Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Big Brother 12

big-brother-poster I realize I’ve been posting up a storm lately (by my standards), and I apologize if what you like about this blog is how infrequent and therefore unobtrusive it is, but back in January when I reviewed Dead Set, I wrote:

(confession: I never miss Big Brother in the US, but in my half-hearted defense, the differences between the two shows make the US version much more of  a strategy game and much less of a schadenfruede party...I could say much more but maybe I'll save that for a post in the summer when the show returns).

Well…here it is summer and Big Brother 12 is premiering on Thursday.  I’ve actually been considering doing a weekly update sort of thing, but we’ll take that as it comes.  What I want to accomplish in this post is to give a brief overview of what about the show works for me, in part by contrasting the US version with its International cousins.

Season 1 and the International version:

In a sense, the second season of Big Brother US, when they introduced the Head of Household competitions, is the first real season of Big Brother US.  Season 1 (which aired in 2000, so we’re talking the very tip of the reality game show spear here) was formatted in the same way as the International versions that preceded it.

Ten contestants enter a house wired for 24-hour surveillance.  For the duration of the show, no news from the outside world reaches their ears (9/11 was a unique and understandable exception to this prohibition in season 2, particularly as one contestant’s cousin was killed in the attack). 

Each week, the contestants individually and secretly nominate two of their fellow houseguests.  They are not permitted to discuss their nominations (which would lead to strategizing and alliance-forming) with any other contestants.  The two contestants receiving the most nominations are placed “on the chopping block” to be voted on by the viewing public.  Whomever the public votes against leaves the house, and so on week after week.

This show format made Big Brother 1 a popularity contest par excellence.  The contestant whom the largest percentage of the voting audience wanted to win would invariably win.

What was somewhat interesting about this season was that the participants themselves didn’t really know what to make of what they were experiencing.  Survivor had also just recently commenced, so the closest analogue that they were likely familiar with would have been Real World, which had been in production since 1992.  But Real World was a very different show that emphasized conflict rather than competition.  What worked for participants of Real World translated strangely and haphazardly into the game show atmosphere of Big Brother 1.

The HOH and the rise of Will Kirby:

But then in Season 2 the producers (known as the TPTB, or The Powers that Be, in Big Brother online forum parlance), made the first and most significant of several format changes: they introduced the role of Head of Household.  Instead of secret nominations from each of the houseguests at the end of each week, at the beginning of week the show would hold a Head of Household (HOH) competition, the winner of which would have the sole responsibility for nomination.  Furthermore, instead of having the public vote on which of the two nominees would be evicted, the houseguests themselves (excluding the HOH and his or her two nominees) would cast a secret ballot to make that determination.

Let the strategizing and alliance-making begin, basically.

Also, Big Brother US is no longer purely a popularity contest; it is not at all the case that the character whom the audience most favors is guaranteed to win.  In fact, it is quite possible that the contestant whom the audience most despises might win, should his or her strategy prove superior.  Instead of being a show about popularity and humiliation, Big Brother grew to be about loyalty, betrayal, hubris, revenge, duplicity and paranoia (and popularity and humiliation).

Season 2 also saw the rise of Will Kirby, the young doctor from Florida who ended up taking home the prize (which was then and has remained a half a million dollars).  Will was so well-suited to the game, such an effortless liar with such a trustworthy face and such an intuitive grasp of group behavior that almost every self-styled “strategy player” to enter the Big Brother house since has been laboring under the anxiety of his influenceEveryone knew that Will was a liar, but no one ever thought that Will was lying to them.

BB8FloorPlan Season 8 and the Live Feed:

Season 8 was both a high-point in the show and kind of a low-point in my life.  CBS sells access to a 24-hour live internet feed, and in season 8 they were offering a free month of access as a promotion to get you hooked.  In season 9 I actually paid for a month of access.  I’m better now, but for a while there, I would wake up, turn on the feed, and mostly watch people sleep as I was preparing to teach my introduction to literary theory summer course each day.  Actually, because the house is on the west coast and I’m on the east coast, and because that Season 8’s houseguests liked to do their scheming really late into the night, chances were often good that a few of them were still up and talking as I was waking up.

It’s hard for me to defend a viewing practice that on the face of it looks so pathetic, but the best I can say is that there’s something about the pace of real life—it’s tediousness and monotony—that the edited, prime time version couldn’t hope to capture—that in fact the prime time version specifically omits.  If you can’t stand the work of Samuel Beckett, then I can’t expect you to understand, but if you can, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Malone have mercy on us both.


I have more things to say, but in a few minutes I’m taking off for a few days, and I wanted to get this up before the live premiere airs.  So expect a few more ruminations as well as my thoughts on this season’s cast on Friday or Saturday.

BONUS: Mose Allison, “Big Brother”

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