Reality Game Changers
In this limited series, The A.V. Club highlights the reality TV cast members who came to define their respective franchises. From a dedicated activist to a queen bee to the savviest competitor, these are the people who have altered the genre.
The title of “game changer” is thrown around with wild abandon—hell, it’s the name of this series—but it’s rare that someone actually changes the game they’re playing. Big Brother’s Danielle Reyes is one of the few reality stars who can actually point to the moment they changed the machine in which they were intended to simply serve as a cog.
For 82 days in 2002, Reyes played a practically perfect game in Big Brother season three, making it to the final two of the CBS “social experiment.” The media buyer from Fairfield, California made strategic alliances, voted with the majority in all but two votes, and was generally beloved by most of her competition while they shared a home (a.k.a. studio on the CBS Radford lot) during filming. She was also great TV, providing biting commentary about her fellow Houseguests during her private Diary Room sessions shown to viewers at home. But when the evicted competitors voted for a winner of their season, Reyes lost nine to one.
How did it happen? Nowadays, all evicted contestants who will vote for the winner at the end of the season are sequestered in a “Jury House,” where they remain in the dark about any secret alliances and shady Diary Room confessions. But in 2002, Reyes’ competitors were allowed to go home and watch the entire season before returning to vote for a winner in the finale. They had recorded proof of every snarky thing she said in secret, every unkept promise, every underhanded manipulation. Producers loved her unfiltered confessionals, and Reyes paid for that attention by walking away with $450,000 less than the more amenable, but less strategic Lisa Donahue, season three’s eventual winner. The next season saw Big Brother’s first Jury House—because producers knew Danielle Reyes had deserved to win.
Adding a sequester house wasn’t the first significant change producers made to Big Brother. CBS launched the competition series in July 2000 with a format similar to that of the original Dutch series of the same name: Ahead of every eviction, all the remaining Houseguests nominated two fellow competitors for elimination, then viewers voted for who to send home. The interactive element differentiated Big Brother from Survivor (which premiered a month prior), but this was years before votefortheworst.com would popularize messing with reality show voting to keep unfavorable contestants. In the summer of 2000, the contestants just wanted to be liked. There was practically no talk of strategy and very little drama, as everyone was wary of upsetting the viewers at home. It worked out well for 21-year-old Eddie McGee, an amputee and cancer survivor, who won $500,000 as the season-one champ. But it wasn’t good for CBS or the viewers, who were left underwhelmed—especially when they could be watching Richard Hatch over on Survivor creating what we now know to be standard reality competition strategy.
When Big Brother returned for season two the following summer, it was a completely different game. Each week, a Head Of Household competition determined one person who would nominate two Houseguests for elimination and the Houseguests voted each other out. The Big Brother casting team also got themselves a Richard Hatch of their own: Dr. Will Kirby, a cutthroat strategist who spent the summer insulting his fellow Houseguests only to ultimately win their respect, as well as the prize money. Dr. Will was witty, strategic, and great TV—everything Danielle Reyes would be in the following season. But Reyes had the unfortunate luck of being on a season with a “bitter jury.”
“The way I feel about Danielle is that while every person was in this house, they loved her—until they got off and they [saw what she did] in the house,” evicted Houseguest Josh Feinberg told his fellow Jury members as they deliberated during the season-three finale. “That is brilliant: single-handedly controlling people’s exit from the house, and how loyal she was to Jason. [He] was the only person she ever said she would be loyal to. I just think she was the number one,” Feinberg continued. He was the only Houseguest aside from Reyes’ ride-or-die, the aforementioned Jason Guy, who seemed in her camp ahead of the final vote. Most of the other Houseguests could not separate their feelings of betrayal from her gameplay: “I loved her like a fucking sister, and she worked everybody on levels that we were not supposed to be worked,” said one Jury member. “Liberace could never play the piano as well as Danielle played us all in that house,” added another.
It’s infuriating to see a woman (Reyes) punished for actions that were celebrated when perpetrated by a man (Dr. Will) the prior season. But there was definitely a different vibe to season three’s cast: Re-watching that season’s finale (available on Paramount Plus), it’s frustratingly quaint how sincere the Jury comes across when discussing things other contestants said about them on camera. Their questions of “How could you say that about me?” seem to come from a place of true hurt rather than a play for camera time as they do when the same question is asked on a Housewives reunion over on Bravo. And when the Jury gets to address the Final Two, it’s clear their anger and hurt weighs on Reyes. “My Diary Room sessions were honest,” she tells her former housemates. “It was the emotion I was feeling at the time. What you saw in the Diary Room was the real deal.” By the time she gives her final statement, Reyes appears resigned to accept the way the Houseguests view her compared to “Lovely Lisa”: “I was on a mission. I had my game set. I did what I had to do. She’s good, I’m evil—that’s all I gotta say.”
It’s downright painful to watch Reyes retreat behind a corner when the Jury members finally enter the house to see the Final Two in person again. After revealing the nine-to-one vote (an outcome Reyes accurately predicted, with Jason Guy being her sole vote), host Julie Chen calls Reyes “a Will” and says she played a “good” game. “I can sit here and say that if I played the game honest, I probably would’ve got the $500,000,” Reyes tells Julie in response. “But if I did play the game honest, would I be sitting here? I don’t think I would’ve been.” It harkens back to what Josh Feinberg said during deliberations: “To knock Danielle for what she did to get to the finals is to not understand the game.” Yet he also did not vote for Reyes.
Ahead of season four, the Big Brother producers were candid about their fear that Reyes’ loss would cause future contestants to regress to the niceties of season one. “In Big Brother 2, Will was the most outspoken person in the Diary Room that you could imagine. He managed to insult everybody and he won!” producer Arnold Shapiro said in a 2003 interview. But in Reyes’ season, things went the opposite way. “Many people feel Danielle played the game the best and yet did herself in because of her Diary Room comments. This time, the Diary Room will not be a factor and people can speak totally candidly and uninhibitedly, which is what we want. The Diary Room won’t affect the vote.”
In the seasons since, there have been countless “expect the unexpected” twists and turns (some in attempts to counteract various scandals), but none with as much impact on the Big Brother game as the non-sequestered Jury in season three. As we look ahead to season 23 in just a few months, we have a mom from the Bay Area to thank—or curse—for the staying power of this frothy summer reality TV addiction.