Just as many of us begin to emerge from a year-long quarantine, Netflix is inviting you to step back in with The Circle Season 2.
The formula for Netflix’s internet-breaking competition show is largely the same the second time around: Contestants hunker down in snug, cheerfully decorated apartments with their little notebooks and a constant stream of craft supplies as they compete to become the most popular player via text chats. But this time, they’ll have to deal with some wicked twists and turns—wait, who the hell is “The Joker”?!—and an even more ruthless game of strategy.
Although some aspects of this bizarre social experiment hit a little differently after a year of quarantine, the result is the same: The Circle Season 2 is a fun, fascinating season of television in which even the most diabolical of catfish somehow won me over.
But let’s start with the most obvious gimmick of the season: Chloe Veitch, who previously appeared on Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, apparently decided to shoot her shot for another Netflix cash prize.
I won’t try and pretend I was neutral on Too Hot to Handle when it premiered last summer. In fact, a piece from my colleague Kevin Fallon contains the most concise review of the show, as relayed on Slack one afternoon: “It’s so fucking bad it’s not even worth thinking about.”
The Circle Season 2 will debut in batches, so I won’t spoil here how far Chloe makes it. (Episodes 1-4 arrive Wednesday, with 5-8 to follow the week after, then 9-12, and then, finally, the finale.) But I will say that after spending more time with Chloe, my “never watch a Too Hot to Handle person on television again” policy has softened. Within the context of the game, it is particularly interesting to see how Chloe’s status as an influencer and TV personality does and does not affect the way players interact with her.
But Chloe’s presence on the series also highlights one distinction between this season of The Circle and the last. At multiple points, this go-around feels like a branding exercise not only for The Circle, but also for its streaming home.
It seems Netflix’s increasingly robust unscripted division has torn a page out of Bachelor Nation’s playbook, and is working to create a self-sustaining stable of celebrities and pseudo-celebrities—all of whom can cross-promote and appear on one another’s programs. In addition to Chloe, Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness appears this season for a virtual grooming challenge, and another contestant has a personal tie to The Circle Season 1 as well.
Chloe isn’t the only person on The Circle Season 2 with a built-in audience, either. As with last season, the majority of contestants already have relatively large social media followings. Courtney Revolution is a pop-culture YouTuber and podcaster; breath work teacher Bryant Wood has more than 478,000 followers on Instagram; Lee Swift is a prolific author; Deleesa (AKA Leesa Unique) is a self-described “mompreneur” with thousands of followers; and Savannah Palacio is a beauty and lifestyle influencer.
But as with last season, in which the most entertaining performer was Karyn Blanco—a butch lesbian who catfished as a bi-curious femme named Mercedeze—this season’s best “performances” come from the contestants who catfish. Deleesa plays as her husband, Trevor, who she turns into a single father during the game. Often, as “Trevor” flirts with players like Chloe and chops it up with his bro circle, we see Deleesa hugging a pillow of their daughter, Toni, who she also calls “Boobie.”
This season’s other entertaining catfish include Jack, a 20-year-old from New Haven catfishing as a beautiful young woman named “Emily,” and Lee—who, despite being the oldest contestant at age 58, chooses to play as a young man named River. (He’s got 99 problems, but is identifying modern hit song titles one?)
Also competing: Lance Bass?!
Just kidding—it’s his personal assistant, Lisa Delcampo, who joins the game after the first player’s elimination. (“I’ve been working for him for over 14 years,” Lisa says of her boss. “... I know Lance Bass better than Lance Bass knows Lance Bass.”) Some of the players fall for Lisa’s charade immediately; others are not quite convinced. Lee is downright star-struck.
With The Circle Season 1 already behind us, it’s natural that new players going forward will be even more strategic than their predecessors. While some players level up in strategy—using the tools of the game, old and new, to deceive and manipulate their fellow players—others struggle to keep up, or to mask their intentions under enough sweetness while interrogating their fellow contestants. One of the most fascinating aspects of The Circle’s return is simply examining how each person plays the game.
Which brings us back to the reason The Circle remains one of the most consistently interesting reality-competition shows we have right now. It’s not only that the players themselves are actually entertaining and interesting, but also that the series itself is interested in them. Too often, the best you can hope for when watching these shows is that a group of people you love to hate will gently torture one another. The Circle comes with a cast that, for the most part, you can simply love.