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Solitary, the isolation game show

Everyone is comparing their life in isolation to Netflix's The Circle. Allow me to introduce you to a fever dream of a reality show that captures the agony better: Solitary.

Solitary title card

Yup, Solitary as in solitary confinement. How fun!

Each contestant lives in a 10 foot octagon "pod" where they withstand omnipresent light-weight psychological warfare during their downtime, partake in cruel-and-unusual punishment for mini-challenges, and then suffer legitimate torture for elimination challenges.

Omnipresent discomfort

These tiny windowless pods remove all awareness of the outside world. They only eat when a meal bar is dropped into their food slot. Their sleep schedule is dictated by when the bed randomly appears out of the wall, and they're routinely awakened by sirens and strobe lights. Boredom gets used as a weapon as the show sometimes forces them to sit awake in the middle of their pod for hours in silence. An AMA of a past contestant speaks to how these disorientation tactics led to full hallucinations.

They're removed from any experience of other humanity. They never interact or learn about the 8 other people in the competition. They solely speak to the "computer" Val for challenges, and she refers to them by their pod number. The show induces solipsism onto its participants, who after undergoing other gaslighting and confusion, begin questioning if there really are other competitors out there. These extreme conditions amplify the frustration, anxiety, and paranoia that the challenges provoke.

Cruel-and-unusual punishment. Aka mini-challenge

Their mini-challenges further poke at the absurdity of the situation.

Val speaking to them is welcomed relief to participants' boredom, but the tasks are frequently so mundane that they don't serve as any form of enrichment for those encaged (e.g. racing to find the one orange rice grain in a full wok by only using chopsticks). Other times, these tests exacerbate how isolation can feel like grieving, like when they had to:

  1. Build themselves a coffin in 20 minutes with the provided wood
  2. Lie in it for as close to an hour as possible to win a reward (literally just a milkshake)
  3. Write a eulogy for themselves that they submit to Val through their meal slot
  4. Tape together their eulogy that Val returned to them shredded. The fastest contestant won the privilege to not have alarm clocks disturb their sleep afterward

All of that just for the prize of not having several alarm clocks disturb their sleep afterwards. This show doesn't fuck around.

Legitimate torture. Aka elimination challenges

The elimination challenges are devoid of the tongue-in-cheekiness that give a slight levity to the rest of the show.

The unique format is its own form of cruelty. Each challenge is a test of endurance that eliminates the first person to quit. But since each competitor is isolated in their pod, and Val isn't the sharing type, the unaware competitors continue until they reach their own breaking point. Each competitor, in every challenge, has to admit their own limits, hit the red button, and wait for Val to confirm whether they were the first to quit or if they were still in the running for $50k. This format inflicts the maximum amount of pain onto each competitor. And they don't even acknowledge the extra effort expended by those who lasted the longest.

The elimination challenges are also notable for how they don't make for good T.V. Half of the show's runtime is devoted to watching people press their face against plexiglass for hours, or wear a ballgag sitting on a painful chair for as long as they can bear it, or do hundreds of laps crawling around their pod. The challenges were slow burns of watching people reach their end.

In closing

Honestly, this writing isn't a letter of recommendation for watching this show. I'm merely fascinated that this show was created and ran for 4 seasons. And I'm writing it out because I completely forgot this show existed until now when I'm having my own (much tamer) isolation experience.

If I were to thinly stretch this as a moralizing allegory, it would go something like the following. These effects of social deprivation have all-encompassing consequences. We're not only isolated socially but also removed from the things that make us feel human. Go easy on yourself. Especially if you're a New Yorker living in an apartment that doesn't not resemble a 10-foot pod.