You know those television shows you loved so much when you were little that you haven’t seen in years? I’m not talking about shows like Three’s Company or Roseanne – those have been running in syndication for years and we have all revisited them pretty frequently. In fact, during the time my insomnia was at its most profound (otherwise known as “the time period during which I should have been rewarded for not snapping and going on a blood-drenched killing spree due to lack of sleep”), Three’s Company helped me stay sane. If you have blessedly never experienced such a thing, try to imagine that you are exhausted almost beyond belief but you still can’t sleep and your mind is racing like it’s a possessed windup toy and the entire world around you has literally gone dark and every concern you have ever had has mutated into a gigantic and pressing matter and all of the stress has come to reside in the very front of your mind and right at the moment where you think you cannot possibly stand it for another millisecond, you see that a marathon of Three’s Company or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is airing on Nick at Nite. That realization is like a sleeping pill, a tranquilizer, and a delightful punch in the head all occurring at exactly the same time and maybe it’ll calm you down enough that you will eventually drift off to the sound of a laugh-track and Jack Tripper’s barely veiled sexual harassments that somehow managed to read back then as charming.
But then there are the shows I haven’t seen a bit of since I was young – really young – and I am saddened to say that many haven’t aged all that well. Take The Facts of Life. I loved The Facts of Life. A show about a bunch of smart girls who were good friends to one another at a boarding school where a dietician who made croissants pumped full of chocolate was their guardian? Sign me the fuck up. Sure, I realized that the show was a little schmaltzy at times. It was the kind of program that sprinkled “very special episodes” throughout a standard season so we could all quietly confront hot-button issues like parents with debilitating illnesses, attempts at date rape, and hair that was feathered beyond height and comprehension, but the rest of the series felt light and fun and it was maybe the only time in my life when I wanted to be blonde so I could have tresses like Blair.
I came to my senses quickly about embracing my brunette lot in life, but it took me until just last week to actually come to real terms with a show I thought I knew and loved so completely. Turns out, this channel called LOGO is running the show now and I was home on a day when it was pouring buckets of rain and I was scrolling through my channels because, if I didn’t find something to watch immediately, I might decide to get up and do something like dust and that should only happen when company is coming over. When I landed on LOGO way up in the channels and saw The Facts of Life listed, I expected balloons to fall down from my ceiling and glitter to burst from my walls. It felt that celebratory to stumble across something I used to love so dearly that I never missed it – and that was before the life-shifting invention of DVR.
I am devastated to report that The Facts of Life kind of blows when you watch it in the present. There are still some great things about the show, like how the actresses playing teenagers were actually teenagers at the time. (I’ll never get over finding out that my hunch that Stockard Channing was about thirty-four years old when she made Grease was correct. Thirty-fucking-four!) That said, I’d forgotten how the audience would clap at the end of a segment on The Facts of Life like the sitcom was really a ridiculously campy Broadway play and I’d completely blocked out the shoulder pads the girls wore under their blazers that made them look like pastel-and-rhinestone-brooch-clad wide receivers. What else? Well, Jo had a full mullet and the girls called someone they lived with for years “Mrs. Garrett” and before Kim Fields said anything as Tootie that could be seen as remotely emotional, her breath would catch in her throat and she’d do this little stutter thing and it all probably read as authentic to me when I was seven, but I’m not seven anymore and all I could think while watching this actress perform an I’d-better-sleep-with-my-older-boyfriend-so-he-won’t-dump-me scene was Tick tock, Tootie! Get your words out in a timely matter or I’m going to start vacuuming! And that brings about another issue I have now with the show. These girls shared a bedroom with one another for about a decade but they never talked about sex and, until very late in the series’ run, not one of them ever had sex. I know now that the actress who played Natalie all but offered up her character’s hymen to the writers because she knew that someone on that show needed to get laid and I also know that the actress who played Blair is devout in her religious beliefs and refused to appear on that episode because it presented a reality besides abstinence. I’m all for people staying true to their beliefs, but even back then I felt that abstinence was probably not the only reality out there and I figured all the prep school guys our plucky characters dated over the years were probably getting really tired of only feeling them up over bulky Benetton sweaters.
It actually makes me sad that a show I once loved (and circled in the TV Guide so I’d remember to watch it because I was weird like that back then) borders now on being unwatchable. I know it’s not the show that has changed – it’s me – and maybe that understanding is the most depressing part because it might hint at the fact that, even in my nostalgic television viewing, I am rarely satisfied. Is such a thing – expecting a lot from my entertainment – a flaw or should it be read as something positive because maybe it means that I have expecations? My guess is that it’s both and I’d take more time to ponder the entire thing but I’m still too preoccupied that I’m actually making an argument that I have high standards when I faithfully watch Big Brother three times a week.
