Not like it was easy before, but after the past week it’s more impossible than ever to not look at television through the lens of the real world. Anytime you can go through a period of seven days in which the threat of nuclear war is only the second-worst thing that went down, you find yourself in a period of self-reflection. I argued last week that art is still vital in times like this, and TV at its best is art. But even when it’s not art, it can still occasionally provide insights into the real world that are almost assuredly coincidental, yet seem born from the same energies.
Which brings us to why Big Brother might be the perfect encapsulation of America’s Trump Era.
Now, the participants inside the house have no idea what’s going on outside of it. (Those lucky, lucky bastards.) But there are striking similarities to the energies and engagements on both sides of the CBS lot on which it’s filmed. To name a few …
Both feature a cult of personality.
Out here, we have the Trumpers: Those who blindly follow whatever the President does, even if it flies in the face of their best interests or even plain common sense. Inside, we’ve had Cody and Paul alternatively serve as house alphas, with just about everyone else following along to his/her almost certain dismissal from the game. Cody’s power is now gone (although if this completely shifted over the next two weeks, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least), and even Mark seems to have figured out that Paul’s presence ensures no one else has a good chance of winning. But on both sides, even those who see the false idolatry for what it is have a hard time understanding how to stop its proliferation. There’s a sad inertia that suggests people will generally complain but not risk stepping in to stop it.
Both demonstrate an utter breakdown in civil discourse.
Josh’s pots-and-pans chanting is just one example of the way these contestants use bullying tactics and screaming rather than actual dialogue. The fact that Kevin speaking civilly to Cody last night marks him AS A THREAT tells you all you need to know about the level of maturity on display. It’s like watching a Twitter thread staged under intensely bright lights. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with the way Big Brother is edited for TV, in which conflict rules the day and makes for the most compelling television. But I have yet to see more than two or three instances all year in which anyone involved in the game has even the basic amount of compassion for anyone else in this house.
Both involve people who seem mentally unprepared for the pressure they are put under.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with diagnosing any form of mental illness. I’m not an expert nor am I judging. But neither Trump nor these contestants seem prepared to handle adversity without lashing out or crumpling up. When you hear about some of the traumas these players have experienced, the only question is, “How in the world did CBS cast them?” Either CBS didn’t know (unlikely) or knew it would make for compelling content (more likely and fairly disgusting, although hardly out of the ordinary when it comes to reality TV casting). On one side, you have a group of people unable to distinguish what’s a game and what’s reality. On the other side, you have a President who…well, can’t distinguish it either. “Winning” is the only goal, which creates a self-sustaining circle of viciousness in which sharing anything takes a back seat for “avoiding defeat for as long as possible.”
Both make me physically uneasy to watch.
I’ve never 100% lost myself in Big Brother, even during the “good” seasons I watched. But I could more often than not appreciate how the smart players could adapt to the rapidly changing landscape, adjust accordingly, and eventually earn the respect of his or her defeated contestants. Now, I have to gulp down a few glasses of wine before tuning in, which is not unlike how I tune into CNN on the weekends. If Big Brother is a social experiment, it’s an experiment that happens within a specific time and place. The people who went into the house earlier this summer went in during the Trump Era, which is itself the logical if terrifying conclusion of the past few decades in America. For better or worse, they have absorbed that society, imbued it in their outlooks, and act accordingly. Their desire for shame, their inability to self-critique, and the propensity to shout down others rather than just shut up for a single second all reflect the real world a lot more than any of us tuning in to escapist television would care to realize.
There’s literally no way to compare banging pots and pans to the violence in Charlottesville this past weekend. But when you see the entire Big Brother house temporarily lose their minds and try to bully their way to victory through group intimidation, you see a microcosm of the rot of Trump’s America. CBS assembled this concentrated dose of stupidity and hate for all to see. They may have wanted ratings, but they instead got a level of reality that is uncomfortable to witness.