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The Circle Season 6 Gave The Traitors a Run for Its Money

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Social strategy games are having a moment. Among those competitions, which challenge contestants to outwit and out-charm one another in hopes of winning a grand prize, international franchise The Traitors (whose stateside version streams on Peacock) has become reality TV’s biggest success story of the past few years, in the U.S. and abroad. Netflix is fully in the fray with The Trust, Surviving Paradise, and its revival of ABC’s The Mole. Recent dating shows, from Perfect Match to FBoy Island, have social strategy elements; players use their savvy to manipulate rivals, suss out their love interests’ true intentions, and win a small fortune. Even decades-old incarnations of the format (Survivor, Big Brother) are seeing their ratings spike.

But, with apologies to the great Traitors U.S. host Alan Cumming, it was The Circle that reignited the social-strategy fire, back in the pre-pandemic winter of 2020. Billed as a reality competition for the age of social media, the consistently popular series moves approximately eight players into the same building… and isolates each one in their own separate apartment, where they vie to become the most well-liked poster in what amounts to a cast-wide Slack channel. The Circle’s sixth season, which dropped an extremely satisfying finale on Wednesday, might be its best yet. Fans who’ve worked their way through all the imported versions of Traitors on Peacock would do well to give it a try. (If you’ve yet to watch The Circle Season 6, beware: spoilers lie ahead.)

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Kyle Fuller with his canine companion, Deuce, in The Circle Season 6Netflix

Many great reality shows have taken a while to perfect, and in the case of The Circle, that meant a few early, freewheeling seasons of experimentation. Producers cast a wide net, catching catfish who posted fake photos and bios in their profiles as well as extroverted contestants playing as themselves. There was a young guy secretly getting help from his mom, a 58-year-old writer portraying an idealized 24-year-old version of himself, the obligatory flirtatious bisexual woman who was too enticing to be real. Lisa Del Campo, the girl Friday to Lance Bass of NSYNC, impersonated her boss (with his blessing). The gimmickry peaked in Season 4, when Spice Girls Mel B. and EMMA Bunton posed as a random 20-something dude. 

Early casts mostly took the connections they forged at face value. For genuinely single (and mostly heterosexual) players, the exchange of eggplant and peach emojis signified the possibility of an actual romance outside The Circle. And each season’s amateur detectives expended a lot of energy trying to unmask catfish, as though inventing a persona automatically made a castmate a weaker ally. Never mind that many shades of gray separated “real” profiles from “fake” ones; some contestants pretended to be single to make themselves more approachable, while others were posting authentically behind borrowed photos. With the exception of a handful of calculated “gamers,” no one seemed to realize that an ally’s true identity was less important than the trustworthiness they proved in challenges and eliminations.

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Quori-Tyler Bullock in The Circle Season 6Netflix

By Season 6, however, the series was attracting a more comPetitive class of player. For the most part, this cast seemed to have studied previous seasons and deduced, correctly, that it was more important to build solid alliances that would keep them safe from the so-called “blockings” that take players out of the running for the cash prize than it was to catch catfish. Consistency, strategy, discretion, and skillful navigation of the show’s many socially oriented challenges thus became more important than authentic love connections and pseudo-familial bonds. (I can’t be the only viewer who cringes when middle-aged women—or people playing as them—on the show get shunted into the role of everyone’s mom or buddies who’ve been exchanging messages for less than 24 hours declare themselves Circle siblings.)

There must be some sadistic Circle fans who tune in for the awkwardness of certain encounters between strangers who aren’t the people they say they are. For them, Season 6 did offer an uncomfortably steamy exchange of scantily clad photos between Kyle, a married pro basketball player competing as a single basketball trainer, and Olivia, the beautiful female avatar of a self-conscious gay man named Brandon. (Kyle apologized, hilariously, to a photo of his wife, who’d approved his charade, before every interaction.) But for Traitors devotees and other fans of social strategy games for whom strategy is the operative word, Season 6 really delivered.

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Myles Reed in The Circle Season 6Netflix

Sure, the producers couldn’t resist the timely gimmick of throwing an AI contestant into the mix—one that wasn’t entirely believable as such, in light of everything we know about the many deceptions of reality TV. Thankfully, if also anticlimactically, the algorithm known as Max was abandoned early in the season, after easily flying under its opponents’ radar. Yet The Circle also made several great, subtle changes. This season featured fewer blockings than its predecessors, which allowed relationships and strategies to develop over longer timelines. That also meant fewer late additions to the cast, whose lack of established connections and knowledge of what transpired before their arrival have historically made them weaker contenders. Meanwhile, a twist that split players into secret “ride-or-die” duos with linked fates shook up existing alliances, forcing them to square their commitment to those organically cultivated loyalties with the possibility that an unpopular ride-or-die could mean elimination.

By the finale—and, again, you should really stop reading now if you've yet to watch it—six very different, mostly compelling contenders remained. Faux couple Kyle and Olivia/Brandon were still in the Game, propelled by their relative sincerity as well as Kyle’s longstanding #TresFuego alliance and Olivia’s popularity among castmates outside that trio. One of the latter was Lauren, the least Game-oriented finalist, who seemed to have lasted as long as she did mainly because she posed a minimal threat. The perennially high-rated Circle superfan and #TresFuego co-conspirator Quori-Tyler, by contrast, was the season’s most powerful comPetitor. Latecomer Jordan, who quasi-catfished as a cuddly, pre-weight loss version of himself in a bid to appear unthreatening, connived his way into the finale after leading a risky rebellion against the manipulative third member of #TresFuego, AI engineer and self-described f-cKBOy Myles.

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Brandon Baker, a.k.a. Olivia, in Season 6 of The CircleNetflix

In a big twist at the beginning of the episode, Brandon was secretly given the power to unilaterally block someone. Swayed by Jordan’s campaign, he picked Myles, who had been Olivia’s ride-or-die earlier in the season and with whom she’d previously had a pretty good relationship. It was a brilliant—and, because the blocking was anonymous, consequence-free—decision that broke up #TresFuego and led to Brandon’s ultimate victory. 

It couldn’t be more appropriate that the fishiest of catfishes is the winner of The Circle’s most strategic season to date. But the finale should satisfy fans’ hearts as well as their minds. Brandon is a kind, sensitive, underpaid nurse who struggles, relatably, with confidence and body image; the real Olivia is his work friend. Even Kyle—who was shocked at his pseudo-paramour’s reveal but soon recovered upon learning that Brandon had been telling the truth about himself when they bonded over having lost their fathers—couldn’t help but be happy for him. My favorite round of The Circle might’ve been cutthroat to the core, but it ended with well-deserved tears of joy. Here’s hoping the producers use it as a model for seasons to come.   

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