Netflix, the Social Experiment, and Global Pandemic: A New Decade for Reality T.V.

With the rise of Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO, Netflix’s supremacy as a streaming service is in question. The platform has opted for quantity over quality, learning quickly that buying the rights to pre-made shows and movies just will not cut it when your competitors are churning out hit originals. Disney+ packs nostalgia, HBO carries cultural prestige, and Netflix is the dinosaur that started out by mailing DVDs. So now, Netflix originals are the company’s main focus, a focus they’ve deemed worthy of $19 billion. Perhaps it has paid off: five of the top ten most-streamed programs on Netflix are self-produced. Scrolling through the main page, it seems that non-Netflix shows are few and far between, buried under cooking show spin-offs, spawns of HGTV, and, most recently, reality television. If Bachelor Nation, The Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol have proven anything, it is that reality T.V. is America’s favorite pastime, and Netflix is taking note. In these weeks of home quarantine, online streaming is booming, and reality TV has taken its throne on screens across the country.

In early 2020, Netflix released two reality shows: The Circle and Love is Blind. While they were not Netflix’s first attempt to break into America’s Favorite Pastime (Dating Around and Glow Up aired in 2019, Back with the Ex aired even earlier in 2018), these two programs are distinct in their nationwide popularity, and their explicit desire to redefine reality T.V. as a social experiment. The Circle host Michelle Buteau introduces the show as “The real life game that asks, how far would you go to be popular on social media if there were $100,000 at stake?” Eight “players” live isolated in an apartment building in Salford, England, with no contact with the outside world. They can chat and explore the limited profiles (a few photos, a brief bio, and occasional status update) of other players through the voice activated, screen based platform, the circle. 

Unlike previous reality T.V. giants like The Bachelor or American Idol, authenticity and physical presentation are not prerequisites; The Circle acknowledges and embraces the idea that you can be anyone on social media. While this show is not predicated on building friendships, fans certainly enjoy watching the virtual friendships of the top four contestants (Joey, Shubam, Sammy and Chris) blossom. Beloved friendships aside, this is a show about strategy and popularity, in which top ranked players (literally ranked, 1-7) become “influencers” and receive perks, like blocking and removing other players. The top ranked player at the end of the season gets to rake in the dough. But the show never calls itself a competition, only “a new social experiment, where players don’t meet face to face.”

More romantic in their goal, but just as dystopian in their execution is Love is Blind. Instead of sitting in isolated apartments at the foot of the TV, these participants sit in isolated “pods,” staring at a sound permeable panel. On the other side, in their own pod, sits their date. Contestants date freely the first day, popping in and out of the pods with little consequence if their conversation doesn’t take off. In this way, it is like swiping on a dating app; there’s little accountability and participants have the opportunity to date well outside their preexisting social network. On the other hand, this show and its contestants are vehement in their belief that looks aren’t everything, that love is, in fact, blind. If participants like each other in the pod, they keep meeting for dates. If they decide to get married (which three couples do by the end of the very first episode), they move on to the next stages of the experiment: a week’s vacation in Mexico alongside the other couples, then moving into an apartment together, and finally, the wedding. Celebrity couple Nick and Vanessa Lachey introduce the premise: “Welcome to the blind love experiment,” with an explicitly scientific appeal to authority: “Psychologists agree that emotional connection is the key to long term marital success.” The show’s narrators constantly remind us of the experiment’s guiding research question: “Is love truly blind?” Contrast this with The Bachelor, where the producers force contestants to re-film an interview if they refer to the show as a “process” and not a “journey.” While Love is Blind similarly requires participants to marry in a matter of weeks, this show’s lexicon is not overly flowery or romantic. If a couple gets married, it is a successful experiment, not a journey. 

Both Love is Blind and The Circle lament the impact of technology on our relationships: Instagram has made us ruthlessly hungry for validation, Tinder has made us vain and destined for broken marriages. Yet, these shows try to look as much like the inside of a smartphone as possible. The isolated apartments of The Circle are chic, streamlined, thematically decorated and factory produced: clean white surfaces, vibrant accents and abundant geometrics. The opening sequence pans over the city, with an animated circle (a “subtle” homage to the title) flashing on the screen, just as it does on the devices in each apartment. 

