‘Tis yerself!’ Dáithí Ó Sé says through a mouthful of boxty and Tanora. He is the spirit of Ireland

Patrick Freyne: That’s how I imagine him, anyhow. He’s almost as compelling as The Circle

It will be interesting to see how the reality show The Circle will fare now that the franchise, which sees people confined to apartments and allowed to communicate only via digital technology, has spread beyond Channel 4 to encompass all human life. I guess we can all pretend we’re playing along at home.

The producers of this bizarre scenario are represented by both an eerie glowing circle and an eerie glowing Emma Willis, whose pale irises mimic the circumference of her roundy algorithmic overlord. It is never specified what Willis's role is, but it's implied that she also lives in the apartment building, so she probably helps with plumbing and general maintenance.

Like in life, The Circle is a glorified popularity contest in which eight contestants vie for "likes" by weaponising their personalities. Each contestant dictates their thoughts aloud to "the Circle" partly because it's more televisual but also because as a species we are losing the capacity to hear our inner voices. (My inner voice just sings the Birdie Song now.)

The producers have also recorded the contestants gurning through a variety of exaggerated emotional states to use as interstitial film. This is popular in children’s television programmes to aid emotional development. Here they serve as useful reminders for adults in lockdown of the full range of human facial expressions.


Apparently, some of the contestants are secretly catfish. If I know Irish Times readers you’re definitely thinking, Surely I will know the catfish by their prominent facial barbels, negative buoyancy and diet of larvae. “Catfish” is actually a slang term for a digital grifter pulling a flimflam scheme on some cybermarks. In this series, for example, Yolanda is pretending to be her laidback husband, Chris. She is not laidback. “Failure is not in my vocabulary,” she says, using words from her vocabulary.

Hashu, a twentysomething Youtuber, is pretending to be his immigrant-restaurateur uncle. "I'm going to manipulate everyone I see," he promises, which is just something young people say nowadays. Meanwhile, Millie, a twentysomething daughter, and her middle-aged single father, Jamie, are collectively pretending to be the wife/stepmother of their dreams. "We've created the perfect person!" they gush. To quote Sigmund Freud: "No. Just no. I'm not doing it."

There’s more! Once in Britain’s glorious past there was a group of great warriors known as the Gladiators who wore brightly coloured Lycra leotards and fought invaders using ancient weapons that looked like huge Day-Glo cotton buds. They had solid English names like Jet and Wolf, Cobra and Lightning. Legend has it that when Britain is in trouble the Gladiators return, which is probably why Hunter from Gladiators has returned to catfish the other contestants by pretending to be a nurse called Gemma. Seriously. This is a thing that is happening.

I imagine the Gladiator probably just materialised with his hounds at the moment the Brexit deal was finalised and the producers could do nothing about it

Hunter is a very muscly man, and he first appears flanked by two bulldogs. For a moment I think he’s going to attack the room with a huge cotton bud, but instead he allows another contestant to confide in him/Gemma about a serious medical condition. Even the bulldogs look ashamed. By the end of the series he’ll be vaccinating people with sugar water or, possibly, performing an operation. Do nurses do operations? I don’t know, and neither does Hunter.

There’s more! Tally, a GP’s receptionist, tells us she once had a call from a man whose chihuahua had “bitten his bollock”, which, nice bit of alliteration aside, feels like a breach of medical confidentiality. (Is it a breach of medical confidentiality? I don’t know, and neither does Hunter.)

Tally is one of the people on this programme who are aiming to be “themselves”, in so far as any of us can be said to have a “self” outside of the bonds of family and community. This is a pretty big question to consider before going into a programme like this or into a pandemic lockdown.

Tally’s self is that of a cool girl who is also ditsy. It is a little similar to the self of her fellow contestant Manrika, a content creator. It’s existentially troubling for both of them. Everyone on this programme, catfish and human alike, is very conscious of both their internal self and their “self” as a demographic.

Vithun is my favourite contestant. His “self” is that of a statistically savvy accountant who has crunched the numbers and realised that he is incredibly unlikely to win a programme like this but who is gamely trying anyway. (He tells us that an Asian person has never won a reality-television show like this in Britain, which is troubling.)

Then there’s Andy, an entrepreneur in his 30s being entirely himself to inspire his kids. He seems too self-realised to flourish here. And, finally, there’s Billy, a sports-marketing manager from Romford, a job and a place that sound entirely made up to me. In fact, Billy is a very real young lad who uses the word “banter” unironically, wears an edible necklace and travels with a porcelain model of his pet dog.

Unlike Hunter, Billy has apparently not been permitted to bring a real dog into the building. That said, I imagine the Gladiator probably just materialised here with his hounds at the moment the Brexit deal was finalised and the producers could do nothing about it. It's all compellingly ridiculous so far. But arguably the best thing about watching The Circle this year is that you can walk away from the television and instantly find yourself in a Circle-themed extended universe. I mean, which Gladiator is catfishing you today?

The Today Show presenters are surrounded by gaudy helium-filled St Patrick's Day tat, presumably to remind Chinese factory owners that we are still active participants in the global economy

On St Patrick's Day I watched The Today Show's St Patrick's Day Special (Wednesday, RTÉ 1) if only because I honestly believe Dáithí Ó Sé is the first person St Patrick met when he arrived here. "Tis yerself!" I imagine him saying through a mouthful of boxty and Curly Wurlys while sitting astride a bullock and swigging Tanora. He is the spirit of our nation. Today he sits with a breast pocket full of shamrocks across from a verdant and unflappable Maura Derrane.

They are surrounded by gaudy helium-filled St Patrick’s Day tat, presumably to remind Chinese factory owners that we are still active participants in the global economy. It’s a national treasure chest of an episode, with inspirational video messages from Daniel and Majella, Mary McAleese and Fr Brian D’Arcy, among others. There’s trad music and nature photography. Nine families join them by Zoom to compete in a quiz during which, if someone gives the wrong answer, they pretend to mishear and give them a prize anyway. Daytime telly is very comforting. Dáithí and Maura are catfishing nobody. I hope. If I heard they were secretly Wolf and Lightning from Gladiators I’d be very upset.