Saturday, July 07, 2007

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others

There are a couple of reasons for this title which will become clear in due time, but for the moment, let's just bask in the return of Big Brother – the horribly mutated version for North America. It's true, this is not the show that John de Mol created and which the rest of the world watches and participates in by calling in and voting for who should be evicted and who should stay. CBS tried that in the summer of 2000, and I think it's fair to say that if that were the only example of a reality show that was on the air that year the genre might have died "a-borning." But there was a little show called Survivor – which I'm convinced that no one at either Endemol or CBS thought was going to take off the way it did – that kicked Big Brother in the balls and took its lunch money. And when Big Brother came back for its second season it had ceased to be a show where the audience was an active participant and became a somewhat weak Survivor clone, but one which holds an audience.

This season the Big Brother house has been done over in a sort of Alice in Wonderland – or probably more accurately an Alice Through The Looking Glass – motif complete with one bedroom where everything is oversized and one is undersized (to say the least). And there was one room where the beds were round for no apparent reason, although I'm sure we'll discover one eventually. The eleven house guests were let into the house in groups of four, three, and four. Yes, I did say eleven, which is down from last year, but that's part of The Twist for this season (or one of the twists anyway). Naturally the "randomly chosen" first four – Carol, Joe, Mike and Amber (not that one) – grab the big beds, while the second three – Nick, Danielle, and Jameka (this season's only African American player, who admits that she doesn't spend much time with White People and is rather nervous about it) have far reduced choices. The final four – Kail, Jen, Eric and Zach – just happens to include some of the tallest members of the cast get the "Hobbit Hole" room with the tiny bed and the low to the floor door.

Once the players have their beds selected they get together in the living room to introduce themselves and it's a chance for us to get a really good look at them. The oldest one – so far – is 38 year old Kail while the youngest at "not quite 21" is blonde Danielle. In fact this is probably the youngest group of houseguests ever since – of the ones we know about – the only other one out of his twenties is graphic designer Zach. There's the usual sort of bitchy but insubstantial comments that occur. One houseguest states in confessional that she doesn't think another woman is "a person of substance" because of her enormous giant boobs." Don't snicker; from such facile observations are alliances forged on this show. The big early revelation is that Joe is Gay (no shock there). Actually he says that he works as a receptionist in a children's hair salon which is about the least "butch" job one can think of and yet another example of Big Brother casting the most stereotypical Gay people in America. Kail (who owns multiple businesses and is willing to tell us all about how most of her small Oregon town works for her or her family, but has only told her fellow houseguests that she was "just" a real estate agent) came off as something of a homophobe when she said in confessional that she would be "heartbroken" of one of her children "chose a Gay lifestyle." Which is a pretty crappy thing to say, but there's a bit of a hitch because we don't know when these confessionals were shot, and there are revelations to come about our happy little Gay guy.

The revelations are going to come because of the first Twist of the season. Host Julie Chen shows up on the living room monitor and tells the denizens of the minimum security prison known as the Big Brother House that they are not the only houseguests in the building. They are three people that they know; possibly a rival, an enemy or someone they have unfinished business with. And they're watching the action in the living room on TV. The three are Joe's ex, Dustin, "Evil" Dick (he insists on calling himself "Evil") who is Danielle's estranged father, and Jessica who is owed $5 by Carol from back when they were in high school. Huh!? Back downstairs the main group of inmates is speculating on who from their past life could be upstairs. Joe almost immediately says it has to be Dustin, and claims that Dustin gave him gonorrhoea (Dustin says it was Joe who was cheating and gave him The Clap), and that after they broke up Joe turned all of Dustin's friends against him. If Kail's comments about the Gay Lifestyle came after hearing this, they may seem just a bit less homophobic. Or maybe not. Suffice it to say that "our happy little Gay guy" doesn't come off at all well even without a rebuttal from Dustin. Danielle is afraid that it's probably her dad but doesn't say anything, while Kail is mostly worried that someone from her hometown will reveal the fact that she is – say it with me folks – a multiple business owner. As for Carol, she can't figure out who from her life could be somewhere in the house except maybe one of the girls she dissed when she was in high school.

