The world as we know it is falling apart, its institutions tipping over, its norms aflame, and its grip on reality all but lost. Which is why I really need to talk about the 21st season finale of “Big Brother.”
It’s become a tradition for me to out myself as a “Big Brother” fan every couple years, not just as a way to ensure my friends don’t respect my choices, but also as a kind of public health service.
As the primordial slop from which so much of our reality TV ecosystem emerged, “Big Brother” and its stubborn fidelity to its formula (“put strangers together in a house and pit them against each other”) can actually serve as a useful control in a broader societal self-examination. That is, the house and its rules never change (apart from an annual cleaning and thematic facelift of the decor) but the world that enters and gets kicked out of it sure does.
This was on full display during the finale episode Wednesday night, when finalist (and among a large swath of the BB fanbase, the most hated contestant in the show’s history) Jackson Michie took home the grand prize of half a million dollars (in what many fans saw as a foregone conclusion).
But not before host Julie Chen-Moonves and an assembly of houseguests who met early evictions took him and a handful of others to task for a pattern of bullying, and outright racist and misogynist speech, well documented on the show’s 24-hour live feeds.
Throughout the season, Michie — a good ol’ boy Texan type with a broad smile and boxy head — maintained a “mama’s boy” veneer of innocent integrity in his Diary Room interviews, coupled with an equally apparent “do what I gotta do” diabolicism that seemed less under his control. And while the episodes that aired thrice weekly through the season pared down thousands of hours of footage gathered through the summer to a version of Michie that could potentially split a crowd of “casuals” (i.e. BB jargon for viewers who don’t subscribe to the live feeds), die-hard fans online hoisted their pitchforks as Michie’s and other houseguests’ offenses accumulated.
These included a number of racist remarks, some of which were enough to earn reprimands from producers. Footage circulated of Michie and houseguest Jack Matthews appearing to use the N-word twice in reference to houseguest David Alexander (about whom Michie also said he’d like to “mule kick in the teeth”), and an enraged Michie was caught ranting in the shower against houseguest Jessica Milagros, culminating with him criticizing her body and saying she should “go back to Mexico.”
Michie wasn’t alone in attracting bad attention for thoughtless, racist comments. Matthews was caught making “rice pudding” jokes at the expense of the one Asian-American houseguest, and saying of African-American houseguest Kemi Fakunle that he’d like to “stomp a mudhole in her chest.” (Fakunle also claimed she was asked by producers to adopt a more stereotypically black affect in her diary room sessions.)
Both belonged to one of the season’s larger “alliances,” a group of eight that cultivated an unsettlingly hostile vibe and often targeted the few houseguests of color.
But there was something about Michie that drew more of the ire and fire from longtime fans. It could be a simple case of viewers settling on a villain for the season and letting circumstances fill in the necessary blanks as they came.
Or it could be that he was spotted cheating by sneaking mouthfuls of food into the showers during a “Have Not” punishment (an austerity punishment that restricts the diets, showers, and other comforts of unlucky houseguests). Or it could have been his behavior toward several women in the house, which toggled between aggressive and dismissive. Or his campaign to make day-to-day life unpleasant for Alexander — whom he also called “a piece of [guess what].”
Whatever it was, it was enough to fill threads of “receipts” on Twitter — snatches of video, and virtual PowerPoint presentations of timestamped transgressions. It was also enough that the normally celebratory vibe of the finale had the oxygen sucked right out of it. Matthews, for his part, apologized profusely to a glaring and thoroughly over-it Fakunle. Michie — still awaiting his chance to exit the house (and possibly the planet) — stewed, turning bright pink in the cheeks, and apologizing “if” he indeed said anything offensive.
“I think it’s important to know what you’re apologizing for before you apologize,” Fakunle said, clearly unsatisfied with his pantomime of penance. Her dissatisfaction likely swelled when Michie — who, granted, had been a dominant force in the season’s many ridiculous competitions — was voted by his fellow houseguests as the winner.
Michie had long repeated a refrain throughout the season that he was in the competition for the confetti that would greet him upon his exit as the winner. But when the doors to the Big Brother house parted to welcome him back to the real world, you could see the hesitation in his steps. The explosion of golden confetti was like the last layer of protection Michie had from the consequences of a summer’s worth of ill-conceived and offensive commentary and behavior. Michie emerged looking less like America’s latest half-millionaire and more like a dog who knew full well what he’d done to the carpet.
Stonefaced and clearly shook by this inverted version of victory, Michie had little to say to Chen about his post-game feeling: “I did it for my family. I did it for Mom, I did it for my Dad,” he said in a daze. “At the end of the day, what matters more to me than half a million is that they’re proud of me. And I just hope that everything’s all right.” (He could be spotted during the credits hugging his parents and assuring them: “I’m not racist.”)
“I hate that that is a thing nowadays,” he later told an ET reporter in a “backyard interview” following the win, right after claiming he is “the least racist person [he’s] ever met.”
America (or at least, the “Big Brother”-watching swath of it who spent Wednesday evening throwing their phones) would be hard-pressed to say the same.
It seems the reality kept in captivity within the walls of the “Big Brother” house serves some players more like a fantasy: a world where you can say whatever you like, and hear nothing in return.