Big Brother USA, Season Eight: The Most Dangerous Game
For Eight Seasons, Big Brother USA has brought numerous twists to reality TV. Here is a twist Big Brother might not have seen coming.
Dear Big Brother USA:
You've done it again! At the beginning of Season Eight, 14 contestants entered the game for another summer of competition and mayhem and, 81 days later, two finalists emerged: "Evel" Dick Donato, the belligerent 44-year-old bar manager from Los Angeles, California, who pretty much terrorized his housemates, and Dick's competitive 20-year-old daughter Daniele. As you are aware, Dick received the grand prize over Daniele, by a margin of five to two (OMG, ouch! In your face, Daniele! Who's your daddy? Oooh, this reality show stuff burns, don't it?).
Nevertheless, Big Brother, you and I have unfinished business. First, let's do a recap of the evicted houseguests. This season, we saw:
Amber, the Las Vegas, Nevada cocktail waitress who will be remembered for her numerous breakdowns and cry-fests;
Carol, the young student who was the first evictee of the season, and might not be remembered much since she didn't get a lot of playing time;
Dustin, the shoe salesman from Chicago, Illinois, who (despite being a smart guy) actually volunteered to be nominated for eviction (what in the world?!), and was shocked when he was indeed evicted;
Eric, a New Yorker who worked for the viewers as "America's Player" (more on that later);
Jameka, a school counselor with firm religious convictions, who was a lovely sweetheart of a person but not much of a strategist;
Jen, who often came across as self-absorbed, but could have been a viable threat to win the game;
Jessica, the cheerleader from Kansas who was Carol's high school "nemesis" and Eric's eventual "show-mantic" partner, and whose skill in competition inspired Dick and Daniele to break their word to her and get her ousted ("Evict the cheerleader, win the game", huh?);
Joe, Dustin's ex-boyfriend, who might have gone farther by being quieter and exhibiting more interpersonal finesse;
Kail, the successful business owner from Oregon, who hid her business successes from her housemates to further herself in the game (it probably didn't make a difference);
Mike, a Wisconsin painting contractor who ruined his own game by needlessly making himself a target (bad houseguest!);
Nick; a former football player from Minnesota whose feelings for Daniele most likely ruined his game (poor guy actually told her, "I think you're the Bee's Knees" in public!); and
Zach; the graphic designer from Burbank, California who was disliked by his housemates (for being "odd", I guess) but finished strong in the final three -- I'd say he was only one bad decision away from reaching the final two.
Now, except for the comments above and a few more at the tail-end of this message, I'm not going to analyze anybody's strategy, and I'm not going to spend this time ridiculing the houseguests or critiquing Big Brother's hostess Julie Chen (I actually like her!).
Instead, I want to talk about you, Big Brother.
You see, one of my duties as Head of my own Household is to nominate TV shows for eviction from my viewing schedule. I take my television viewing very seriously. Last week, I decided to nominate the US version of Big Brother and Boston Legal.
Having done that, I am addressing my eviction speech to you, Big Brother, because, quite frankly, you were my primary target. You might have believed I was hunting for Boston Legal, given one of my tirades against the show, but that was only in the context of legal dramas, as a whole, and in comparison to The Practice, in particular.
Let me assure you, my friend, that I knew The Practice, and you, sir -- well, you are nothing like The Practice. In other words, Boston Legal, I only nominated you as a pawn. You are safe from eviction and I look forward to watching you intermittently throughout this season.
Nick discusses his eviction with Julie Chen
The reason for your eviction is far simpler than you might think. You are a TV reality show -- which I have nothing against as a genre, although I gleefully evicted Real World and Fear Factor a long time ago, and American Idol is next on my Kill Bill list. But, insofar as reality TV is concerned, you fulfilled your role in our homes for the past seven seasons.
