Big Brother 15

No matter who won Big Brother, we all lost.

A CBS stalwart for well over a decade, the show isn’t exactly known for evolving with the times. The show is what it is, and the audience is remarkably steady and unfailing. Those that haven’t gotten in tune with the show’s banal wavelengths have generally held it at arm’s length, baffled as to the show’s appeal. Those that love the voyeuristic aspects, the gamesmanship, and the strategy tune in faithfully every year. But this past season tested the faith of those who watch religiously, whether solely consuming the thrice-weekly CBS airings or also diving in deep to Big Brother After Dark or the live feeds online.

Part of the show’s struggle was self-inflicted. Much like Survivor or other long-running competition shows, Big Brother seeks to introduce as many new varieties of gameplay as possible while still keeping the core experience familiar for all involved. This year, the primary gameplay wrinkle took the form of “Big Brother MVP.” Originally, the idea was for viewers to nominate a third person for eviction each week on top of the two nominated by that week’s Head Of Household. The idea behind this twist was solid: Not only did it force players to think more strategically, but it also meant that simply coasting through a large portion of the game unnoticed posed its own form of risk.

But like so many things this season, the show’s casting made things muddled and murky. With little to no information to go on about the newly-installed houseguests, America decided to make Elissa Slater, sister to Big Brother 13 winner Rachel Reilly, the MVP for each of the first few weeks. With an association with a two-time former player, Elissa didn’t earn her MVP status through anything other than name recognition. The other players recognized this pattern before it even started, which meant not only did people not have an incentive to play hard outside of HoH/Veto competitions, but alliances could use Elissa’s given status as part of their overall plan.

CBS quickly realized its boneheaded move, but rather than fix it in a way to make the game more interesting, the network changed it in order to make the players seem both stupid and paranoid. The next few weeks saw America itself as the MVP, making the viewing public able to select the third member of the eviction pool each week. Because the viewing public is a fickle creature, the actions of the MVP made no sense to those on the inside of the house. The MVP turned into an amorphous, schizophrenic lunatic in the mind’s eye of other players. While this certainly amped up the tension in the house, it also completely obliterated any attempts at true strategy. Watching people hurl accusations at each other over the identity of the MVP didn’t create dramatic irony due to our awareness at home of the true nature of the twist. Rather, it made CBS look bad for robbing the players of any meaningful way of deducing the truth. Big Brother is a silly show, but also one filled with an ever-shifting series of circumstances that force players to think on their feet. It can be thrilling to watch someone thread the needle over the course of a season. But it’s only thrilling if CBS allows such threading to exist in the first place. With the MVP debacle, the network cut the show’s gameplay off at its knees.

Still, all of this pales in comparison to the central storyline that has dragged Big Brother down this season: the insane number of times someone in the house said something racist, homophobic, or flat-out offensive. At first, these comments were contained within the live feeds online and never made it to air. But the sheer number of outrageously awful things uttered by certain cast members dominated online discussion of the show to the point where CBS had no choice but to (selectively) air (some of) the hurtful things casually deployed in conversation. Eventually, every episode of Big Brother started off with a title card that basically said: “Look. We know. We’re not happy about it either. But people, right? Some are crazy and say the kookiest things, including the ones that passed our less-than-rigorous screening processes.”

The hurtful language and actions on the show stung all the more as the show’s African-American and Asian contestants got voted off one by one as those who spewed racial slurs behind their backs kept playing for the show’s half-million dollar prize money. To make matters worse, contestants such as Helen made deals with others such as Aaryn, who once dismissed Helen to GinaMarie by saying, "Dude, shut up, go make some rice." The latter replied that she wanted to punch Helen, because, “Maybe that'll make her eyes straight." In other words, Helen based her alliance on no one in the house thinking she would partner up with a racist. That was this season’s form of strategy.

I KNOW, RIGHT?

But it didn’t stop there, even with producers getting on the Big Brother loudspeaker and reminding them, not unlike Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek reminded players on Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy,” to please refrain from using ethnic slurs. Again, this is a show that has, as a central conceit, every moment of a person’s life captured on camera. It’s easy to understand how some contestants might forget they are on camera in the middle of a heated debate, but these hate-filled phrases were often deployed in casual conversations. Throw on top of this entire pile of unsavory shit the fact that the show’s host is Julie Chen, wife of CBS President Les Moonves, and you had an uneasy feeling descend over the entire proceedings. Rather than providing escapist summer entertainment, Big Brother dragged viewers into an uncomfortable, unsettling, and unwelcoming atmosphere.

