Pop Culture

‘Big Brother’: So awful, yet so addictive

One morning a few years ago, I found myself watching people sleep. One was snoring. The others were barely moving. I was entranced. And embarrassed.

They were in a trailer in the parking lot of CBS Studio City. I was in Chicago, watching via the Internet. The people were “houseguests” inside the southern California “Big Brother” compound. Inside the camera-covered studio/house, where they agreed to live until they were voted off the reality TV show, the contestants ate, slept, talked, and occasionally participated in challenges. They were competing for $500,000, but by watching them all day, it’d have been nearly impossible to tell that they were anything more than the world’s dullest individuals.

Yet they were the stars of a show that aired three times per week on network television, one that has managed to survive for five years, despite its festering flaws. And it is most certainly flawed.

The series is hosted by Julie Chen, described by one critic as “spectacularly incompetent” for her wooden, stilted delivery and stunning cluelessness. The lame challenges that the houseguests compete in are usually either overly complicated or not at all interesting to watch on television. And as the series progresses, what happens in the house seems to be a repeat of the Stanford Prison Experiment, as producers manipulate houseguests who become increasingly paranoid and delusional.

Still: I can’t wait for “Big Brother 6” to begin.

“Big Brother” is not CBS’ most popular reality show, but arguably it has the most devoted reality TV audience, one that obsesses over it literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three full months. Perhaps more than any other reality series, “Big Brother” engenders a love-hate relationship with its fans, as it manages to be provoking, entertaining, insufferable, and hateful all at once.

Tending chickens! Making pancakes!
The series has come a long way in five years, but in terms of production values, “Big Brother 5” still seemed like it was filmed in a low-rent public access studio and edited on a Commodore 64. There’s a reason for some of that, as the crew has an unparalleled challenge in reality television: they have to assemble three hour-long stories per week in real-time, editing as life goes on.

In part because of this enormous challenge, and in part because producers tried to carbon-copy the UK format of the show for its US debut, the show was a miserable failure its first year. With voting left in the hands of viewers, the most inflammatory — and interesting — cast members were voted off immediately. That left people such as a strange man who liked to dress up like a chicken and a guy who spent one of his remaining evenings in the house getting drunk, stripping to his underwear, and dancing suggestively with a broom, all before dying his hair blue and passing out in the house’s tiny back yard. The cast that remained had to care for a flock of chickens while they wandered around a blandly decorated trailer and made pancakes.

Even then, though, fans were so engaged with the series that they started hiring planes to tow banners over the house’s back yard, sending the houseguests messages such as, “Big Brother is worse than you think. Get out now.” (Instead of seizing the moment and making interactive television history, the arrogant producers kept up the show’s theme of complete isolation, keeping the houseguests locked inside every time a plane came near.)

After that first season, we had cast members getting drunk on NyQuil, a doctor pretending he had cancer to win sympathy, a woman cleaning the toilet with a fellow cast member’s toothbrush, and a drunk man who put a knife to a drunk woman’s throat and said, “Would you get mad if I killed you?” And that was all during “Big Brother 2.”

All of this sounds outrageously horrifying, ridiculously trashy, nearly pointless and thoroughly idiotic. Yet it’s hard to deny the appeal of "Big Brother," mostly because of its transparency.

Story editors and producers for all reality shows have to edit hundreds of hours of footage into just a few episodes, but viewers never have the opportunity to see that footage. For $30, CBS provides the opportunity to watch feeds from inside the house via the Internet. The live feeds (which used to be free, and sometimes still are, once sleuths find the raw streams online) provide a relatively unfiltered look at everything that goes on with the cast during production, something that no other reality show does.

With raw data streaming all day, every day, fans, fanatics, and haters watch online and report upon nearly every action and reaction inside the house. They gather on message boards, particularly an exhaustive site known as Joker’s Updates, and transcribe the lives of strangers. Unless producers cut the feeds — which occurs when something particularly damning or secret happens — the streaming footage offers an unfiltered window into their world.

What makes it to the three episodes every week doesn’t always reflect what goes on inside the compound. Two years ago, the finalists on “Big Brother 4” made racist, homophobic comments about a fellow houseguest, and that footage never made it to the television show. But online watchers saw and reported about it, as they have about a number of events that get glossed over or ignored on TV, like the knife incident on "Big Brother 2."

For its exceptional shallowness, “Big Brother” is quite complicated, and ironically, that’s what makes it watchable. Tracing the evolution of the cast’s relationships over a day, never mind three months, is extremely difficult, and illustrates the complexity of human relationships.  Alliances shift, friendships change, romantic embers ignite and fade. With nothing to occupy the housemates' time except for each other (books, music, and most forms of entertainment are banned) they’re forced to construct their own drama.

Along the way, manipulative, cruel producers acting as the literal “Big Brother” do their best to play with the houseguests’ minds, sometimes locking them into bedrooms for hours at a time or punishing them by allowing them to eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the cast members literally have to earn their food every week). Producers have also introduced themes to ramp up the drama; last year, a half-brother and sister who didn’t know each other found themselves living in the house.  The year before, five ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends were brought in to disrupt the house.

As a result, missing a few days makes it nearly impossible to keep up with the real in-house interaction. A few years ago, editors started inserting black-and-white flashbacks as reminders of past comments and actions, particularly ones that were inflammatory or hypocritical, and that’s helped the televised version maintain its story. But the events that occur even just overnight on the live feeds are at times difficult to keep up with, unless the watchers abandon their lives to focus on the lives of others.

For the sixth season, 14 houseguests will inhabit a brand-new, two-story house, the first change of venue since the series began. And CBS is promising a “summer of secrets” that will find every cast member in a secret, pre-assigned alliance with another houseguest.  Even with a cast of dullards and a reprogrammed Julie Chen, undoubtedly, “Big Brother 6” will make news as it captures the attention of millions of viewers each week.

“Big Brother” is a blanket of human drama that covers viewers for three months, a sociological experiment that plays out on television and online.  As the houseguests become more and more isolated from the outside world, they begin to turn inward, and it’s here that we see their true natures, and perhaps even our own.

is a writer and teacher who produces reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.