"Hell with studio lighting"
There was a time, at the beginning of the last century, where well-to-do families (usually the bourgeoisie) would, for their Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, journey to the local insane asylum to stare at the (then called) lunatics, morons, and pinheads, perhaps pointing and laughing at the poor souls which were displayed against their will before them.
Today, our consciousness has been raised and this gloomy practice has ended. But it appears that a desire for similar “entertainment” remains, and reality TV fills the void. Whatever sick thrill our great-great-grandparents might have achieved from their visits to asylums, we now enjoy from the comfort and safety of our own homes! And since all the participants are (we assume) legally sane, and choose to be on these shows, knowing they were going to be watched, perhaps starved, made to lie in vats of bugs, or forced to take part in various “challenges” that make the games on Price is Right look like the Olympics by comparison, then there’s no reason to feel guilty if we watch… right?
Big Brother 3
Regular airtime: Wednesdays 9pm; Thursdays 8pm; Saturdays 8pm (ET)
Increasingly, we are watching others suffer discomfort, embarrassment, and pain. The running of the bulls in Pamplona receives international coverage every year, like it’s a news story, and Fear Factor, Dog Eat Dog, and Worst Case Scenario pull millions of viewers, as did The Bachelor and Bachelorettes in Alaska, in which we saw desperation and rejection up close and personal. We appear to be headed towards the day when a TV reality show will consist only of “contestants” poking each other with cattle prods just because they can and squads of viewers (like me) will watch the damn thing. (UPN, are you listening?)
Many of us are currently watching Big Brother, now in its third season. BB3 is, once again, focused on 12 individuals stuck in a house in Hollywood for up to four months, without contact with the outside world, and with cameras recording their every move and conversation. Everyone is forced to plot a way to be the last one standing in the house as, week by week, one by one, they are voted out by their fellow roommates.
In the first incarnation of Big Brother, the show was supposed to be about human conflict (and resolution?) emerging between people of different ages, geographic and ethnic backgrounds. But since the majority of the first group of houseguests had the audacity to get along with one another, the second season of Big Brother initiated new rules, so that interhouse tensions would remain as constant as the show’s heavy-handed product placements. Also new to season two, the houseguests themselves voted one another out (previously, viewers called in votes); the changed format laid groundwork for alliance-building, dishonesty, and deviousness.
This season, some things remain the same. CBS newswoman Julie (“I Need a New Agent”) Chen is still the host, but now, each week a BB3 participant is chosen or elected “Head of Household.” It’s his or her job to “nominate” two roomies for possible eviction. Then everyone else in the house gets to vote and somebody gets sent home, or “banished” in Big Brother lingo. Also new this season is a “Power of Veto.” This is, honestly, difficult to explain, but here goes: each week, one houseguest (not the Head of Household or one of the two potential “banishees”) wins “veto power” and has the opportunity—if he or she chooses—to pull one of the two nominees for eviction out and have that person replaced by another houseguest, who, once again, is chosen by the Head of Household. The veto, like everything else on the show, is devised to create “drama,” so there’s never anything close to a quiet moment in that damn house.
The show/house can use some drama (manufactured or not), since the producers have little else to work with. For in BB3, all needs are provided for—food, clothing, and recreation. That leaves little for the inhabitants to do, other than chill in the hot tub, smoke too much, and plot, scheme, and worry themselves to the point of paranoia. And over time, all the conversations about who’s votin’ who do tend to be redundant and dull. If this was a primetime soap of yore (say, Dallas or Dynasty) and its one and only plotline was “Is the gay guy going to stay friends with the Southern belle?” we would all be changing channels, quick.
Such tedium is not specific to this incarnation of the series. Though the names and hair colors of the cast change each season, we always end up with the usual collection of “types”—the two token African Americans, the one gay guy, the older “dad” figure, and at least one bartender with model-worthy good looks.