I gave up chunks of my summers for you, filled numerous VCR tapes for your shenanigans, screamed at your houseguests, "No, silly, that guy's not your friend!" and "Aww, man, why did you nominate her?" I've even had those lame conversations about the strategies of the houseguests, "Well, you know Will tried to get Erika evicted, and if he could've pulled that off…" or "Yes, Marcellas should have used the veto on himself but, come on, he was duped…"
Each season, you'd bring us a batch of fresh faces and personalities and we, your faithful audience, would watch them populate your infamous Big Brother House, some secluded flat where all the festivities would take place. There, they'd toil for weeks and weeks, having every word, movement, and breath captured by your battalion of cameras. They'd remain under 24-hour surveillance, completely on display via your live Internet feeds, and we'd watch them compete for food privileges and luxuries, studying them like giggling high school students observing paramecia under a microscope.
One by one, they'd be eliminated until the final houseguest emerged victorious, securing the coveted crown of being the winner of Big Brother Season Whatever. Yeah! Put that on your job application! Better yet, the crown comes with 500,000 US bucks; the runner up gets $50,000.
The benefits of our alliance sustained us through some trying times. In the original version of the Big Brother game, and the versions still played in other countries, you let us be your partner. The power to eliminate players belonged with the viewers, and we dutifully plucked houseguests from the limelight, whether by popularity or by some other nebulous criteria. It was oh so democratic, wasn't it? The tyranny of the majority has never been so much fun. Had he been watching, I think George Orwell would have been pleased.
In Season Two, you transferred the eviction power to the houseguests themselves, leaving us to watch them cannibalize each other in their quest for the winnings, sort of like Richard Connell's short story The Most Dangerous Game in which a big game hunter (Sanger Rainsford) gets trapped on an island and learns that a rich and really weird loner (General Zaroff) uses the island to hunt human beings. I read that story in the seventh grade and it still scares the begeezers out of me.
At any rate, the word "game" -- in the story and in Big Brother -- acquires a dual meaning: the "game" we play, as well as the "game" we hunt, as the contestants hunt and evict each other each year. You might note how, when players are up for eviction, they often talk about "survival" and "fighting for their lives" and they start sharing advice with other houseguests as if they are on their deathbeds, "When I'm gone, remember to play the game for yourself…I won't forget you…"
Overall, it was a bold move that transformed the US version of the game, making manipulation and deceit necessary strategies instead of promoting a likeable personality for the benefit of a powerful, yet amorphous, TV audience. The twist, though, was that the evicted houseguests would become the jurors who decided the winner between the final two players.
That same season, you clumsily plowed the game forward through the tragedy of September 11, 2001, even after you realized one of the houseguests had a missing cousin who worked at the World Trade Center. It was late in the season, plus you seemed somewhat sensitive about the situation, so we eventually forgave you. Besides, you gave us Dr. Will Kirby, who I say is the best Big Brother player ever, and that made you seem way cooler than you really are.
Jen and Zach
In Season Three, you introduced the "Power of Veto", allowing houseguests to win the right to overturn one of the Head of Household's nominations, forcing the Head of Household to nominate someone else. Very, very clever, and quite suspenseful.
Also that season, Danielle Reyes played a methodical, crafty game, inching her way to the finale with the stealth of Sam Fisher in Tom Clancey's Splinter Cell, assisted by her trusty secret sidekick Jason Guy. Unfortunately, when homegirl got to the end, guess what? The evicted houseguests who would be voting for the winner heard Danielle's diary room conversations and didn't take kindly to her trash talking.
The prize went to the other finalist (Lisa) although I think Danielle played the better game. At the same time, she referred to one dude as "the devil", so I guess I understand the backlash, but I'm not sure the diary room talk was a $450,000 error. Good grief. In some ways, the loss of goodwill among the evicted players makes Season Three's Danielle Reyes similar to this season's Daniele Donato.
Nonetheless, we forgave you again, Big Brother, especially since, in Season Four, you corrected the diary room flaw by putting a certain number of evictees into a Sequester House. This prevented potential jurors from being swayed by the televised diary room entries.
