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When the third series of The Circle ended with a casting call for a “potential fourth series”, viewers had no idea how much heavy lifting the word “potential” was doing. But just over a month later, Channel 4 has announced that it will not be bringing the show back. The news seemed to come out of nowhere – series three had the show’s highest ratings yet and trended on Twitter every night. For a programme about social media, the online sphere had clearly made The Circle seem bigger than it actually was.
Best described as “Big Brother meets Black Mirror”, the dystopian reality TV series has a fairly complicated central premise. It follows an isolated group of contestants only able to communicate with each other through a voice-activated social media platform – the titular Circle. They can either play as themselves or “catfish”, with the least popular players being “blocked” and the most popular at the end winning £100,000. Friendships and alliances are formed between contestants who have no idea if the person on the other side of the screen is who they say they are at all.
First airing in 2018, the show found its stride in its recent third series. It had all the markings of the best reality TV series: backstabbing, twists and turns and a “Circle relationship” between full-time “geezer gal” Manrika and soldier Felix. That Felix was not actually Felix, but a petite blonde woman called Natalya (to be fair, she really was a soldier), was excruciating to watch. Other players gave the couple their virtual blessings, while Natalya juggled the guilt over deceiving Manrika with her desire to win £100k. When the pair were finally united face to face, it was TV gold.
While fans have lamented the show’s surprise demise, there may be some good news on the horizon, with Broadcast reporting that Netflix – which produce the show’s US spin-off – are in talks to pick up the UK version. It feels like a sensible move. While Channel 4 stated The Circle had “consistently outperformed slot averages”, it always felt that bit too weird for terrestrial TV. Turn on the TV to a group of twenty-somethings shouting at a TV screen, “Circle, write, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe he said that’, monkey with hands over its eyes emoji, ‘what is he thinking?’ Hashtag I don’t understand” and a lot of people would be left utterly confused.
But on Netflix, The Circle US has thrived. Maybe there’s something about a digitally focused show being bingeable on a streaming platform, but the second US series has barely left Netflix’s top 10 since it arrived last month. Among the UK TV landscape, The Circle’s late-night time slot and complex central gimmick made it hard to pick up mid season. On Netflix, alongside shows such as Love is Blind (where contestants have to get engaged to someone they’ve never seen) or Too Hot To Handle (where contestants lose money every time they engage in sexual activity), its weird quirks fit right in.
Picking up the UK series would make sense for Netflix. On a practical level, both versions film in the same building in Salford (despite what the shots of the Chicago skyline on the US series would have you believe). And having multiple international versions airing on Netflix would allow the platform to further extend its international domination of the TV landscape.
But perhaps optimistically, it would be nice to think that Netflix might care about paying it backwards. It’s used the format to its own success already, and now has the opportunity to give the British production a fair go on a platform better suited to it. The platform has made a commitment in recent years to invest in UK productions, but British TV isn’t just big budget series and period dramas – sometimes it’s trashy reality TV too.