O ‘Brother,’ why art thou?

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

“Big Brother,” big bore? It’s certainly not a treasured brand name. CBS brought its experiment in surveillance-camera television back for a second season last week, and though this was clearly a new-and-improved version, viewers seemed to remember how much they hated it last year and failed to turn out in droves.
It was more like maybe one drove. A drovette. Of course, I don’t want to get into a whole thing here about how many viewers constitutes a drove, but “Big Brother 2” only lured about 8.5 million-not enough droves to beat a “Friends” rerun and an episode of the super-stooping “Spy TV” over on NBC.
Some “Friends” fans missed episodes during the regular season because they were watching “Survivor II” over on CBS, so “Big Brother 2” may suffer partly because of “Survivor’s” success. And then, of course there’s the fact that it’s so screamingly tedious. Maybe not like watching paint dry or grass grow, but close.
There are signs that Arnold “Scared Straight” Shapiro, the new executive producer-the vice president in charge of salvaging “Big Brother”-is going to make the show a lot sexier. Never mind that it airs at 8 o’clock on the coasts and at 7 o’clock in the Midwest (on Thursdays, Saturdays and Tuesdays); the premiere included one man saying of the other guys in the Big Brother house that most were thinking, “Hey, if I get a chance to screw somebody, I’m gonna do it in this house.”
There are indeed several lookers in the group. And to please all those women 18 to 49 that CBS wants to tune in, the newly populated house is decidedly hunk-heavy: Will, a doctor who looks more like a cute pool boy; a Tony Danza-type named Justin who likes to parade his pecs around; and the amusingly named Hardy, who says people must first love themselves and obviously practices what he preaches.
“Hardy is absolutely beautiful,” gushed a young woman named Autumn on Thursday night’s premiere. “He’s absolutely gorgeous,” she said earlier. What’s Hardy-first prize? Hardy har-har!
Meanwhile, there’s one gay guy who confides his sexual orientation to the confessional camera-and thus us folks at home-but not, at least initially, to his housemates. That’s because Kent, an obnoxious mortgage broker who looks like the late Morton Downey Jr.-right down to a prominent facial wart and overly toothy grin-is proudly homophobic. Yes, proudly.
“It’s deviant, it’s perverse, and it’s a lifestyle that 90 percent of Americans don’t want anywhere near their families or themselves,” Kent confided to the isolated camera. Hey, Kent, wise up. Ninety percent of American families probably have a homosexual somewhere in their extended clans: an unmarried auntie who lives with another woman, an uncle who has chosen “the bachelor life.”
Kent has an array of reactionary opinions; putting him in with the younger, hipper group is an obvious contrivance to stir up sparks.
Junk in, junk out
It was kind of sad, though, on the premiere, to see Kent sleazing around the house suggesting to the other guys that they form “a pact … an alliance, if you will,” thus aping the (gay) winner of the first “Survivor.” The poor shmoes they get as contestants on these dumb reality shows don’t just learn how to behave from watching TV, they learn how to behave from watching these dumb reality shows. There are already prescribed modes of behavior, and most contestants lemmingly abide by them. Result: hideously dull predictability, the antithesis of what the word “reality” implicitly promises.
After a half-hour of preliminaries, “Big Brother 2” turned into torsovision. The director clung shamelessly first to a shot of hunky Hardy’s muscular abs and pecs, then to the breasts of a very attractive woman named Shannon, sunning herself under studio lights in a wet, clinging bathing suit.
The contestants must have been told to randy things up as much as possible. They played spin the bottle truth or dare; this required a bar-owner named Mike to stand up and pull down his fashionably baggy shorts, mooning the gang. Justin was induced without much inducing to strip down to his boxer shorts.
One of the other little games played was a variation on stuffing college kids into a telephone booth or a VW Beetle; but instead, the contestants crammed themselves into a Buick, because Buick is one of the sponsors of the show. Here we see producer Mark Burnett’s influence at work. What a proud legacy for him to leave TV. And how nice it’ll be when he does leave TV, come to think of it.
Reality running its course
The so-so Nielsen showing for “Big Brother 2” combined with less-than-expected returns on the “Survivor” sequel give one hope that the trend has peaked and is on its way out. Of course millions are tuning in to see people eat worms and snuggle with rats on NBC’s shameful “Fear Factor.” And CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” premiering in the fall, is generating sensational advance buzz-but still it’s encouraging to imagine that what the networks ludicrously categorize as reality television may already be a somewhat endangered species.
“Big Brother 2,” despite the improvements, was depressing in the way most of these shows are depressing-mainly because of the eagerness with which the participants humiliate themselves or submit themselves to concocted humiliations. They come across like pathetic adults who attend a
6-year-old’s birthday party and play perverse versions of pin the tail on the donkey or other childishness. You feel sorry for them and yet you kind of hate them, too.
Extraterrestrials watching from space are forming their attitudes about the human race based partly on these excruciatingly embarrassing romps. They must think we of planet Earth have unlimited amounts of free time on our hands and very little imagination or even common sense about how to use it.
The id and idiots
Naturally, the producers who cast the shows look for people who project well, and these tend to be giddily positive geeks who long ago learned how to be their own best friends. “I’m Autumn, and I’m only good when I’m bad,” purred one woman introducing herself at the top of the show. “I’m Sheryl, and I’m an experience you’ll never forget,” said another.
God! What kind of people think of themselves that way? And introduce themselves that way to strangers? Mike’s saddest moment wasn’t when he showed his newfound friends his ass, it was when he tried to rap near the show’s conclusion. Even Vanilla Ice would have been mortified.
It isn’t fair to draw conclusions about 21st century Americans from watching “Big Brother 2,” and yet you find yourself doing it anyway. Doing it and thinking, “Good grief, no wonder there are so many Starbucks coffeehouses, so few decent television programs and such an abundance of homicidal maniacs running loose in the country.”
We have to keep reminding ourselves that these people are not typical folks. They’re just typical jerks-who-go-on-television-and-make-fools-of-themselves. And not really for money, since only one contestant will take home a bundle of dough, but because they know deep inside that they’re so wonderful the whole country should be given a chance to know them.
Game shows used to be about getting money for nothing. Now they’re about becoming famous for nothing. And forget about that famous-for-15-minutes stuff. It’s more like 15 seconds now. For some people, that’s enough-and easily worth being made to look ridiculous for. “Reality” sucks. Please make it go away.