The world’s best reality TV is on Netflix

Tara Ward watches Netflix’s new reality shows The Circle and Next in Fashion, and discovers that gentle TV can still be gripping TV. 

Breaking news, friends: Netflix has the magic sauce on how to do reality right. Its latest reality shows The Circle and Next in Fashion are wildly different to each other – The Circle is a social media competition, Next in Fashion a design contest – but both will grab you from the get go and leave you with the warm and fuzzies. Each has an undeniable charm and cheer to it, proving that reality TV doesn’t have to be bitchy and unpleasant to be a captivating watch. Shocker, I know.

Hello, Tan France, not on Queer Eye!

The newer of the two, Next in Fashion, sees a group of experienced but unknown designers compete for a $250,000 prize and a collection with Net-a-Porter. Yep, it’s similar to Project Runway, but this feels slicker and more fun, and it celebrates the theatre of fashion. Did Heidi Klum ever walk down a runway lined with exploding fireballs on Project Runway? She did not, and I bet she’s kicking herself now.

Much of the show’s warmth comes from host judges Tan France (Queer Eye) and Alexa Chung, who have an easy rapport with the cast and give thoughtful, constructive feedback. Tan, in particular, is a gem. His tears when the judges couldn’t agree on who to eliminate in one episode made me well up too, because when Tan cries, I cry. Where Tan goes, I go. When he wants to wear a rock and roll jacket with funny straps in the back that would definitely let a chill about your kidneys, I put on my daggy trackies from 2003 and shout “Yes, Tan, you should definitely wear that!” See? Everyone’s happy.

The best-dressed judges on reality TV.

The other charm factor with Next in Fashion are the designers, who having already worked for the likes of Stella McCartney and Beyonce, lift the show with their level of skill. This is not the Nailed It of fashion. Much like Blown Away or Bake Off, there’s joy in watching talented people push themselves to create amazing things, rather than being set up to fail solely for our entertainment. The contestants cry when they talk about their work, because they bloody love what they do. It’s inspiring stuff. Thank you, Next in Fashion, for making me want to learn how to hem my pants with something other than a stapler.

Next in Fashion feels like we’re moving past reality shows where amateurs are thrown in the deep end just to see what happens, to a place where we celebrate and encourage creative expertise. There’s still plenty of tension and drama here, but it doesn’t feel like the cast is being deliberately manipulated, a la MAFS. Next in Fashion feels fresh and genuine, as if these designers would have entered this competition even it wasn’t on the telly.

Mood.

Over on The Circle, the concept of ‘being genuine’ is tested like never before. Based on a UK format, The Circle sees eight people move into apartments in the same building, where they communicate over a social media network called ‘The Circle’. Without meeting in person, they must periodically rate their fellow contestants, with the highest rated contestants given the power to “block” players from the game. The most popular player, as voted by the members of The Circle, wins US$100,000.

It sounds bonkers, and it is. The first episode feels like a bunch of strangers just talking to a big screen and saying “send” on repeat, but by the second, the casting hooks you in. Like Next in Fashion, The Circle has a refreshingly diverse group of contestants, including the sweet and innocent Shubham, loud alpha-male Joey, and Alana, a model determined not to be judged by on first impressions. The Circle presents us with a series of stereotypes and then breaks them down, message by message, reminding us that in real life and the virtual world, there’s always more to people than meets the eye.

Truly, a modern day Brady Bunch.

You can be anyone you want to be on The Circle, which gives players the freedom to be their true selves or the opportunity to be someone they’re not, like Seaburn, a 29-year-old man who thinks he’ll be more popular as a woman named Rebecca. As viewers, we see and know everything – who’s exaggerating the truth, who’s holding back, who’s pretending to be a hot single hornbag when they’re really a heavily-bearded married man who rocks a fine set of overalls and a tie-dyed shirt. Alex/Adam, you were awesome.

The Circle makes us question how we connect with people, and how truthfully we present ourselves online, even in the smallest of ways. Ultimately, it’s heartwarming to see relationships build and grow, without players ever meeting face-to-face. It gives you faith in humanity, in a weird, weird way.

Chuck these two shows up beside Blown Away, Queer Eye, Terrace House and even doco-series Cheer, and Netflix proves it can make gentler and sweeter reality content that’s still completely gripping.  Still, Netflix’s next reality show Love is Blind is about people who hook up after talking through a wall, which will probably take this argument, wrap it in a soft layer of tulle, and shoot a cannon through it. It’s fine. We’ll always have Tan France, and we’ll always have faaashion.


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