It’s probably too late. Along with My Mother the Car, The Pat Sajak Show, and the XFL, the first season of CBS’s Big Brother (you remember, set in the U.S., featuring Josh, “Chicken George,” Brittany, and the angry stripper, Jordan) has joined the tragic list of colossal, embarrassing, and infamous television flops.
The truth is that the show’s relative ratings success has already become irrelevant. Though season two of Big Brother (the one with cry-baby Bunky, obnoxious doc Will, hunky Hardy and the knife-wielding Justin) did much better ratings-wise, BB1, during its initial airing, delivered substantially higher ratings for the network than shows in the same timeslots the year prior.
Still the stigma that surrounds Big Brother 1 remains. And, perhaps, not entirely without reason. Even those of us who watched many (okay, all) of the first season’s episodes are still unable to recall what—if anything—of note exactly happened in that house, among the motley crew of house guests, which also included Eddie, former beauty queen Jamie, militant Mega, compassionate Cassandra, young lawyer Curtis and miserable housewife Karen.
Still, we kept watching. Perhaps we did so in a state of utter disbelief (“I can’t believe I’m watching this thing!), or perhaps we were hooked on the constant (ultimately unfulfilled) promise that something big, dramatic, and “real” was about to happen. For those who don’t remember—or have chosen to forget—Big Brother 1 followed ten strangers stuck together inside a house-cum-TV studio. They were cut off from the outside world with no TV, newspaper, telephone or contact with loved ones. The ten “house guests” (inmates?) would be observed 24 hours a day, even at night via infrared cameras, and in every room of the house (yes, even the bathroom). The close quarters and conflicting personalities of the carefully chosen contestants were supposed to create drama, spice and confrontation. They didn’t.
To move the game aspect of the show along, to an ultimate Survivor-like victor, each week each of the house guests would be asked to nominate two of their fellow co-habitators for “banishment.” Viewers then could call in on a 900 number and vote for the house member they most wanted to see gone. (Who says democracy is dead?) Then, every Wednesday, in a live telecast, the verdict was delivered and each week, in true Agatha Christie fashion, the banished had to pack his or her bags and take the long walk of shame out of the house. The person who was the last to get evicted would be the winner, walking out of the house and away from Big Brother with half a million in cold, hard cash.
Premiering hot on the heels of the first Survivor, Big Brother didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Its live, hour-long premiere episode, hosted by misplaced newscaster Julie Chen and some blond guy whom they quickly canned, was bloated, hokey, and self-important. The “cast members” were introduced with videotaped profiles that recalled segments from old an PM Magazine. Worse was the self-conscious minute by minute countdown to the contestants going into the Big Brother house. The solemnity was laughable—these people were just walking into a house, not going up in the space shuttle!
For the first few episodes, the producers chroma-keyed the participants’ names under their faces every time they appeared on screen (a practice that is pretty standard on reality-TV now). Prior to learning these names, most viewers (myself included) were left to describe the “houseguests” with labels that were sadly stereotypical, if not outright rude: “the black guy,” “the Asian,” “the old guy,” “the beauty queen,” “the amputee,” etc. Big Brother included no egotistical Richard here, no loud-mouthed Sue Hawk, no wanted-in-two-states Kelly, as on Survivor. It seemed that casting directors paid less attention to diverse or lively personalities than to filling a quota of census-based types. (Though the cast did lack the token gay person, de rigueur on reality TV dating back to MTV’s first season of The Real World.)
The program though couldn’t adhere to its cross-sectional mix for long as week by week someone got thrown out of the house, beginning with the show’s lone African-American male, Mega. He was soon followed by Jordan and, once those two were gone, Big Brother settled, for better or worse, into a certain calmness, even banality. Without tension to fill the minutes, CBS airtime was actually devoted to such monotonous activities as watching houseguest hunky student Josh gaze at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and Brittany (the bratty, overly made-up “cuddle slut”) perform her morning exercises. By this time in the series, many viewers had already tuned out and David Letterman had turned the show into a regular punch-line. But this focus on the everyday meant that things, on the air and in the Big Brother house, were just starting to get interesting.
Big Brother, unlike Survivor and all its knockoffs, dared to leave the reality in “reality TV.” Big Brother, as art and televised happening,” dared to showcase the common. While George Orwell’s 1984 might have been the show’s nominal precursor, Big Brother actually owes more to another 20th-century prophet: Andy Warhol. While his well-known pronouncement that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” is often invoked when assessing the spoils of reality TV participants (i.e., “Hey, isn’t that that chef who couldn’t cook rice on the Food Network”), the Warhol-esque elements on Big Brother 1 have less to do with short-term “fame,” than with ordinariness. When he reproduced Campbell’s Soup labels or Brillo boxes and hung them in galleries, he elevated the everyday to the extraordinary. Warhol’s early avant-garde film experiments were the closest thing we had to Big Brother before Big Brother came along. Focusing a stationary camera for multi-hour stretches on the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, he created the theatrical equivalent of the Campbell’s Soup can silkscreen played on a movie screen.
And just as many critics joked that Warhol’s film experiments were akin to watching paint dry, so too did they dismiss Big Brother. Actually, BB was more like riding a crowded cross-town bus, waiting in an airport waiting room, or listening in on a neighboring table’s conversation while dining out. Big Brother 1, however inadvertently, raised voyeurism to an art form, as we watched other people’s intimacies and habits, how they brush their teeth, do their hair, even fold their laundry. Boring perhaps, but interesting in its way, like watching a waterfall or the fire flickering in the hearth.