After all we've been through, you might think I'm bitter about the way this recent season went down. True, the houseguests didn't seem to be as game-savvy as the ones in the past -- a few of them cried a lot, some were more concerned with being "nice" than with building strategies, and I just can't believe grown folks would let a guy like "Evel Dick" intimidate and curse at them (and that's just the stuff that made the TV cut, let's not even get into the filth seen on the live feeds).
Forget the "game", there's not a single person in my neighborhood -- male or female -- who would've let that guy out of the Big Brother house without a fight. And I mean a "real" fight, not a "reality show" fight. Trust me, I do a lot of hip-hop music reviews and some of that stuff in those rap records is true. Where I come from, you don't let people curse you out, get in your face, and ridicule your religious beliefs or your parenting skills or whatever without sticking up for yourself. And on national television no less? Dream on. I don't know anybody who would go out like that. But, hey, the houseguests signed up for the game, and they let it happen, so I can't hold a grudge over it.
Here's what I'm mad about. You used to trust us; now, I don't think you do anymore. We (you and your audience) were once in an alliance -- let's call it the Big Brother Alliance -- and it served us well until you lost faith in us, believing we needed all sorts of little tricks and ploys (you call them "twists") to make the game enjoyable. Look, put a bunch of strangers in a house with 24-hour surveillance and don't let them go anywhere, do anything, or have contact with the outside world, and you'll get "good television". You don't have to match houseguests with their ex-lovers, like in Season Four (the "X-Factor" season).
That was also the season when two houseguests (who weren't ex-lovers) had sex in the Big Brother house, I might add! You certainly don't need to reunite siblings and have a set of twins secretly alternate in and out of the game (like Season Five's "Do Not Assume" twist). And we never got a chance to see the "Coup D'etat" power unleashed during 2006's All Star Season, so all of that hype turned out to be a whole bunch of nothing.
Yet, following an entertaining All-Stars season (Season Seven), you opened Season Eight with two unnecessary twists that may prove to be your undoing.
First, certain houseguests would come face to face with their enemies: two very bitter ex-boyfriends (Dustin and Joe), a pair of high school enemies (Jessica and Carol), and an estranged father and daughter (Dick and Daniele). What have we been asking you for, Big Brother? A cash prize bigger than a half a million dollars. A Big Brother house with fewer frills and immunity from planes flying over with strategy-exposing banners. A racially and culturally diverse group of houseguests. And what do we get? Another pointless "twist" that, in this case, tilted the game in favor of the father-daughter alliance. Did anybody really expect them to turn on each other?
I guess what bothers me isn't so much the built-in alliance advantage created by their family relationship; I'm mad about the story you constructed. Through your editing, you kept presenting Danielle and Evel Dick as a packaged deal, a heart-wrenching story of a father who came to play a game and found an opportunity to win back the affection of his daughter. Great story, Big Brother, with great footage to boot. Unfortunately for you, that's not why I watch your show.
I like the strategy of it, maybe even the social experimentation angle of it, but I draw the line when you start turning it into a soap opera. I'm already on the edge of my seat wondering if Todd Manning's going to get his son back on One Life to Live or if anybody's going to find out Reva's son faked his death on Guiding Light (we see you, Jonathon!). I don't need Big Brother trying to manipulate me with sentimentality.
About Evel Dick and his tactics -- cursing, spitting, intimidating people, and doing all sorts of crazy things viewers saw on the live feeds -- hey, it is what it is. Besides, he's not the only one who acted a little nutty. In the finale, evicted houseguest/juror Dustin asked his jury comrades whether voting in Dick's favor would send a message to America that Dick's behavior in the house was acceptable. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't (and even Dustin ended up voting for Dick), but the game isn't based on being "nice". It's an unpleasant marathon, not a kind sprint. It's a summer long chess game, and there's nothing in these rules that forbids you from using personal attacks to get your opponent to make a wrong move. Most of us -- with the exception of certain contestants -- seem to be able to accept that. Do I think Dick would be a cool guy to hang out with? Not really, but this isn't Love Connection or ElimiDATE or Who Wants to Dance with a Geek. I'm not watching to see "nice" people. In fact, it's more fun when they're not nice!