The HOH competition was a bog standard one with a bit of a spin added to it – so to speak. Players paired up (with one not getting a partner and thus not competing) and while one player sat on a giant mushroom (like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland – remember that part of the theme) while their partner answered questions based on what the houseguest said in a general questionnaire before the start of the show. For every incorrect answer the mushroom of the "answerer's" partner would spin faster. Eric, who was trying desperately to answer questions wrong, ended up winning the challenge with his partner Kail who stuck to the mushroom like glue. Then Julie announced that the Head of Household would be chosen by the three players we haven't met yet. They decided to give it to Kail. Then, after everyone cleaned up (there were geysers of mud and a cloud of powdery white dust for the mushroom riders), the three players upstairs came down to meet everybody else. Pointedly Joe refused to shake hands with Dustin, but clearly the most emotional situation related to the massively tattooed "Evil" Dick and his daughter who fled to the bathroom along with most of the women on the show. I suspect that while Dustin & Joe is the relationship with the most external conflict, whatever happened between Dick and Danielle goes a lot deeper.

Ah, but there's one more complication thrown into the mix for this season and it's The Big Twist. Throughout the show they had been teasing us with the idea that one houseguest would be ours (the audience's) to control. At the end of the episode it is finally revealed that the one to be controlled would be Eric, who had been Kail's partner in the HOH competition. At the end of each episode viewers will be polled as to what "we" want Eric to do in a given situation ranging from how we want him to vote during the eliminations to which woman (I think/hope it's only women) he should start a "showmance" with. He's our little puppet to master. And while It's not the same as being able to vote out houseguests ourselves as is done in other shows in the Big Brother worldwide franchise, it is a lot more interactivity than has been available in the past. Despite the fact that he seems like the other players Eric is most assuredly not like the others.

The Big Brother houseguests are in their seventh day in the Big House. It is possible to get the live Internet feeds on Real Networks, but for the first time ever there is a daily three hour show available on the American cable network Showtime Too called Big Brother After Dark which shows viewers what's going on, live, in the Big Brother house from Midnight to 3 a.m. Eastern which is 9 p.m. to Midnight in California where the house is located – according to producer Allison Grodner, "That's primetime for the Big Brother house. It's when our houseguests are most wide awake and having fun, talking about strategy and playing the game. People are going to see quite a bit." And since it's on cable it won't be as censored as the broadcast programming is. Unfortunately that option isn't available in Canada. Global, which broadcasts Big Brother in Canada is offering an interactive contest called "In The House" where players can answer questions on their computers as each episode progresses. The highest point total for the week wins a TV with the highest point total for the year winning tickets to the show's wrap party. It's all part of an effort to make Big Brother 8 a more involving experience for the viewers at home. (Of course if you can't be bothered with the internet live feeds and aren't willing to subscribe to Showtime Too there's always Jackie's blog The (TV) Show Must Go On where she makes a heroic effort to summarize what's going on in the house, complete with her patented eyerolls @@. She has also posted the names of some other sites that recap the live feeds.)

Big Brother is the height of mindless summertime programming, the sort of thing that has little significance and not much in the way of dramatic qualities. The "characters" aren't particularly compelling and the casting – this year in particular – has tended to focus on the young and insubstantial rather than people who have accomplished something in their lives as some previous seasons have had. Purely on the level of the three episodes a week that most people see it can be dismissed as a typical reality show. Dimension is added however by the ability to see material other than what the show's producers edit for mainstream consumption – the live feeds and now Big Brother After Dark – which gives an enhanced view of what is occurring in the house. Because it's live it represents a more candid view of the people in the house. It's still "reality TV" but it's "reality" as it happens rather than interpreted by producers and editors looking to create artificial conflict and dramatic storylines. Where the series is finally making a breakthrough is in terms of interactivity. By giving the viewers a player to "control," even to the limited degree that we will be able to make decisions for him; the producers have made a big step. Having Eric "controlled" by the viewers breaks down the fourth wall from our side, making those who vote on what he should do participants rather than just observers. It's a small step, but more than the baby steps of other audience participation shows like American Idol in making TV interactive. And if you don't think this is significant consider something the Dianne Krisitine posted in Blogcritics. The article titled TV Yearns to Let You Choose Your Own Adventure states that new NBC Entertainment boss Ben Silverman wants to develop dramatic series along the lines of "choose your own adventure books" where decisions made by readers – or in the case of TV, viewers – influence the direction in which the story goes leading eventually to different endings. Indeed Chuck Lorre proposed a primitive version of this to FOX in 2001 with a show called Nathan's Choice where viewers would vote during a commercial break as to which of two options the lead character would take and then air the second act of the episode based on the viewers vote. With the "America's Player" idea, in which some of Eric's actions are controlled by the players, we are seeing this idea in action, although admittedly not in the format that either Silverman or Lorre envisioned. It'll to be interesting to see how this is going to work.

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