There isn’t much for me to say about Big Brother, CBS’s human ant colony reality series, other than this: Damn, I love this show! Mind you, I’m not proud of this fact. Now in its fourth season, BB is often cringe-inducing and ridiculous, as seemingly normal adults embarrass themselves for cash, cheesy prizes, a bastardized sort of fame, and even food to eat as they spend a few months locked up in a gaudy house built on the CBS backlot.
But, game-wise, it’s the best that reality TV has to offer. Each week, one “houseguest” is named “Head of Household,” and gets to nominate two of his/her co-habitators for “eviction.” The others vote on which one to send home. Whoever is left in the end gets the prize. The game is not particularly fascinating from a cultural or sociological point of view (if you want that, watch PBS), but for sheer melodrama and intrigue, it can’t be beat. The entertainment is premised on alliances forging and collapsing, promises crumbling, and unexpected incidents.
Already in this season, two houseguests have gotten the heave-ho from producers, one before the series began because he used his cell phone (a BB no-no), and the other for an in-house temper tantrum where he was throwing chairs. Such commotion offers more suspense and surprises than on an entire season of The Sopranos. You can’t help but get involved, and even phone up other (underground) BB watchers immediately after each episode to say, “I cannot believe this.”
The utter unpredictability of this season’s series is a switch from its first incarnation. In season one, BB, deemed a “bold experiment,” threw together an assortment of sexes, generations, and races—a “microcosm” of the U.S. population—to start fireworks and perhaps to inspire resolutions. Because the participants were taped 24/7, in every room of the house, the program offered a study of individuals working to integrate their public and private “selves.” That first year, there was a money prize at stake. And each week, one BB inmate was voted out by viewers calling an 800 number, like an inverse American Idol, with the final housemate winning $500,000. The houseguests had little control over their fates, so they mostly just hung out. Oddly, this made BB1 too “realistic” for reality TV. Critics called it “boring.”
And so, season two dropped the voting-by-phone concept, allowing the houseguests to vote each other out. Since then, BB rarely produces chat about world affairs or philosophical concerns. Instead, every on-camera exchange pertains to “the game,” that is, who’s voting against whom, which alliance is holding strong and which is breaking, what strategy is working or not. Last season added a minor twist, the “Power of Veto.” Midweek, after two houseguests are put up on the chopping block, another houseguest can win the chance to pull one back to safety. That keeps the balance of power shifting in the house all the way up to the live eviction episode.
Veto power is still around this season, along with a new idea, “The X Factor.” Some of the entering houseguests have been joined in Casa Big Brother by ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. In other words, right from the get-go, there’s the possibility of lovers’ spats and hysterical breakdowns. At the same time, the new structure omits any semblance of the population “microcosm.” For whatever reason, the producers did not cast any houseguests that were gay (hence, no gay ex’s was brought into the house) nor did they seem to seek out any African-Americans or interacial couples. Had they sought for greater diversity, the show would have no doubt be better for it since it would have introduced other issues-like race, etc.-into the BB mix.
Instead, the producers, this year, obviously went all out for youthful sex appeal. All but two are under age 30, the others being 33 and Jack, the 58-year-old, divorced, retired FBI agent, who is the “old man” of the group (how did he get in there?). None of them is married and if they do have children, they certainly don’t talk about them much. And of course, everyone has a perfect body: they’re a J. Crew catalog come to life.
And what could be better for ratings than buff young bodies bouncing in the hot tub? Romance, or at least sex, has been a crucial component of reality TV since MTV’s first Real World, when Julie and Eric flirted in the loft. And even if no love sparks start to fly, perhaps a couple of exes will decide to rehash their broken relationship, leading to loud fights and slammed doors. You know, the stuff we like on reality TV. That is, with the X-factor, the BB powers that be aren’t leaving love or hate to chance, stacking the deck with players bearing “histories.”
Some might argue that internal fighting and half-hearted “hooking up” between reality show contestants is done best on Survivor. But there, contenders have to worry not only about who will “outwit” and “outlast” the others, but also about finding food and water. The live-ins of BB don’t have to battle the elements, just each other. Hence, they have little to do all day but plot, worry, and become increasingly paranoid by the minute. Also unlike Survivor, on Big Brother, no one gets dirty or kill a pig, and there are no preset teams. This means that everyone remains beautiful and, from day one, everyone is out for himself.
Even BB host Julie Chen—long considered a liability—has begun to grow on me, as she now appears to be fully in on the joke. She learned to relax and accept the show for what it is, and isn’t. This is a refreshing switch from, say, Survivor‘s Jeff Probst, who still seems to think he’s Alistair Cooke.
In the end, does all this dishonesty and backbiting lead to “quality TV”? Does it set any sort of positive example? Of course not. But is Big Brother—this surprising, ever-twisting, enthralling, voyeuristic pseudo-Dangerous Liaisons—more fun than watching the redundancies of American Idol or another desperate pair run through yet another airport on Amazing Race?
You bet it is. Damn, I love this show!