"Real World" Minus the Sex and Depravity
"Big Brother" is on TV pretty much as often as the news.
As inconceivable as it sounds, this absurd CBS show is now entering its 11th season. Most often foisted upon us in the summer, when we're least likely to care what we're staring at, "Big Brother" had at one time tried to fob itself off as a great social experiment. Initially, the idea was to take 13 strangers and then secrete them inside a compound with no connections to the outside world. Like scientists, rather than voyeurs hoping to see a splash of nudity, the public would watch, fascinated by the behaviors and organic social structures that emerged. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.
Hosted on a set that looks like it was constructed by a primary school class, "Big Brother" has always been an infantile parade of sociopaths and exhibitionists. Starving for attention, yet completely devoid of any sort of talent, the House Guests, as they are called, strut about flexing their muscles and showing us their tits. Through some sort of convoluted set of constantly shifting rules, they scheme and plot, voting each other off week by week, until just one remains, and is briefly welcomed onto the very bottom rung of celebrity. (It should be noted that as the show nears it's end, and should be gaining momentum, it becomes ridiculously dull, with just two people sitting around playing cards.)
The den mother of this circus is Julie Chen, who serves as host. Professional looking rather than pretty, she's as rigid and cold as an ice pick. When she swivels and faces the camera with her dead, humorless eyes, you could be forgiven for thinking that she was actually Animatronic. Her deeply sober and uptight countenance does nothing to leaven the utterly infantile vibe that presides.
As surreal as a Japanese game show, but not nearly as much fun, "Big Brother" forces the House Guests to participate in asinine games in order to secure various privileges. Bored, they're only too happy to strip down to their bathing suits and do whatever they're told. So far this season, we've seen them hanging in the air from a toilet suit while wearing a diaper, and searching for clues in the exploding pustules of a Papier-mache face.
"For the first time ever," the contestants have been divided into four cliques that have been constructed to simulate the high school experience. These tribes are; The Athletes, The Brains, The Off-beats and The Populars.
In the athletes group, the principle meatheads are Jessie and Russell. They're short and popping with the muscles that some people cultivate to compensate for a lack of a natural athletic ability. Jessie is a creepy-boy body builder from Iowa, and whether he knows it or not, has gay icon written all over him. Innocent and dim, he has the blank look of somebody who's destined for a career in Internet porn.
Reckless and overflowing with testosterone is Russell, who claims his friends call him "Russell the lovemuscle." One needn't add much to that profile, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he once got in a serious motorcycle accident while trying to impress some chicks. What do you think? A wheelie? A skid? A bold leap over a puddle? At any rate, he makes some claims to being a Mixed Martial Artist, taking off his shirt and shadow boxing in the Big Brother backyard at the drop of a hat, but he has Foot Locker salesman written all over him.
Amongst the Brains, there is Ronnie, a video game and Sci-Fi geek. Behind plain glasses and with his hair meticulously parted, Ronnie has the non-descript appearance of a serial killer. Convinced of his vastly superior intellect, he can list in order, all of all the people ever eliminated from Big Brother House. Like many of the people on the show, Ronnie wants to conceal all of his secret weapons, so that he might avoid becoming a "target" and "fly under the radar." But, like all the other competitors, his vanity is such that he simply has to share his majesty, and so we quickly found out that he was a "National Champion For Persuasive Speaking," which surely struck fear into the hearts of his enemies.
The Off-Beats consist of a flamboyantly gay guy, a 40 year-old, who signals to the world that he's "colorful" and a "personality" by often wearing a hat, and Lydia, a tattooed cutie who was quick to point out that if she was a Breakfast Club character, she would have been Molly Ringwald. Yes, me, too, Lydia, me, too.
The Populars contain one of the obvious villains of the show, Laura. She's described as a "bikini model," which I think is code for not-so-much-a-face-model. At any rate, Laura has ridiculously immense boobs and a long, sour face. She's entitled and whiny, believing that she did everybody a favor by giving them an opportunity to get to know her, and if they didn't take advantage of that lucky break, well, it's their own fault if she ignores them.
Laura, like all the others who surround her on the show, feels persecuted by her peers, not because of her negative qualities, but because of her good ones. You see, people hate her because she's beautiful, she says, asking if it's her fault she has huge boobs. Well, since she went out and got the implants, I guess it sort of was her fault.
Of course, we watch "Big Brother" because it's such a hideous spectacle. What we see are a bunch of bad actors, each one trying on the role of sycophant or bully in an attempt to manipulate their peers and further their own petty interests. If we were actually watching people living in unguarded moments, that would be one thing, but what we see is artificial, designed for an audience, that at heart, want simplicity. The characters we get, each one either lacking or trying to conceal an interior, are caricatures. Existing as ridiculous amplifications of their own unmediated impulses, the House Guests stage a kind of modern opera, only with hot tubs instead of arias, and we, the judging public, as their chorus.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he's written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.