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Why are all-star reality shows so disappointing?

Eating oatmeal! No hot water! Oh, the boredom of ‘Big Brother’
/ Source: contributor

On “Big Brother 7,” no one has gotten drunk on NyQuil, nor has anyone used a knife in a romantic moment. No one has cleaned the toilet with someone else’s toothbrush, nor has anyone disrupted the balance of power in the house by brilliantly figuring out everyone else’s secret alliances. No twins have secretly been switching places, nor have ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends showed up to taunt their former lovers. The houseguests have not discovered hidden rooms in the house, nor have they threatened to walk out, all of which have happened on regular seasons.

In other words, this “all-star” season is a complete bore.

An all-star season of a reality show supposedly features the best players coming back to clash with one another as they avenge past wrongs and try to prove their superiority in the game. Instead, this group of all-stars — and for the most part, they actually are the best and most interesting players from “Big Brother”’s previous six seasons — have seemed content to drift along.  Even when they play the game — or have emotional outbursts that almost come to blows, which happened after Howie’s eviction — it feels familiar. Thus, even during those rare moments, there’s been little dramatic tension.

The producers have apparently gone on vacation, as pathetically, they’ve only introduced two minor twists this whole season. Every other “Big Brother” since the second season has featured a major, game-changing twist at its start, but this season, there’s been little more than “Trading Spaces”-style redecoration in the house.

The first week, two people became Head of Household, but that was dropped the next week and has since been forgotten. Two weeks ago, host Julie Chen told viewers that there was an intriguing new power that could be won by the houseguests. The coup d’etat would give its winner the power to overthrow the Head of Household, who’s responsible for nominating two people for eviction.

Even though an entire month elapsed before this power was introduced, the producers squandered the opportunity. First, the person who won the power, Mike “Boogie” Malin, is not allowed to talk about it with anyone else, so no one knows that this game element exists. There’s an excellent way to create drama: keep everything a secret. Second, Mike only has three chances to use it, and then the power evaporates, and we go back to the old game as usual. Third, it's unlikely he will utilize it unless he’s threatened directly. What a twist that will be if the power is not even used!

Oh no, oatmealWhen producers haven’t been considering how to take all the life out of potentially dramatic twists, they’ve done other zany things such as forcing the houseguests to eat only high-protein oatmeal at times and depriving them of hot water in the shower.  Thrilling. Other houseguests from past seasons have reappeared, some as ghostly apparitions appearing in the house’s ubiquitous one-way mirrors, but only for a few moments, and never with the aggression, anger, power, or fun they’ve had in the past. They might as well have been cardboard cutouts.

Then again, the current houseguests are sort of like cardboard cutouts, too. Janelle Pierzina, last season’s true breakout player, has again dominated in competitions, becoming Head of Household three times. But each time she had the opportunity to nominate the strongest players, she’s been committed only to targeting “floaters,” or the weaker people who are not in either of the house’s two major alliances. She did nominate Danielle, who’s a strong player, although Danielle saved herself by winning the power of veto.

Besides that, Janelle has allowed Will Kirby and Mike Malin to escape eviction week after week, even though both are known only for being duplicitous, and have targeted her alliance behind her back. That’s apparent to viewers because the pair, who call themselves “Chill Town” just like they did in season two, frequently visit the diary room to talk about how stupid Janelle is for not putting them up for eviction.

They’re correct, but what they’re really doing in those moments is performing for the cameras and the audience. Therein lies yet another problem with the all-star season: the participants are entirely too aware of the audience’s reaction to them because they’ve done this before.

In his diary room segments, Will seems to be performing bad stand-up comedy, complete with exaggerated gestures and pauses where the home audience should laugh. He also plays to his “evil” persona at every chance he gets. In five years, all he could come up with was the same exact shtick?

That awareness of the audience’s reception seems to have paralyzed Kaysar Ridha, who remains one of the game’s most popular players ever. He smartly figured out the twist last season (that everyone was competing in secret pairs) and then used his power as Head of Household to cause the house’s dominant alliance to implode. The irony is that, after that moment, he ran out of game. Voted back in by the audience twice now, he’s twice squandered that opportunity, being nice instead of playing the game. Thus, he’s now been evicted from the house three times, and admitted when he was voted out last week that he “was a little burnt out” and is “just not cut out for this game.”

For the most part, it was a major tactical error on behalf of the show’s producers to change nothing and expect drama and intrigue to follow. If anything, “Big Brother 7” will hopefully kill the idea of all-star versions of popular competitive reality shows.  “Survivor” tried it and ended up with what host Jeff Probst called the “worst season I’ve ever had.”

When two unbelievably talented tennis stars battle on the court or two world-class boxers fight in a ring, the result is frequently compelling as the best of the best challenge one another. But those sporting events last for a few hours, not three months. In addition, they’re not reality TV shows, which by definition are supposed to entertain while documenting whatever is going on. And successful quasi-all-star series such as “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge” use alumni, but constantly change the game, and change up the cast enough to keep things interesting and fresh.

Capturing the magic of a past experience by duplicating it generally doesn’t work. There’s something about discovery and newness that makes those moments especially thrilling, and makes photocopies of them seem all the more lifeless. Such is the case with “Big Brother 7.” Watching the game’s former villains stroke their fake mustaches while the former heroes sit idly by and decompose is just depressing, and ruins the memories of any fun viewers have had with “Big Brother” during the past six summers.

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