Big Brother 13

Big Brother is one of the oldest and most successful of the big network reality competition shows, but it is treated sort of like the drunk uncle at a family reunion. You know, the one who brings his own case of Busch Light and tells inappropriate jokes about your second cousin’s girlfriend. The one everyone pretends to despise but secretly loves because his specific type of dysfunction is what makes the reunion worth going to in the first place. (Yeah, that one.) While this could often give a show a severe inferiority complex, Big Brother is happy to live in the silly, stupid, trashy space it has created for itself, and for that we should all admire it. And watch. Because honestly? This is the most entertaining silly, stupid, trashy summer show on television.

When Big Brother was created back in the late 90s (by Dutch reality television impresario John De Mol, who also created The Voice), network reality television as we know it today essentially did not exist. The concept was simple: put a bunch of strangers in a house for three months and tape them at all times via a video-and-sound-wired house, and have the audience eliminate them one by one each week by calling in votes. It was a smash hit overseas and CBS contracted the Dutch producers to create a U.S. version for the summer of 2000. The catch? American audiences were different than their European counterparts and immediately started eliminating all of the interesting or controversial personalities, leading to one of the most tedious seasons of reality television ever to air on a major network. (On top of being boring, it aired six times a week. Yes, six. On the seventh day God probably cried.)

After the disastrous first season CBS ditched the Dutch but still recognized the potential in the format, hiring an American production team to revamp the show into something palatable for the stars and stripes set. Ever since then, the show has been a veritable hit, airing its 13th season this summer and spawning enough memorable personalities to have a very highly rated All-Star season a few summers ago. Dr. Evil Will Kirby, we’ll always love you.

Here’s the thing you need to know about Big Brother going in: It’s dumb. Actively, staggeringly, overwhelmingly stupid. If you don’t accept the inanity at face value, there’s no way to truly enjoy the show. I mean, this is a show where in its season premiere people were hanging off giant bananas getting whipped cream sprayed in their face for a chance to win something called Head of Household, all intercut with confessionals featuring thinly veiled dick jokes. It’s like a slightly idiotic 13-year-old boy’s fantasy come to life. Beyond the ridiculous trappings of the format, however, there’s something sneakily brilliant about how the show can get under your skin and take over your life, and that is because of one thing – live feeds.

Plenty of reality shows, both pre- and post-Big Brother, tape their subjects 24 hours a day. Plenty remove all sense of privacy or shame, grinding the souls and self-esteem of their subjects down to tiny little exposed nerves of feelings that they then repeatedly tweak in order to elicit insane responses. No other show, though, puts all of this on display for us to watch in real time, if only we’re willing to pay the $39.99 fee. It’s utter genius and utter madness all at once, and if you’ve ever been privy to see them, you know it is almost inexplicably intoxicating. The conversations are generally moronic, monotonous and downright insipid – put a camera on anyone 24/7 and they’re bound to sound boring, but put it on these specific types of assholes and it’s a level of boring that’s almost beyond comprehension – but in spite of this fact, once you start watching it’s almost impossible to stop. One summer I was unemployed and got a free pass for the live feeds, and I am almost ashamed to admit how much time I spent listening to idiots talk about tanning. Or bars. Or body hair. There’s something about voyeurism you don’t even understand until you have the chance to be a voyeur yourself, and realize it’s a slippery slope from the Big Brother live feeds to you lurking in your neighbor’s backyard with a pair of binoculars and a dream.

The live feeds can also be used as a bit of a study in selective editing as well. On the feeds you get a whole sense of a contestant, not just the story the producers of the show want to tell. At times, the dichotomy between those two portrayals is fascinating and almost makes you believe the stories maligned former reality contestants tell about how they “weren’t really like that.” At other times, it’s maddening or even depressing, as you see a horrible person get magically whitewashed into the hero. Still, as a student of reality television I find it adds an extra layer to your viewing experience you truly cannot get with any other show, even if my full-time job doesn't allow me to watch now but merely follow various websites that outline the day’s highlights (and YouTube anything good).

This season CBS has stolen a page from the very successful return of Rob Mariano to Survivor and decided to have a few “favorites” return to Big Brother as well. One thing Big Brother never seems to struggle with too greatly is its personalities (aside from the disastrous writers’ strike induced spring season) so the impetus to bring people back is probably not necessary, but it definitely can’t hurt ratings. The theme for the season is Dynamic Duos because Big Brother is Not Very Creative At Naming Things, and the twist is everyone will be playing in pairs. Once the eight new contestants reluctantly pair off, the final twist is revealed to the cast: the remaining six will be old houseguests returning to the show. Without even time for people to strategize, Brandon and Rachel (a.k.a. the barf-worthy “Brenchel”), Jeff and Jordan, and Dick and Danielle enter the game. The only pair anyone seems truly happy to see is Jeff and Jordan, because they are seriously made of puppies and rainbows and saltwater taffy. It’s hard to explain, but definitely true.

Time will only tell if this twist plays out as predictably as it did with Survivor and Rob, but I have hope. For one thing, the game of Big Brother is nothing like the game of Survivor. Big Brother is more about backstabbing, constant game-playing and gossip and much less competition-focused, seeing that all competitions have to take place in their postage stamp-sized back yard. The new players appear to have a great range of personalities and the returning players they’ve brought back are just diverse enough to be simultaneously infuriating and charming. Seeing how the returnees interact with each other and the also the new personalities is bound to be compelling, and by having more of them they will be harder to pick off. Strategy-wise, the Golden Key twist of getting a free pass into the final ten has potential, if used correctly, and forcing people to play in pairs could lead to some great infighting.

Most importantly, and the key to the show’s success in the last 12 seasons, is that there’s something specifically crazy-making about being stuck in a tiny house with a bunch of people and no outside stimulation while being unobtrusively taped. No other experience can replicate it, and it causes people to do some downright shocking things. It’s that underlying current of unpredictability – and the tiny little voyeur that lives inside all of us – which makes Big Brother the most compellingly watchable silly, stupid, trashy show on television. Won’t you come join us? It's awfully nice here.

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