Friday, July 14, 2006

Big Brother All Stars - Where's the Sturm und Drang?

So when I adopted my normal television watching position on Tuesday evening to see what was going on at the Big Brother House it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread. I've been reading Jackie's reports of what's been going on inside the house via the Internet live feeds that I'm to smart, cheap or disinterested (take your pick, I couldn't care less) to pay for and she's managed to make it sound uninteresting which is not a good sign. And yet it should be good because the very fact that these people wanted to do this again makes it sound as though it should be a colossal clash of egos. After seeing both episodes so far all I can do is quote from a Wayne & Shuster sketch (Shakespearean Baseball): Ministers of grace protect us he hath flip-ped his lid.

Actually there are at least two he's in this case whose lids hath been flip-ped, maybe three. One is the guy who sat at a meeting and said, "Hey let's make the next Big Brother the "All Star" version." Then there's the guy who said, "Great Idea! We can have America vote on who gets in, just like at Baseball's All-Star game." Finally there's the guy whose lid did a two and a half somersault, the one who approved the idea.

As you can tell, I'm not particularly enamored of the whole Big Brother: All Stars concept and the comparison to the Baseball All-Star game is part of it. The All Star Game fan voting procedure has a tendency to produce "anomalies" - in the past they've voted on players who were out for season long injuries and at other times voted in substandard players in preference to better ones. This season they put three New York Mets on the National League team but the name Barry Bonds appears nowhere on the line-up. The usual explanation is that the public tends to vote for players that they remember and like. I suspect that this was what was operating in the Big Brother All Stars vote. Twenty "house guests" from the six previous seasons were available to be voted in with the top six - later changed to eight - vote getters going into the house. The producers would select the remaining six houseguests, in much the same way that the manager of a Baseball All-Star team selects members of his team. There was one Season 1 player, four Season 2 players, three Season 3 players, three Season 4 players, four Season 5 players, and five Season 6 players. And who did America pick? They picked the people they knew - seven of the eight (Howie, Kaysar, James, Janelle, Jase, Nakomis and Dianne) were from Seasons 5 and 6, only one, Erica, from an earlier season and that was Season 4 - and the people they liked - the only Season 6 contestant not picked was the always shrill enemy of the Friendship Alliance Ivette, and the only Season 5 candidate miss was dumb as a post Cowboy (who I swear looked like he was going to cry when he wasn't picked). It was left to the producers to make the final picks. I think they were probably taken aback somewhat by the way the voting had gone, giving them a preponderance of people from the last two seasons and it may have hurt their plans to put people in the house who were "natural enemies" of the people the public selected. Instead they had to put in players to represent previous seasons. They selected "Mike Boogie" and "Evil Dr. Will" from Season 2, Marcellas and Danielle from Season 3, and Allison from Season 4. The final pick came as a surprise to most people, including the CBS camera man. The assumption was that they would balance the house equally between men and women, and since three men had already been picked by the producers. On the other hand there was only one Season 1 representative (and only one "older" guy) "Chicken George". He was picked for the final slot.

I think we can see part of the problem here. Marcellas and Danielle hate each other, so do Erika and Allison, and I don't recall the Season 5 trio of Jase, Nakomis and Danielle being that close. The only "natural" alliances in the house are Will and Mike and three of the four from Season 6 (none of whom really trusts James and probably shouldn't). But there's more to it than that. The players not only know each other and have pre-exisitng relationships within their season but with the exception of George they know how the other players play the clutching and grabbing (for backstabbing and backdooring) game from previous seasons. George is a total cypher; no one knows how he'll adapt to life as a conniver since about the only "underhanded" thing he did in Season 1 was the art project, making "Keep George" signs he used in the diary room. The point is however that players - particularly players from later seasons - know how others play. Players from the later seasons probably have more of an advantage because they were watching the early seasons intently because they hoped to get on the show. Players in earlier seasons probably have less understanding of later players because they never expected to be playing the game again. Collectively this shows. When "Evil Doctor Will" claimed that he was insulted that he hadn't been nominated it showed his lack of understanding of the dynamics of the All-Star version of the show. They know his strategy, how he plays the game and here are other players who are more dangerous at the moment. They can deal with him after Allison, who's good at competitions and manipulates men, or Danielle, who is good at playing the backstage game and getting others to do her dirty work. With Will it's a case of knowing that when he opens his mouth he's lying and the game has grown beyond that.

