant to watch. (Except for Terilisha and Savannah’s enduring, nonsensical hatred of each other. Sheesh.)
I will say, as much as the finale’s gender/race breakdown bothered me—even Deleesa told Chloe that she should feel proud of herself for literally being the only woman left standing, although at least there was one other Black contender left in the uproarious, conniving Courtney—it was good to see a Black woman secretly come away as the winner. The Circle’s relationship to race is interesting, I find. The majority of the cast is split between Black and white people, but the friendships and alliances they build are not split on racial lines. I truly loved to see Chloe fall for a Black single father and have that never be demonized or commented upon, aside from the fact that she was being duped. Yes, there were group chats dedicated to the “Black queens” remaining in the group, and the majority of the finale cast was white. But I truly do love a reality show that highlights the diversity within the Black community—within all communities, truly. No one is stereotyped for their race or sexuality in The Circle. Well, except for Emily and her awful, awful, awful makeup job on that mannequin. Indeed, the show’s most glorious moment.
But let’s go back to white girl Chloe, whom I truly, truly loved. It was certainly a little odd to see a real human being become a recurring character in what I guess is now the Netflix Reality Series Cinematic Universe (Chloe was first on the insipid game show Too Hot to Handle), but I am down for this synergy if it means more of this incredibly funny Essex girl on my TV screen.
I know we all bow down to Queen Chloe, at the end of the day. What was your favorite of her many, many one-liners? I loved when the omnipotent monitor in the apartments announced that two of the eight contestants were about to be eliminated, and Chloe tried to do some quick math. “Two?!” she cried. “That means there will only be five people left!” She paused. “No, wait.” Bring out the fingers. Then: “That means there will only be six people left!” Now this is the kind of comedy that makes The Circle not a depressing, life-reflecting watch, but a hilarious one.
Perhaps in closing, please gift us your fave Chloe memory.
Schwedel: I have to go with this one, already spotlighted by a Twitter user:
My single favorite moment of reality TV in 2021. #CircleFam pic.twitter.com/iWjIlKec78
— Sam Wineman (@SamWineman) May 3, 2021
I think she truly believed in John’s psychic abilities. Oh and what was her Britishism for a hot man, “sort”? Her whispering herself lustily that one of her fellow contestants was a “sort” was also a highlight.
Schroeder: Before we wrap I will say I cried at the winner, too. Deleesa was the correct choice regardless. As for Chloe, I was nervous when she showed up because people who’ve already have reality TV experience sometimes come on ready to produce themselves but she was just freely Chloe with none of the self-consciousness. Like the counting moment Allegra mentioned, I loved every moment when she was just the meme of the woman with numbers swirling around her head. Y’all chose some great ones, the only other I’d put on that level is Chloe babbling to herself in the bubble bath. I’m also a big fan of Chloe pondering how peacock feathers are made (as seen above). It’s birds, BABES!
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