"Big Brother," the most egregious evidence that writers have been on strike for more than three months, debuts Tuesday night. It's the reality competition series' ninth season, and its first to not air from July to August, when rational, otherwise-occupied people typically ignore it and those of us who obsessively watch for three months and then hate ourselves afterwards can blame the summer heat for our poor judgment.
As usual, the show has introduced a controlling twist, which is identified in this season's tagline: "'Til Death Do You Part." The 16 houseguests will each be paired with a "soulmate," emphasis on the scare quotes, someone who the producers have decided is their perfect match based upon a survey everyone filled out when applying for the series.
Executive producer Allison Grodner introduced the twist on CBS' "Early Show" by saying that a houseguest's "life in the house depends on this other person. You're going to sleep in the same bed together, you're going to compete together, hold the Head of Household together, get nominated together, and ultimately get evicted together."
Of course, the likelihood that all of these couples will actually fall madly in love with this stranger they've been paired with is far less than they'll clash with them, a possibility so probable — and desirable? — CBS admitted it in a press release, saying that the soulmate "may prove to be (a contestant's) true love or their worst nightmare."
They'll be forced to work through that and play together for a few weeks, at least. With the strike over but the exact return of most scripted shows still unknown , CBS and producers are being vague about when exactly the show will end, and have suggested the couples could be split, which would increase the length of the season.
Whether or not that happens probably has to do with how long CBS needs the show. Eliminating one of the eight couples every week would result in a season that's just eight weeks long, assuming that two couples are left the last week, because no one is eliminated the first week. If the show has one of its double-elimination weeks, it could end even sooner. Producers could also split up the pairs and extend the season if CBS needs it to continue to fill time.
Even if the pairs are split up eventually, they'll still be affected by the twist and their initial partner, who could become an ally or an enemy. Once again, "Big Brother" contestants will be handicapped, forced to play the game with strangers. This is nothing new for "Big Brother."
Incredibly, only the show's first three seasons featured strangers competing as individuals against one another for the prize. Since the show's fourth season, which aired in 2003, the producers have paired contestants with strangers or people they know. (Season seven, the all-star season, could be considered an exception, although many players stuck to alliances formed during their original seasons, and were helped or hurt by those.)
This sort of pairing only really worked during "Big Brother 6," when each houseguest secretly knew one other houseguest, but thought they were the only secret pair. Once smarter contestants figured out that twist, the game play and strategy reached new levels as the houseguests formed alliances that frequently targeted pairs but that also used those pairs to their advantage.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings In the most unfair twists introduced during previous seasons, only some houseguests were helped or hurt by having a partner in the house. Last season, three of the houseguests discovered that people they didn't really like that much from their pasts were also playing the game. That worked as both a disadvantage and, in the case of the winner and runner-up, Dick and Danielle, to their advantage . Their bond as father and daughter, even though they were supposedly estranged when the series began, was much stronger than former high school friends or ex-boyfriends.
Why won't the producers allow people to compete as individuals anymore? Why do they insist upon handicapping the contestants? Competition shows such as "Survivor" might organize their players into tribes, but those are large groups of individuals in which smaller alliances can form, not pre-determined pairs whose bond alters the way they and everyone else plays the game.
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"Big Brother" also isn't the only competitive reality show to take this approach, although it did so earlier and more frequently than other series. Last season, "The Biggest Loser" was won by twin brothers who dominated in the competition, perhaps in part because they had moral support unlike anyone else had, and this season every "Biggest Loser" contestant is paired with someone they know — except for two people cast online.
On "Big Brother," however, these pairings nearly always come across as an artificial way to inject drama in the house, as if the producers don't trust that isolating people in a confined space, depriving them of real food, and having them compete in ridiculous and poorly conceived challenges isn't enough.
This season's twist makes the desperation for outrageous behavior even more apparent, as the contestants will even be forced to share the same bed with their alleged soulmate. If they like each other, the United States' "Big Brother" house may finally offer the frequent sexual interaction that has been much more common on European editions, and those watching uncensored footage on the live feeds will actually have a justifiable reason to be spending so much time staring at little boxes on their computer screens.
If the pairs don't get along, that's even better for the show's producers, because conflict makes for even better reality television than sex. Still, that conflict will be tainted by the contrived nature of their pairings, because for all viewers know, the matches were intended to produce hostility instead of hook-ups.
A series called "Big Brother" should probably be expected to be run by controlling totalitarian producers who meddle constantly to serve their own interests. But to provide a true competition, one where everyone begins on the same level, a fairer and even more entertaining option might just be to once again let a bunch of strangers play the game.
Andy Dehart is msnbc.com's Reality TV expert and the editor of realityblurred.com.
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