But you, Big Brother. What about you? After Season Two, your appeal has been that you never claimed to be anything more than what you were. People like me might rationalize your show as an exercise in social experimentation or that "summer long chess game" thing I said earlier, or some other such nonsense to explain why we're watching people living in a house instead of being somewhere else living our own lives. You came off as a fun summer game show that invited people -- even a few who looked decent in their bikinis -- to compete for money and prizes. Now, all of a sudden, you want to pretend to have depth.
You give us sound bytes from Dick, "This is a happy ending [being in the finals with my daughter], and with me and Daniele, it's a happy start." Then you bring Dick's mama to the finale and have her talk about how she's glad to see her son and granddaughter talking again. Oh, I'm sure she's very proud (actually, let's hope not) but I'm just not buying the story you fed us. It's kind of insulting, really, like expecting us to learn life lessons from Jerry Springer's thought bubble moments at the end of his bizarre-universe talk show.
The other problem with Season Eight was the "America's Player" twist. This year, one of the houseguests (Eric Stein) was chosen to receive directives from us -- the viewers: we used text messages and the Internet to give him tasks to complete (sharing "personal" stories with houseguests, ruining someone's belongings, climbing in bed with a sleeping housemate) and we told him which person to vote out on eviction night. He'd get money for completing these errands -- good for him, he won $40,000 -- but it was the most frustrating "twist" of all time, turning Eric's game into a mess of contradictions thanks to the fickleness of our home voting. And when it really counted most, when Eric had a chance to help eliminate "Evel Dick" from the game, "America's Player" suspiciously targeted someone else.
Daniele and Dick in the Big Brother finale
Anyway, after the revelation, Julie Chen asked Dick for his reaction to the twist, seeing as how he would probably have been evicted in the sixth week had it not been for Eric and viewers with a perverse sense of humor (note: I added the "perverse sense of humor" part). She said, "Dick, you owe America a big fat 'thank you'."
Dick's response was genuine shock, "I thought I had made a great power play in the game and it turns out that it's just everybody watching that kept me in the house and sent Dustin packing." (Ouch, in your face, Dick! Ooh, it burns, don't it? That reality twist just burns!). That, in addition to Dick owing a couple of his votes to the jurors' backlash against Daniele, almost invalidates the finale for me. The "America's Player" twist turned out to be a deus ex machina move that, for me, nullifies the strategy and logic of the show.
In my mind, Eric was the best player this season, as he lasted near the show's endgame despite playing as America's robot. He completed 20 of the 26 "America's tasks", some of which were petty and insignificant, and that's pretty darn good. Eric said it best, "I am disappointed that I never got to cast my own vote to evict. America told me who to evict and that's what I had to do." There's no telling what he could have done with his free will intact. Could this be why the finale didn't emphasize the money Eric won in the performance of his tasks? He earned almost as much as Daniele (not counting the amount she could probably get Daddy Dearest to split with her).
I don't mean to sound like Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's JFK (even if Eric was treated like "the magic bullet houseguest"), but something just ain't addin' up, partner: weak and cowering houseguests, a father and daughter team that would likely have each other's backs no matter how "estranged" they were (what was the reason for the estrangement again, I missed it when you glossed over it), a weird twist that turns the most avid Big Brother fan/houseguest (Eric) into a viewer-managed automaton, and a cutesy story about a rude, crude, and lewd father trying to get his snooty, moody, attitude-y daughter back. I'm not saying the game was rigged; I'm saying Big Brother turned into Big Daddy, and the paternalism was a bit off-putting.
So…it's been fun playing your game with you. We had a lot of great summers. Right now, I don't see how my summer viewing schedule can include you. But a lot can happen between now and next season and, maybe, if you get back to basics, you can pull the ripcord and we can float together as a team once again. But, for now, you've been evicted from my house. That's right, the buck stops here. Do not pass go and do not collect $200. You are the weakest link! Goodbye.
A Concerned (former) Big Brother Alliance member
P.S. Would you mind telling Julie Chen and Jameka I said hello? Thanks!