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John P. Filo  /  CBS
Julie Chen, who is expecting her first child in October, returns to host "Big Brother."
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/8/2009 7:30:45 PM ET 2009-07-08T23:30:45

Warning: This story contains possible spoilers for the new season of "Big Brother."

Summer’s incomparably ridiculous, frequently abhorrent, maddeningly inane, and surprisingly addictive reality competition “Big Brother” returns July 9 for its 11th season, and fans cannot wait.

With its awkward host, Julie “Chenbot” Chen, and its poorly constructed and visually uninteresting challenges, the show shouldn’t have lasted more than a few seasons. Yet somehow it’s grown into a series that many people love, and many others love to hate.

Not much has changed — the challenges often suck, Chen has more of a personality but still wavers when she’s away from the teleprompter — but “Big Brother” consistently manages to deliver something engaging enough that it’s become a summer staple like no other TV show.

Every year, the soundstage that serves as a camera-covered home to the contestants gets a makeover; this year, it’s “green,” using recycled materials and other eco-friendly themes. The game also gets an annual facelift, although its core elements have remained nearly identical since the second season.

Let’s twist again
Last year, following a weak, first-ever spring edition, the summer show had no major twist. Returning to its roots, sort of, the show just let 13 strangers play the game. For the first time in six seasons, no one in the house had pre-existing relationships.

This was actually fantastic. There were still crazy alliance shifts and intriguing pairings, but those were even more satisfying to watch because they weren’t shaped by the producers. The game worked fantastically well, especially since those forced alliances or pre-existing relationships didn’t deliver much beyond an inherently uneven playing field and unfair game.

The only time that sort of twist really worked was in season six, when everyone in the house entered with a secret ally not knowing all of the other players had one, too. When one contestant figured it out, the game play, strategizing, and interpersonal drama took off in entirely satisfying ways.

Thankfully, the cast once again appears to be made up of total strangers. However, they won’t get to just play the game like the “Big Brother 10” houseguests did. Instead, this season’s houseguests are being divided into four groups, based upon high school clique stereotypes (the popular kids, the jocks, the nerds, and the off-beat outcasts).

The great thing about that is the way some of the (stereotyped) cast members seem unlike any others the show has ever had: specifically, they seem smart, like 27-year-old Caltech neuroscientist Michele. After all, most smart people wouldn’t subject themselves to nine weeks of captivity with mentally unstable people.

Last season, none of the cast members were terrible human beings, which for a show with a history of horrifying attitudes and behavior was a welcome, long-awaited change.

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Oh sure, the contestants were still crazy, but not in an obnoxious way; there wasn’t in-house violence or racism or sexism spewing forth on the live feeds and then being ignored on TV, where houseguests seemed to have different reputations than they did online. There was insanity and anger, but mostly there was just awesomeness, like craziness from older contestants Jerry and Renny.

Will the cliques make for interesting TV?
The terrible thing about this season’s clique twist is that the producers and network are once again meddling, trying to create artificial drama by forcing alliances and identities immediately when, as last season proved, the best game play and television arises organically. (At least it won’t be like the previous summer, when the producers shoved the reconciliation storyline of awful dad Dick and annoying daughter Daniele into prime-time all summer long.)

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings However, organizing contestants into groups certainly has worked well for “Survivor” over its 18 seasons, and although “Big Brother” is about one-fifth of that show in terms of quality, it is heavily borrowing from its wiser, more mature sibling this season. The winning tribe — er, clique — will be rewarded together and/or get immunity, while the losing group will be punished.

In addition to the four cliques of nerds and jocks and the like, the producers are also going to apparently subject us to the return of a familiar houseguest for some yet-to-be-revealed reason.

While the identities of 12 cast members have been announced, a 13th mystery houseguest will show up during the Thursday premiere, and the rumor is that “Big Brother 9” cast member Sheila Kennedy will re-enter the house (she posted on MySpace that she’d be “traveling for 3 months”).

Why Sheila? No one knows. She had her moments but isn’t exactly the most memorable character in recent seasons. And bringing back cast members doesn’t ever quite work; beloved sixth-season houseguests and strategists Kaysar and Janelle fell flat — or at least short of their reputations — when they returned during the seventh season.

Whether or not it will work will probably depend heavily on the cast, which, again, looks promisingly diverse. But it will all play out on prime-time TV three hours a week, on Sho2’s “Big Brother After Dark” three hours a night, and live on the Internet 24/7, where thousands of fans will digest and discuss every word and action they can. It wouldn’t be “Big Brother” without all them.

Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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