The show hasn't been without entertaining moments, just not that many. I suppose that one of the funniest things has been the improvised "slip & slide" that the houseguests came up with. Various guests went slipping and sliding on this thing made up of a line of black plastic garbage bags, lubricated not just with water but with dish soap, shaving cream and other material. The longest slide was probably by Kaysar who went off the slide across the grass and into the fence, but probably the funniest moment came when Will offered to go "dual sliding" with one of the guys and George took him up on the offer. Marcellas came out of the house just as George was lying on top of Will. It was almost enough, he later said, to make him turn straight. Another aspect is the opinions that players have about each other - mostly wrong. Will was of the opinion that Kaysar was "arrogant", which under the circumstances was the pot calling a dirty dish black. Meanwhile Allison foolishly dismissed Janelle as being "just a cocktail waitress", an opinion that went beyond the absurd given Janelle's performance in Season 6. Allison was thoroughly outmatched.

I had originally intended to get this out after the Tuesday show, but circumstances have dictated otherwise (one thing being that I was following the World Series of Poker's $50,000 buy in HORSE Tournament - the people who have entered make this one like Baseball's All-Star Game except this one means a lot more to the players). So I caught the live eviction episode on Thursday. It's hard to say much about this show. They presented a profile of Allison as seen by Justin, her ex from Season 4, and her current boyfriend - apparently an extremely naive doctor - and totally ignoring Donnie her boyfriend when she was in the house originally (and with whom she battled during the first two legs of Amazing Race 5). Suffice it to say that editing and music made the good doctor look as though he was a fly in the spider's web. There were the usual, not very deep, interviews with the two Heads of Household and goodbye statement from the potential evictees after which Allison was tossed out with a vote of 8-2. About the only excitement was during the later HoH competition. Based around the players guessing what Allison's answers to questions about the various guests was, it came down to a battle between Kaysar and Nakomis, which Kaysar won. Except that host Julie Chen didn't realise it. She (or more likely the person inputting stuff into her teleprompter) said that Nakomis had won much to Nakomis's astonishment and Kaysar's befuddlement.

Of the four major reality competitions that I watch, Big Brother is probably my least favourite. The show has become cut rate Survivor without the rigours of living on a deserted island. The competitions are a minor concern occupying relatively brief periods in the show so the drama - such as it is - comes from getting to know the players and seeing how they react to each other. It is a sad thing to say but the truth is that observing the conflicts between people who are artificially forced together and have to deal with each other in a situation that forces antagonism is the entertaining part of this show. We want to see arguments and catfights (and okay, the occasional peanut butter bikini would not be unappreciated). It's early in the season but so far there's very little of the sort of conflict and manipulation and the blame can be laid clearly at the feet of the All-Star format. This shouldn't really surprise anyone - Survivor All-Stars was a less than stunning effort, the only real revelation being the emergence of Rob & Amber as a dominating partnership - the two hadn't been successful as individual players but together they clicked (in more ways than one - they came second in The Amazing Race and got married to each other). I have a suspicion that unless the game is a competition that doesn't require alliances but is entirely skill related - like The Amazing Race - the All-Star concept is not one that works in reality competitions for exactly the reasons I've cited. The players know each other, either from being on the show together or from watching the show, and this can both reduce conflict and produce prefabricated alliances, reducing the dramatic tension of the season. This season's Big Brother would have been a better show if they'd stuck with the old format and stocked the house with strangers who had never been on the show before. As it is, so far at least this seems to be shaping up as the most boring season of Big Brother since Season 1. Maybe even ever.

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