Also repetitive: despite the cast members’ endless talk of “strategy,” the game always ends up being played pretty much the same way: alliances are formed, some last, some don’t; participants discuss “trust” and share insincere hugs; and people make more promises of lifelong friendship than at a 13-year-old girl’s slumber party. On the side, they exchange trash-talk, since these contestants know by now how to play the Fame Game: the nastier you are, the more cutting remarks you make, the more airtime you’ll probably get and, hence, the better your chances of getting a hosting gig on VH1 when the show is over and you are let loose on the world.
All this I know. And still, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly reality TV contestants turn on each other. On BB3, some of the houseguests didn’t even bother to unpack before rushing into the video room “confessional” and start complaining about their “co-stars.” Perhaps Lori, the Wisconsin mom who was the first person evicted, put it best when she called the atmosphere of the house “Hell with studio lighting.”
Since so much of the Big Brother game is talk, the producers have to go out of their way to keep the participants from settling into safe alliances or anything else that resembles tranquility. These days, reality shows are changing or making up the rules of their games as they go along (recall season three of Survivor, when Jeff Probst ordered the switcheroo of three team members to the opposite tribe in order to break up existing alliances). Such practices feel cheap, not to mention unfair, almost as if halfway through the Super Bowl, the refs suddenly decide to move the goalpost back another 20 feet, to make the game more “exciting.”
Just so, each week, the thinkers behind Big Brother 3 come up with increasingly complex and convoluted “challenges,” where housemates compete for “luxury items,” or the chance to eat something other than peanut butter and jelly for the upcoming week. A recent “food challenge” involved each of the contestants, divided into two teams, having to chow down for about ten minutes on a “house” made up of brownies and other sweets to see which team, collectively, could gain the most weight within the time limit. But in true BB3 fashion, there was a catch (there’s always a catch): the houseguests had to eat with their hands tied behind their backs. (What will those kooky producers think of next?!) The gorging teammates were displayed so they appeared to have all the beauty and dignity of pigs at a trough. This adventure was soon followed by a series of well-edited close-ups of queasy houseguests, images pregnant with the telegenic possibility of a group vomit.
Another challenge had each of the house members donning brief bathing suits and then being forced to switch their suits with members of the opposite sex while standing in a big barrel of green goo. (I’m not making this up.) All went well until Gerry, the tubby 51-year-old, emerged from the bog with his new string bikini bottom hanging precariously low, an image that, sad to say, the network neglected to pixelate.
Gerry is the exception. This season, Big Brother is working overtime to create sizzle by showcasing beautiful bods. This season’s cast is uniformly younger (most, save for Gerry, in their 20s and early 30s), buffer, and prettier than ever before (hairy-backed Bunky from last season is now a distant memory). Put bluntly, Big Brother 3 has put a group of young singles together for a few months, with the hope that at least a couple of them will (hubba hubba) “hook up.” In this regard, the show has joined the proliferating “Wouldn’t-It-Just-Be-Easier-To-Rent-Porn?” genre that currently includes Blind Date, 5th Wheel, and Shipmates, not to mention Temptation Island and Love Cruise. Despite any other high-minded protests that these shows’ producers might make, we all know that the dating shows exist for the sole purpose of seeing bikini-clad bodies jostling in hot tubs.
Yet, despite its fakery, predictability, and gratuitous flesh, Big Brother 3 is still better reality tv than many other programs, past and present. It has not—not yet anyway—descended to the depths of emotional torture favored by Temptation Island. Nor has it become offensive on a moral level; I stopped watching Survivor during season three when the show turned the Masai tribe’s necessity/tradition of drinking animal blood into nothing more than a xenophobic gross-out for shock and ratings.
Of course, the guests of the Big Brother 3 house choose to sign up, to debase themselves for profit, if not for fun. If they don’t mind, why should we? Ultimately, BB is like that ten-car pile-up you see on the highway on your way to work. You don’t need to look, but you do. Big Brother underlines the “guilt” in guilty pleasure. I’ll probably end up watching every friggin’ episode of this series, then hate myself in the morning.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More