The Glass House

The foundation of reality television is imitation. For every reality show hit, there’s another network that retools the idea slightly to cash in. The Voice begat The Choice, The Bachelor begat Flavor of Love, and Hoarders begat Hoarding: Buried Alive, and on and on, in the never-ending Biblical-level spawning that reality shows do. This doesn’t necessarily make for better shows, but tweaking a premise can sometimes turn into something revelatory, or at least consistently entertaining. The Glass House has caused a lot of commotion—and gotten a great deal of free publicity—from the legal dust-up it caused over its similarity to CBS’s annual slog Big Brother. Due to the graces of a federal judge, the show debuted at its appointed time this week, despite CBS lawyers’ efforts to bring a restraining order against it. CBS claims that The Glass House is too close to Big Brother to escape outright copycatting the show. 

They may have a point. Everything in The Glass House looks like a slightly tweaked and updated version of Big Brother, the generic Fruity-Os to your favorite name brand cereal. This isn’t to The Glass House’s advantage, really. It makes the whole show look oddly retro, as if the premiere came filtered through a 10-year time warp. The camerawork, the modular furniture, the transparent walls, and even the way that characters are framed seem ripped from the early 2000s. The main difference between the two shows is one of interaction. Big Brother played on the notion of constant surveillance. You could watch the participants around the clock. Watching the house felt like looking into an aquarium. 

The Glass House is like taking in an enormous, live-action video game. Where Big Brother passively observes, The Glass House welcomes faceless social interactions. It’s a reality show that reflects the audience’s knowing-ness about the tropes of reality shows and caters to them. Banners at the bottom of the screen remind you that each member of the household has a Twitter feed and a Facebook account that you can send questions and advice into. A running ticker encourages viewers to vote on ABC’s website to “impact the game.” The household is full of sentient pawns, and they all have personalities that people who grew up on The Real World can describe by heart. 

Each of the 14 players enters the house via a hissing, smoking platform in a tube, a set-piece that would not seem out of place on a Nickelodeon game show. As in the introductions of most reality shows, the introductions are a wash of fresh young faces and quirks. Some gems include Apollo Poetry, a 28-year-old author who’s so determined to keep the peace that he announces, early on, that he’ll never vote someone off except through a completely disinterested system using playing cards. Jeffrey, a receptionist, swears he has a lock on the “hot, fat, gay thing.” There are some folks outside of the traditional 18-to-30 demographic as well. Bar Mitzvah DJ Mike, 43, always manages to be wearing a shirt with “Boston” or some reference to fighting on it and is looking at the show as his “last hurrah” before death, which is depressing. By far the most typical reality show character is 25-year-old Alex, a bail bondsman from Texas, who makes it clear that his goals are to have a show of his own. 

The viewer interaction kicks off at the “TV wall,” where the house gets split up into teams for the contestants' first challenge according to their geographic origins: East vs. West. Viewers also assign the contestants their room, and generously decide to throw their pseudo-guests a pool party, complete with Mardi Gras beads and sushi platter. Each decision put to a vote is a calculation on the ABC watcher’s part on what will make the show more entertaining. Bikinis are better than pajamas, and sushi is sexier than cold cuts. The limbo just wouldn’t be as interesting to watch as a spirited round of “kiss and blow.”

The aforementioned challenge is an enormous match game, controlled by joysticks, which each team must try to execute as soon as possible. At one end are the names of their opposing teammates; at the other are “revealing facts” about those people. Team West, led by the spineless Jacob, has trouble coordinating. Alex takes control of things, but talks over everyone and makes the wrong choices. Gentle weirdo Apollo finally coordinates his crew, but they take seven minutes to finish. Team East, meanwhile, has snooty Mensa member Stephanie and captain Jeffrey, who work the puzzle like pros. Their time is just over three minutes. 

When he learns that Team West is on the chopping block, Alex activates into a super-jerk. His question to the public is whether he should amp up the horrible behavior to become “the most epic villain” in history, to which everyone votes a resounding “yes.” In response, he goes on an insult rampage. He picks a fight with a Mormon about her morals and tells nurse-stripper Joy, “You can’t even keep a husband.” He lashes out at affable blonde Erica about her bowel movements and her weight, calling her a “fat cow” and advising her not to “eat peanut butter for breakfast.” If he was hoping to get considered for elimination, he got his wish. Along with hapless captain Jacob, Alex overwhelmingly gets voted into “limbo,” or the space between when the house hates you and the audience decides if you go home. The Glass House ends with Alex taunting the camera, and Jacob quitting. “Oh, I have no character?” he yells at Joy. “I’m the biggest character in this house.” Sadly, he’s probably right. 

Stray observations:

  • I blame Avatar and The Hunger Games for the system where housemates choose whom to vote into limbo. 
  • Kevin’s reaction to Alex’s vote pandering after the challenge was priceless: “When I see a perp who acts like that, they know that their days are limited.”
  • Apollo’s gnomic utterances surely won’t last, right? His question to the public was “Did you smile at least once today?”
  • Maybe it’s just me, but did the challenge arena remind anyone else of GUTS