When houseguest Jen Johnson left the “Big Brother 8” house Thursday night, she did so with the show’s first-ever penalty vote: the producers cast a vote against her, making her eviction the result of a 6-0 vote.
As host Julie Chen read off her cue card, “Jen, you are the first person in eight years of ‘Big Brother’ to break food restriction rules and get a penalty vote. How does it feel to make ‘Big Brother’ history?”
Only on reality TV is eating an offense, although Jen actually agreed during an earlier competition to restrict her diet for 30 days to the cruel high-protein gruel that the producers delight in forcing some of the houseguests to eat for a week or more, apparently convinced that makes for excellent television.
A better question, one that Julie Chen might have asked if she was an actual journalist instead of a cue card reader, is, “How does it feel to have been the target of your fellow houseguests’ wrath for seven weeks, and to be punished for violating the rules while others are not? Do you think viewers would have the same impression of your recent meltdown if they knew what happened all day long in the house, with your fellow houseguests constantly berating you, even if you are kind of annoying?”
When she was the target of others’ wrath, Jen retained the same, stone-faced expression, water bottle in hand, sometimes trying to talk to the person but never, until this week, matching the anger and enmity that was being thrown her way. Although her punishment was for eating, Jen was also apparently reprimanded for destroying fellow houseguest Dick Donato's cigarettes. The irony there is that Jen’s clothing was vandalized earlier this season by another houseguest, Eric.
But Eric is “America’s Player,” one of this season's twists.
Three times a week, viewers vote and Eric must do what they say, sometimes performing tasks invented by the show’s often-sadistic producers. One week, the producers asked viewers, “Whose personal property should he covertly target?” The reason: “Eric needs to instigate some drama in the ‘Big Brother’ house. This week, he’s a secret vandal.” During last night's “America's Choice” question, the accompanying video even showed Eric squirting mustard all over her shirt, which Jen washed multiple times but could not get clean.
Jen was also targeted by houseguests who weren’t being prompted by producer-created tasks and viewer votes, especially Dick Donato. For weeks, he verbally abused her, and while she'd sometimes attempt to respond to his accusations — some true, some not — he’d continue his relentless assaults: “You’re a bitch for what you did to her. You’re a f---ing liar. ... I will do everything I can to make you the most miserable bitch in the house. ... Get the f--- out of here, you stupid bitch. ... Nobody gives a f--- about you.”
Jen is not the only person Dick treats that way, but she did seem to be targeted more than others. On one occasion, he dumped iced tea on her head, and suffered no apparent consequences for that action.
While “Big Brother 8” has shown several of Dick’s tirades, it has, in recent weeks, set him up as a sort of hero, ignoring his yelling and swearing and focusing instead on his successful alliance with his formerly estranged daughter and others (including Jen) to defeat a group that wanted to get him out of the house.
That gets to the center of what's most fascinating — and most frustrating — about “Big Brother”: its transparency. The show takes place essentially in real time; while the events shown on the Sunday and Tuesday episodes generally happen a few days before, giving the editors time to work, the Thursday shows are mostly live.
And there are the live, streaming Internet feeds from the house that allow anyone who pays to watch the drama in actual real time. In addition, this season, the show began offering three hours of mostly uncensored footage from the house every night on Showtime.
No other reality show gives its audience access to so much material, and thus so much insight about how reality television is constructed. While we may be aware that we’re watching highly condensed episodes on television three nights a week, those offer a self-contained narrative that has its own internal logic, even if that narrative over-simplifies events or completely ignores others.
The clearest and most egregious example of that this season has to do with houseguest Amber’s assertion during multiple conversations that Jewish people can be identified “by their nose” or “by their last name,” and that people who are “really money-hungry” tend to be Jewish. That prompted CBS to condemn her hateful and ignorant remarks as “offensive” in a statement that insisted Amber's comments “will not be part of any future broadcast.”
That sets up an odd dynamic: Essentially, there are multiple versions of the same reality. Someone who watches the show only on television will have an entirely different impression of Amber than those who watch or follow the show online. On TV, Amber cries constantly, often about missing her daughter, and reveals that God talks to her about the game. On the Internet feeds, Amber swears constantly, frequently using words like “goddamn,” and makes bigoted remarks.
Dick’s on-television persona is similarly disconnected from his in-house personality. He has been openly abrasive since he first entered the house as part of the twist that (unfairly to everyone) brought three players’ enemies into the house. While the television show has shown Dick being confrontational and abrasive, it has excluded, for example, his use of the c-word to describe female houseguests, a word that Eric also uses.
The TV show has also excluded houseguest Daniele’s rather shocking assertion that even one of the show's producers called Jen the c-word in the Diary Room. The producers of the show often pull the plug on the live feeds when the houseguests reveal more than they should about what happens in the Diary Room, the one private room in the house where the cast is interviewed by producers.
One conversation on the live feeds showed that Dustin felt “harassed into saying things today that I did not want to say” by a producer, and Jameka agreed; before more was said, someone cut the feed, as if they had something to hide.
We may never know what actually happens in the Diary Room, whether producers are merely asking leading questions to get the houseguest to be more expressive, or whether they're subtly trying to sway votes and keep the show interesting, as some viewers have asserted this season.
The massive quantity of uncensored content that pours out of the house on a daily basis, much of which is transcribed by feed watchers in online forums, makes it difficult for an average viewer to keep up. Some of it, like Amber's comments, reach the show’s audience and others through YouTube, bloggers, and the media. But the rest makes “Big Brother” on TV significantly different than reality.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.