But the network was nervous. As Big Brother‘s daily non-events dragged on and viewers stopped viewing, CBS and the program’s producers scrambled to manufacture interpersonal conflict. First up, the producers attempted to bribe a houseguest into leaving “voluntarily,” so the cast might be replenished with a new, presumably livelier guest. On live TV, ever-increasing amounts of cash in suitcases were placed on the Big Brother coffee table. Waiting in the studio was an anxious, self-described “bitch,” chomping at the bit to get in the house and stir things up. But no one took the bait, so the “bitch” was sent home.
One of the residents at the time, Cassandra (the UN employee who seemed too smart and classy for this entire endeavor), later in the series likened the attempted bribe to prostitution, as the producers were asking their contestants, “Can you be bought?” Granted the contestants/houseguests were in this TV show for the money, the big half mil at the end, but to take such a buyout/payoff without being declared the “winner,” would in many ways be a hollow victory—like being asked to throw the World Series.
This was not the first time Cassandra stood her ground. Earlier, she broke form when asked by the disembodied voice of “Big Brother” to fill out a questionnaire, with inquiries like “Who in the house is the most two-faced?” Obviously, another effort to get the guests to bicker. Cassandra, ever the diplomat, marched into the house’s “Red Room,” the confessional where contestants could talk directly to “Big Brother,” and offered to exit on that day rather than insult her housemates or the sake of ratings. Eventually, she and her housemates relented, filling out the quiz, with their tongues in their cheeks, and everyone stayed.
And soon after not only were the Big Brother inhabitants being manipulated by the network, they were also being influenced by other outsiders. Though the inhabitants of the Big Brother 1 house were supposed to be cut off from all external influences, a few enterprising outsiders labored to communicate with them, inside the bunker. In time, fans gathered outside the walls of the Big Brother compound. A few obsessives even went so far as to hire airplanes to fly over the house, trailing signs with messages for the dwellers within. Some of the streaming messages were cryptic, some pointed, some irreverent; surely CBS had not planned on this.
After the questionnaire, the attempted bribe, and would-be communiquis, the residents of the house—like the heroes of Orwell’s novel—began to question what was happening to them and how they were being treated by the all-powerful, all-seeing “Big Brother.”
George, the cuddly roofer from Illinois, fed up with the fakery, recast himself as reality TV’s answer to Joan of Arc, attempting to lead the Big Brother 1 masses in a mutiny against The Man. In the kitchen, the houseguests talked about staging a group walkout, forfeiting the prize money in order to hang onto what was left of their dignity. Ultimately, the revolution didn’t happen. Too bad. It might have closed down the show and forced CBS to scramble to fill hours and hours of airtime, perhaps teaching the “Tiffany Network” a lesson about just how far it could push its reality show participants.
But the fact that we didn’t get to see a revolt is less sociologically interesting than the fact that it was conceived of at all. Due to various factors, one might have almost predicted that an internal rebellion would come about. As any historian will tell you, and as Machiavelli outlined, revolutions are more likely to occur when the citizenry is relatively well off, and have the time and energy to imagine a better life. When the “have-nots” are hopeless, totalitarian rule is easier to achieve and maintain. This is certainly the case in Big Brother 1, especially when compared to its sister show Survivor. Survivor‘s “tribal” members, hungry, tired, and bitten by bugs, never think of rebellion. By contrast, the houseguests of Big Brother 1 were living in a comfortable, temperature-controlled environment, with plenty of food and leisure time. Eventually—and briefly—they challenged their hosts-cum-captors. No Stockholm Syndrome here!
Furthermore, the casts of Survivor have room—entire islands, much of the Outback or Africa—in order to get away from each other, mentally or physically. Big Brother cast members were contained in a claustrophobic, minimally decorated “home” with only two bedrooms (one for the men, one for the women) and a minuscule backyard. Not spiritually or physically divided into separate “tribes,” the houseguests were constantly in each other’s faces on individual levels. While such close proximity was supposed to drive them into conflict, it instead bonded them into a united front, even an ad-hoc family, a development no doubt hastened by the fact that they had, in “Big Brother,” a common enemy. Perhaps more importantly, their fates were not controlled by fellow houseguests. Though, each week, they had to nominate two of their own for “banishment,” the eventual eviction was determined by a phone-in viewer vote.
While it can be argued that the houseguests of BB1 simply “went along, to get along,” it might also be said that they conducted themselves in a mature, enlightened manner. They had no reasons to form “alliances” or, unlike Survivor‘s Sue Hawk, no need to compose speeches about rats and snakes. Instead of waging war with each other—for fun, for spite, for money or ratings—the U.S. contestants of BB1 learned to hang out and hang together to the very end, even when they knew only one of them would be christened the winner.
Big Brother 1 was supposed to be a carefully devised, simmering pot, set to boil over at any moment. Unfortunately, for CBS anyway, the contestants never rose, or descended, to that level. When the series was (surprisingly) renewed for a second season, the network switched producers and a lot of other program elements to ensure conflicts as numerous as commercial breaks: though the houseguests would still nominate one another, the 800 number phone lines got disconnected and voting to ouster left in the hands of the houseguests themselves forcing acts of backstabbing and forming of shaky alliances as each juggled for stay in the house and in the game.
The second time around, the show had higher ratings and we got introduced to a more miserable, obnoxious group of people who fought among themselves and exhibited epic greed and pettiness. This is an improvement? In a world where Jerry Springer and Fear Factor are both ratings successes, I guess it is. But someday, it may be the much maligned first season of Big Brother 1 that is considered more significant culturally, if not in terms of dollars and cents. That first U.S. Big Brother may not have made “great television,” but the cast and producers of Big Brother—whether they intended to or not—offered a positive take on about human nature. The household achieved peaceful coexistence, everyone getting along. And isn’t that what America is supposed to be about?