The octogonal love pods of Love is Blind are arranged in neat rows like the apps of an iPhone: girls on one side, boys on the other. The pods light up around the perimeter when participants enter, and the wall panel that separates the pods glows with amorphous blue blobs like a screensaver. Then, participants descend into emotionally vulnerable conversation. Compare this to The Bachelor aesthetic: McMansion lodging for contestants, sequin cocktail gowns, corinthian columns, champagne flutes and roses. The visual difference is stark: Netflix is not interested in making a 2000’s or even 2010’s reality show. These shows are the future. The consistency, modernity and simplicity of the isolation apartments and love pods align with the shows’ mission to establish their ethos as social experiments, not just another reality show. The irony is, in trying to challenge or eliminate the omnipresence of technology and execute a verifiable social experiment, these shows call upon the very aesthetics of smartphones, dating apps, and social media. ​

In 2019, NPR proposed that perhaps we are living in a “Kinder, Gentler Wave of Reality TV.” Shows like the Queer Eye reboot, The Great British Bake-Off and Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up ruled the air and our vocabularies (“Does it spark joy?”). While optimistic reality shows certainly had their moment not too long ago, it is misguided to think this spirit of goodwill has made the reality of reality T.V. any sweeter. On March 2, 2020, the latest season of The Bachelor had their “Women Tell All” episode; all the women but two remaining finalists came back to dish about the season (think Anthony Cohen on Watch What Happens Live). The episode took an unprecedented turn when Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, returned to address online hate and harassment, reading aloud death threats, racial slurs and degradations that the contestants received via social media. 

The point is this: whether you’re The Bachelor, pretending that the internet does not exist, or you’re part of the new wave of televised social experiment that seeks to turn the internet on its head, you can’t escape the inevitable: these technologies find a way of coming into the post-show reality, usually at the expense of the contestants. Bachelor women go home to receive death threats, the anti-social-media-sweetheart Shubham joins Instagram after almost winning The Circle, and Carlton of Love is Blind shares the depth of social media backlash he recieved for being an openly queer Black man on the show. Whether the show is first-gen, old school reality T.V., or a social-experiment of the new decade, we have to ask: is it ever possible for any universe of reality T.V. to escape the troubling realities of the internet? Can we “experiment” on the internet, or can it only ever be the reverse? The popularity of these new televised experiments reveal that we fantasize about pushing back against the internet: using it to win $100,000, rebelling against it to find love, exerting our power over it. We do not want to be at the whim of nascent technologies, so we crave the isolated, internetless controlled experiment. Unfortunately, the “contained” experiment of reality T.V. finds its way back to reality every time. 

Especially now that we find ourselves the subject of a global and unprecedented “experiment” in social distancing (not by audition but by government mandate), this rebrand of reality TV as verifiable social experimentation speaks directly to the vocabulary and imagery of life under coronavirus. The language and images we interact with every day are distinctly sanitized and scientific: exponential curves, hotspot maps, “asymptomatic transmission,” “incubation,” “quarantine.” Our hyper-scientific lexicon is indeed born out of extenuating circumstances, a universal desire for control through information. 

Still, through this new wave of controlled-experiment-as-reality-TV, we see that our cultural moment has been fascinated by experimentation, isolation, and the ability for new technologies to impede or feed social connection, even before the Covid era. The only difference is we are no longer the creators nor the third party observers of these experiments. Today’s Zoom happy hours eerily harken back to the “parties” of The Circle where contestants drink alone in their apartments while firing messages into the group chat. Dating apps like Bumble report that their clients are having noticeably longer chats on the app, just like Love is Blind. Now that the script is flipped and we find ourselves in an unprecedented experiment, nearing the peak of the pandemic in the U.S., perhaps we can return to these shows with a greater empathy for these contestants navigating their own isolation: seeking recognition, grasping for connection, aching for companionship.