Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Big Brother teaches us

If you must know, yes, I'm ashamed to watch BIG BROTHER, now in its sixth season on CBS. Watching the show can be like eating Pringles. Try as I might to restrain myself, eating a few can lead to downing most or all of a can in short time, which then leads to swearing the things off for awhile. My consumption of the insidious reality show follows the same arc: enjoy the first few episodes, keep watching for no good reason, and then giving up on it or sticking with it but being disgusted.

BIG BROTHER is one of the most mundane of all the reality shows. (It's certainly one of the least visually interesting ones, although the producers have jazzed up the house's interior decoration this season.) The cast's personalities and their interactions are the crux of the show, yet an overwhelming percentage of the time is devoted to uninteresting conversations among increasingly irritable people. It doesn't help that the houseguests tend to have the maturity levels of high schoolers or the stereotypical participants in college Greek life. Still, the train wreck appeal of their scheming and backbiting can be entertaining up to the point when all of the houseguests come off as completely unappealing.

After struggling with the format for a couple seasons, the producers have figured out the basis for each episode. Saturday nights are when two houseguests are nominated for eviction. Tuesday nights feature the competition for the power to veto a nomination. Thursday nights are focused on the eviction. Unlike SURVIVOR and THE AMAZING RACE, BIG BROTHER'S competitions are not very interesting, and the nomination process alone doesn't make for compelling television. Also unlike those other shows, anyone with access to the internet can find out who won the competitions and who has been nominated before the shows air. The television show, as opposed to the live internet feeds, are nearly worthless to the most ardent fans.

If there's one thing that drives me batty about reality shows, it's all of the self-reflexive talk about "the game" that contestants engage in. BIG BROTHER is the worst at this, probably because the houseguests have little else to do but navelgaze about their situation.

I won't even start on Julie Chen, whose irony-free hosting of the show on eviction night makes for some of the most cringe-worthy TV.

If the show has any value, it is in making this sociological observation:

We cannot abide liars.

That seems obvious enough, but what BIG BROTHER illustrates is how hardwired we are to detest lying. More than other shows of its ilk, here's one in which the gameplay is predicated on being untruthful. It doesn't matter if you have any survival skills, physical endurance, or puzzle-solving abilities. You have to be able to persuade others. While persuasion doesn't require lying, the reality of the cutthroat game is that you're going to be forced to make promises you can't keep and to hide your true intentions. Whether to indicate assent or dissent, lies of omission and commission are essential. The houseguests have little else to do but talk, usually about the game, so a strategy of 100% truthtelling is the surest way to be voted out of the house.

All of the houseguests know this--or should--yet each season people get predictably bent out of shape when the others don't tell them the truth. Typically charges of "playing dirty" are levied against the prevaricators. Oftentimes those damning the houseguest in question lie just as much. While some of it may be strategy--to deflect the target onto the accused, for instance--I think the anger and hurt is genuine. People normally react that way when lied to, and it's hard to turn off feelings of betrayal even in the context of a game.

In the case of BIG BROTHER, it may be even harder to accept lies. The confined surroundings and lack of contact with anyone but their housemates--save for questions from the producers and host--breeds an unusually high degree of intimacy mixed with distrust.

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