Stars

[9 July 2006]

By Jodie Janella Horn

While I’m reticent to admit this, I’ll just come out and say it. I love Big Brother. I won’t bother to offer some sallow argument that Big Brother is actually a cultural commodity with depth and grandeur, but I have to admit, it does manage to make a few meaningful statements about our world in spite of its self. This summer’s season (which began 6 July) will be an all-star cast comprised of former houseguests from the previous six seasons, giving these earlier participants the chance to relieve their glory days, or rather glory 15 minutes, as part of this entertainment experiment in eavesdropping.

The audaciously simple premise of the series is that 12 “houseguests” are locked in a “house” (really a bunch of trailers hooked together on a studio lot) and forced to follow the instructions of ‘Big Brother’ (really a PA system tackily emulating omnipotence). The American Big Brother is an anomaly among the 40-odd international versions of the show, in that the contestants vote one another out of the house. Everywhere else, the viewing audience does the choosing. However, all versions have the same goal: avoid “eviction” and win a cash prize.

Second only to Paradise Hotel, Fox’s notorious, quasi-pornographic summer-long festival of shamelessness, Big Brother often goes for the gratuitous. It has featured questionable contests offering men and women — in teeny-weeny bathing suits, naturally — engaging in ridiculous acts such as stuffing as many dollar bills into their outfits as possible while trapped in an enclosed booth with cash whirling around them. Adding to this already prurient approach of the show are the live feeds. Subscribers can buy access to 24-hour video of the house to watch on their computer, and if they’re really lucky, as subscribers of the fourth season were, they may even get to watch people ‘doin’ it’. Yeah, it’s a classy operation.

True to the Orwellian origins of the show, groupthink has a starring role. The culture that forms within the house is a great deal like high school—except, here, most of the students are fame-whores with prickly demeanors and silicone implants where their scruples should be. From such a thicket of vapidity, however, a few notable houseguests have emerged.

In the summer of 2001, season two produced arguably the greatest reality TV show contestant ever: the horribly high and mighty Evil Dr. Will Kirby. After his in-crowd coterie was picked off, he was left in a house full of people who didn’t like him, and for good reason. He was a practitioner of the belief that the bigger the lie, the more believable it is. Hence when the houseguests were playing with a Ouiji board and it spelled “Jim”, Will told the house that he had a cousin named Jim who was a geologist. He added that Jim had recently died on a Thai oilrig. The contestants were stunned. Will then went into the private diary room and ridiculed the saps, letting the audience know that it was all just a grand practical joke.

After a summer of performing a post-modern critique of the nascent reality TV genre, it was down to the foul physician and one other person to win the prize. Will decided to use the space intended for his final plea for the evicted houseguests’ votes to make a bizarre and brilliantly asinine statement:

“If your not happy with this show, maybe you’re not happy with reality based television in general. And if you’re not happy with reality based TV, maybe you’re not happy with… with, as the name suggests, reality. So if you’re not happy with me, it just might be yourself you’re not happy with.”

Despite roiling the jury, he still won the grand prize. Part of Dr. Will’s genius is that everything about his persona on the show would work terribly in real life, making his final statement all the more ironic. Sadly, his meta-moment in broadcast history was not appreciated in its day, mostly because it aired just one week after 9/11. The attack also led to some very awkward television because the houseguests eventually had to be told about the tragedy. It was just too weird to watch the last three people in the world who didn’t know about the destruction of the World Trade Center go on with their petty scheming in ignorant bliss. To make the whole situation even more unsettling, we learned that one of the guests lost a cousin in the collapse of the Towers. It was a creepy, despicably voyeuristic moment in the overall lexicon of reality television.

I’ve watched five years of reality TV shows hoping to see a prospective top model or sole survivor replicate Will’s ability to endear an audience by alienating fellow contestants, and finally last year’s Big Brother 6 offered up a whole batch of them. In an alliance dubbed the “Sovereign Six”, crew queen Janelle offered up her image as a self-proclaimed buxom blond. Like Will, she made bad behavior enjoyable to watch by selecting unlikable targets. Additionally, Janelle was damn smart, as well as a spectacularly bad drinker. In sum, she was everything a reality contestant should be: arrogant, cutthroat, and easily inebriated.

Now, as much as I love some of the characters that Big Brother has produced, I am against this summer’s All Star edition. First, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to go back on the show having already been through such national humiliation already. Therefore I am instantly and inherently suspicious of the so-called all-stars. Will, in particular, disgusts me given the fact that he’s going to be featured on an upcoming season of Doctor 90210. He already had the fame-whoring covered. Why push it? Plus, unlike most reality TV show contestants he has a lucrative career. His cosmetic dermatology practice in Beverly Hills is booming, and from the look of him lately, he’s not just the founder, but also a client. He currently appears to have the well-oiled hide of a newborn baby stretched across his face.

Will and Janelle — the houseguests, not the people — existed in a specific space and time. Their characters were defined in relation to the people that surrounded them during their stay in the house. Now they and their targets will be too aware! Remember how sweet and earnest Stephanie was on Survivor: Palau? Now do you remember how she was immediately another scheming jackass when they brought her back for Survivor: Guatemala? I’m frightened of seeing a Will that is genuine or a Janelle that drinks moderately.

Furthermore, Will and Janelle will probably be voted out immediately. After all, their muscle flexing/titty jiggling can no longer conceal their savvy, just as Richard Hatch’s nudity didn’t make him seem like a harmless old weirdo when he came back for Survivor: All-Stars. Part of Will and Janelle’s original charm was their ability to hide their actual intentions and abilities, but their jig is totally up before the season even starts this time around. Nevertheless, my inner Pollyanna is hoping for Will and Janelle to hook-up, get engaged on air, and force the jury to vote between them in a final showdown between the two. You know, kind of like Rob and Amber on Survivor, but with engaging personalities.

Multimedia: Big Brother USA 7 All-Stars Commercial 1

Born and raised in the cultural wasteland of Santa Rosa, California in 1980, Jodie spent much of her early childhood competing in track and field until she could no longer tolerate scheduling conflicts between practice and Punky Brewster. In 2000 she received a B.A. in Anthropology and moved to Los Angeles, making guest appearances in London; Portland, Oregon; and Oakland, where she met her husband. A full-time writer, Jodie has completed an as of yet unpublished novel and contributes to PopMatters as a TV columnist, book reviewer, and the occasional feature.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/horn060710/