As anyone with knowledge of my darker nature (or access to my DVR) knows, I’m a “Big Brother” fan. I’ll talk about it here with you folks, but I keep it quiet around my friends, who would rightly judge me for this defiant transgression against knowing better.
I get it. It’s trash. Delicious, addictive, trash. But like the nutrients swirled into every batch of Slop, there’s some benefit to be extracted by watching the Houseguests kick each other out.
As I wrote last year from the midst of season 19, “ ‘Big Brother’ feels like it’s been repurposing props left over from ‘Double Dare’ and Febrezing the same ratty sectional for 17 years, but it also feels like reality TV’s last remaining laboratory.” I marveled at its “unlikely model of something lost,” a goofy pantomime of society at large which finds “people with competing interests operating through established systems and procedures, obeying and respecting clearly defined roles, rules, policies, and powers,” and where “moral infractions are punished through small-scale social justice movements.”
And with real life growing more unsettling by the second due to a certain household of willing captives on the opposite coast, I gobbled up the hopeful eviction snack the show served every Thursday, a “weekly reassurance that you can be Head of Household one day, and headed to the Jury House the next.”
In over a decade of watching the show (your disdain only strengthens my powers), last year was the first year I felt anything like a pang of jealousy toward the houseguests. The great experiment of the show — to cloister people off from the world and draw out our true natures — once seemed like prolonged punishment, but fast-forward to today, and aggressively leisurely isolation with no news and only occasional blasts of cold water and/or paintballs seems like a spa treatment compared to the change in cultural climate outside.
But as we learned during the first season of the online-only “Big Brother Over the Top,” when the slackjawed Houseguests learned the results of the election (“a reality TV star is our president”) the absentee world outside is starting to cast a longer shadow over the backyard.
It happened again earlier this year during the first-ever American installment of “Celebrity Big Brother.” Fumes from the Trump White House found a direct conduit into the house through the close-miked confessions of ousted White House aide and “Apprentice” castaway Omarosa Manigault-Newman: “It's going to not be OK,” she confided to fellow Houseguest Ross Matthews in true “Big Brother” style (i.e. whispering, in tears, and swaddled in a comforter). “It’s not.”
The increasing presence of politics on “Big Brother” was easy to see coming; but the show once worked hard to make the results hard to see. Offensive comments by houseguests (running the gamut from racist, to homophobic, sexist, transphobic, you name it) have been cut from broadcast, even as they become more noticeable through the show’s live feed. But whereas before, those comments were left to fester among viewers as evidence of the “realness” of the Houseguests or as a shrewd laissez-faire character development technique (see Aaryn of season 15), now “Big Brother” is starting to clamp down.
Before there was even a first eviction this season, viewers were already calling for Houseguests Angela Rummans and Rachel Swindle to be disciplined for racist comments about their deepening tans. And early favorite contestant JC Mounduix has (unbeknownst to him) faced calls to be removed from the house for repeatedly using an ice cream scoop to touch the genitals of his fellow Houseguests.
“In both cases,” said CBS in a statement, “those involved have been warned about their inappropriate behavior and offensive comments, as well as future consequences.” And in a “diary room” interview with Houseguest Tyler Crispin (who was allegedly subject to Mounduix’s actions), he denied being made uncomfortable, adding, “Why are you asking me this?”
If there’s a big change to be noticed in “Big Brother” this season, it’s not in the makeup of the Houseguests (who have arrived with roughly the same demographic numbers and archetypal roles as characters/contestants from seasons past), nor is it in the twists that make their lives more difficult (though the satellite dish beds in the Have Not suite do look especially uncomfortable). It’s that the culture outside of the “Big Brother” house has shifted from one of passive viewing to one of active watching — and often witness.
As critical to the reality TV ecosystem as they may be, abusive language and behavior shouldn’t qualify as an interpersonal quirk to be entertained for entertainment. It should meet the same consequences as it would anywhere else in public, even beneath the plush blankies of the “Big Brother” house.
It’s a shift in dynamic that the show appears to have anticipated, with this season’s major twist doling out rewards or punishments to Houseguests based on their trending vectors on social media. Forcing someone to eat vegan ham for a week might not immediately seem like an appropriate meter of justice (you didn’t deserve that, Faysal) but as with “Big Brother” itself, I’m willing to give it time.
Some may see this as “Big Brother” being too true to its name, stamping out expression at the cost of authenticity. Others (with a touch more compassion) might see it as an encouraging sign that our worst instincts don’t always have to be what shapes reality — whichever version of it you prefer.