It was only a matter of time until the external and internal world of the show collided. On the outside, viewers understood that players such as Aaryn, GinaMarie, and Spencer were either fired from their existing jobs or faced stiff reprobation for their statements in the Big Brother house. But on the inside, everything proceeded apace, with the usual hysterics and double-crosses, and no idea of the shitstorm awaiting them on the outside. It wasn’t until Aaryn got evicted on Day 70 and came out to loud boos that anything started to truly sink in for her. In undoubtedly the most incredible five minutes of the season, Julie Chen calmly yet surgically destroyed Aaryn on live television, turning the interview into this year’s Frost/Nixon. Chen never raised her voice, never took an angry tone, and yet scared the living hell out of a college graduate who slowly realized the trouble she was in. Still, this five minutes of catharsis didn’t alleviate the season’s general malaise: Those on the jury (including Aaryn) were prevented from knowing anything about the outside world, By that point, former fan favorite Amanda had turned insane inside the house, GinaMarie and Spencer were still vying for the cash inside the strangely successful Exterminators alliance, and America realized the cold, hard truth: 

None of these people could play Big Brother worth a damn.

Part of the fault lies with CBS, as outlined before. But sweet Jesus, a final three of GinaMarie, Spencer, and Andy? If you’re looking for examples of good gameplay this season on either a physical or social level, you’d be hard pressed to find much. Mostly, gameplay took the form of “bullying,” with a shocking number of eviction votes being unanimous. Past winners have won through a variety of methods, such as cunning, social skills, and competition dominance. But “inertia” might have been this year’s winning technique. No one wanted to rock the boat, and people generally either played along with Helen (because they liked her den mother approach) or Amanda (because they liked their organs on the inside of their skin). Had Amanda not been in a “showmance” with McCrae, she might still be in the game due to sheer force of will. But GinaMarie put the pair up a week after Aaryn left, at a point in which it wasn’t a bold move so much as simple logistics. It wasn’t a masterstroke that eliminated a power player so much as the social dynamics of a power couple near the end of a Big Brother cycle. There was an interesting moment in that week’s Veto competition in which McCrae decided to not cede the Power Of Veto to his in-show girlfriend. But other than that, there has been little drama as the show has limped to its sadly inevitably final trio. 

And once Spencer lost all parts of the final Head Of Household competition, everything about tonight’s finale was an exercise in delay tactics and going through the motions. Andy counted on those he double-crossed to understand he was just making game moves. But more than that, he counted on “GinaMarie” plus “live television” to do most of his work for him. If you recall her speeches as HoH when nominating people for eviction, they played like the world’s worst improv audition. Andy framed his actions as part of a larger strategy to attach himself to more powerful factions before jumping ship. But really, he avoided playing for as long as possible while making those he supposedly served to feel they could simply eliminate him down the line. 

It didn’t help the tension of tonight’s results when Helen all but said, “Yup, Andy’s got the votes!” within 30 seconds of coming onto the live stage. You could all but hear the producers screaming at her to couch her announcement as a theoretical prognostication. But really, the damage was done, leaving only the tension of jury members potentially learning how much the outside world hates them. When Howard got the chance to speak, the camera went to Aaryn more than cameras went to Justin Timberlake while Britney Spears made out with Christina Aguilera and Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards immediately after their breakup. (Tumblr has a few thousand .GIFs of Aaryn’s tightly-wound smile by the time you read this.) But while the awkwardness reached levels not even Ricky Gervais could conceive, nothing truly spilled over. Everyone made their votes without incident or ethnic profiling, and Andy won seven votes to two.

Is there anything we can learn from this season? It’s difficult to say. CBS had a big problem on its hands, but the controversy kept ratings fairly steady, and by the end of the season, Julie Chen mentioned the season’s dicey nature as a point of journalistic interest rather than contempt. The controversy damaged the brand, but once next season kicks off, everything will reset. If that season’s successful, than this 15th installment will seem like an anomaly rather than the new normal. GinaMarie didn’t win $500,000, but she got to hug Nick, who probably only appeared under the condition that snipers were trained on her from all sides of the room at all times. And while Andy took home the big prize, Elissa won $25,000 for being America’s Favorite Player. That’s right: The same contestant that everyone blindly voted for at the start of the season also received the benefit of America’s generosity at the end. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. So say we all, America.

God help us.

Stray observations:

  • I’d love to see a show that involved McCrae and Nick on the constant run from Amanda and GinaMarie. It would be like The Fugitive.
  • I will confess I didn’t see the Dr. Will season, but I’m pretty sure he incepted Jessie during his chat with the group at the eviction house.
  • The Doctor told Amy Pond that bow ties are cool. Andy proves that assertion to be false.
  • Amanda asked GinaMarie to list her biggest move besides evicting her. GinaMarie attempted to form words for thirty seconds before listing the single answer prohibited by Amanda’s inquiry. That was hypnotically terrible.
  • How long until Aaryn, Spencer, and the others realize that not winning $500,000 is just about the least of their problems right now?
  • The grade above was for the season as a whole, for those keeping score.

More TV Club