Wednesday, November 22, 2017

COLUMN: Big Brother

I watch a LOT of TV. Some might say I watch TOO much TV. Sometimes, I have to agree with them.

I suppose it depends on what I'm watching. Many things I can justify. When I lay there like a bump on a log zoning out to CNN, I can convince myself that I'm being educated and staying up-to-date on current events. When I'm too lazy to change the channel off the Food Network, I can tell myself that I'm picking up important tips for the kitchen. When I'm watching "Game of Thrones," I feel zero shame because, well, dragons. Dragons are awesome.

But then comes the secret shame of my summer. A show that I adore for reasons I can't begin to explain. A show that I feel guilty for even THINKING about watching, yet it never stops me. A show so idiotic you can almost feel your brain cells wasting away. A show that I'm pretty sure once cost me a relationship in order to watch. A show called "Big Brother."

Every summer, CBS gets taken over by "Big Brother." Airing 3-4 primetime hours per week, it's one of those reality shows that isn't too particularly "real" or representative of any reality I've ever known. Still, it's mandatory appointment viewing for me every week, and if I dare to miss even ONE episode, I'm in an unexplainable funk for days.

You must be familiar with "Big Brother" by now, right? It's been on the air for nineteen seasons, and I'm pretty sure I've sat through every one of them. The premise is about as simple as possible: Each season, a cast of strangers get chosen to spend the entire summer in the Big Brother "house" -- which, of course, is a TV studio where every room is wired for sound and vision and the houseguests spend every second of their summer under total surveillance. Each week, through a series of contests and votes, one houseguest gets eliminated from the competition. The last player remaining at the end of the summer claims $500,000.

The primetime shows serve as a "best of" compilation of what happens in the house each week. If you're a superfan (like me), you can also watch Pop TV every night, where they air three hours of live unedited camera feeds from the house. If you're completely unhinged, you can pay for 24/7 internet access to every camera feed in the house. This is a line I have yet to cross. I beat myself over wasting time on "Big Brother" every summer, but then I remember that there are countless people across the country who are, at this very second, glued to their computer monitors watching strangers eat cereal and paint their nails.

The original first season of "Big Brother" was actually pretty great. A true sociology experiment, the chosen cast were representative of all walks of life and a diverse array of genders, ages, sexes, and backgrounds. Over the course of the season, these strangers put aside their differences and had a blast living in front of the camera. In today's world, where our differences create more headlines than our similarities, it was heartening to see such a diverse group of people become close friends. That original cast grew so tight that they dreaded each weekly elimination. At one point, they even threatened to sacrifice the money and walk out together as friends. The winner that year was crowned begrudgingly.

The whole thing was downright heart-warming -- and, of course, people hated it and the ratings tanked. Sadly, CBS learned from their "mistake." The following season, the show was retooled. The houseguests became less friendly and a lot more devious. Friendship and fun gave way to backstabbing and drama. The once-diverse casts now look like they're hand-assembled from the Island of Improbably Attractive People. I still watch, don't get me wrong -- but it's gone from an interesting sociology experiment to a wickedly addictive low-brow trainwreck.

Most of the guys in the cast look like professional bodybuilders while every girl is a wannabe bikini model. Then they sprinkle in the stereotypes, which usually consists of: (1) one older contestant, (2) one gay contestant, (3) one married contestant, and (4) one little nerdy guy. Most houseguests are single, and televised hook-ups are encouraged. The unspoken competition always seems to be who can wear the least amount of clothing. In-fighting and name-calling are the rules of the day. This kind of manufactured drama might make for more compelling TV than watching friendships slowly blossom, but it sure doesn't make me feel any better for wasting my summers with such garbage.

I say they should just go whole hog and stick a cast together that's so diverse the house becomes a modern-day Tower of Babel. "This season on Big Brother: everyone speaks a different language!" I want to force goths to live with Juggalos, Trump devotees with Bernie supporters, Cubs fans with Cards fans, alt-lefts with alt-rights. Maybe give them some weapons. Or at the very least, several big foam bats they can harmlessly beat each other with, because that's about the only threshold this show has yet to cross.

So why do I still eat this trash up every year? You got me. My co-workers and I gleefully discuss it. We're on a first-name basis with every houseguest, and as they get evicted, it feels like we've lost a friend. People have told me time and again that I should apply to be on "Big Brother." No thanks. I couldn't hack it. Contestants on that show have to spend an entire summer NOT watching TV. I wouldn't want to be on "Big Brother" because then I wouldn't be able to watch "Big Brother."

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