I’d venture to say that there is a difference between terrible reality shows and terrible scripted shows and I suppose that I have far more patience for the former. Reality shows are produced on a dime and there is an almost patented formula for their success. It’s either RELATIVELY ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE + AN ISOLATED AND CONTAINED SETTING + OBSTACLES x POTENTIAL PRIZE MONEY = SUSTAINED CONFLICT for the competition-based programs or RICH PEOPLE ACT LIKE TODDLERS WHOSE PARENTS REFUSE TO MEDICATE THEM DUE TO SOMETHING PROFOUND THEY READ ON FACEBOOK BUT THEIR CLOSETS ARE REALLY IMPRESSIVE AND I LEARNED A GREAT WAY TO PRESENT MY SHOES SO MAYBE THIS SHOW IS ACTUALLY EDUCATIONAL for the narrative-based shows. Would I put up with idiotic people screaming about why being sent to jail for the fifth time is not their fault or flinging a prosthetic limb across a crowded restaurant on House of Cards? Well, maybe that’s a poor example seeing as I’d watch Frank Underwood do anything, but you get my point. My standards for reality entertainment are so low that I go in expecting to be relatively disappointed with humanity in general in a way that doesn’t hit me in my emotional gut the way finally realizing that Wonder Woman is actually the worst show ever and not a total masterpiece like I thought when I was five.
I have been trying to make peace with the fact that my favorite superhero’s invisible jet is actually a very unrealistic form of travel and it turns out that watching episode after episode of a reality show where strangers choose to live in a house and compete not to be evicted has lifted my spirits. I’ve been watching Big Brother for about a decade now – saddest sentence ever – and I come back for more every summer. I think it’s a habit by now. Other than my Bravo Housewives and Housewife spinoff shows, I don’t much go for reality programming because most of it borders on sickening.
During the very first week of my summer vacation, I came down with a whopping case of strep throat and I spent three straight days in bed watching television and drifting off to the kind of kinetically-enhanced dreams created by NyQuil. The hazy dreams I had duing those days were sort of great; they were very colofrful and memorable and they weirdly sometimes kind of hinted at what would happen in my life next. But the reality shows that were on in between the times I passed out due to medication were the worst things I’ve ever seen, and that includes the volleyball-sized glob of phlegm I coughed up during the dawn of day two of my sickness.
Marriage Boot Camp sticks H-level celebrities into a house with a therapist so that every obstacle in a relationship can be exploited, filmed, and potentially resolved. L.A. Hair thrusts viewers into a salon so we can watch the illuminating interactions between people who give haircuts and have a sky-high level of misplaced confidence because signing that reality show contract makes them feel like everything they have to shout really matters. Kendra On Top follows a woman Hugh Hefner banged when she was eighteen and he was nearing eighty as she embarks on a mission to save her marriage to a former NFL player who was allegedly caught in a naked scenario with a transsexual who he insists he was just trying to buy weed from. (As I’m typing it, the scenario seems so insane that maybe only Frank Underwood should get away with exploring such a thing.) Braxton Family Values follows people who are either related to Toni Braxton or have once pissed beside her at a rest stop. There are shows about chefs who should probably mix some lithium into the gazpacho to help them deal with their bursts of sudden rage and real estate agents who listened too closely when their mothers told them that nobody on planet Earth could ever be even a quarter as perfect as each of them shot out of the womb being and dance instructors and competitive parents who can warp a child’s self-image in less time than it takes to say “emancipation.” If T.S. Eliot spontaneously came back to life and turned on his TV set, he could write a sequel to The Waste Land in less than an hour. He used to think April was the cruelest month? Wait until he gets a load of the programming during November sweeps.
I suppose what’s important here is that, even though I felt listless and half-catatonic and I was pumped full of medicine, I didn’t break and watch any of those shows. The commercials alone were enough to scare the hell out of me. I did once fall asleep during a rerun of Roseanne and I woke up to someone I didn’t recognize screaming on my TV because Marriage Boot Camp must have come on afterwards and some woman woke me from a fever dream by bellowing at the top of her lungs that maybe marrying the guy from Jersey Shore was a mistake.
I think morons would call that moment a breakthrough.
Now that I have criticized the shows that I don’t watch, it’s probably time to criticize myself for a show I do watch. Listen: I can’t defend it. Big Brother is silly and it’s senseless. There are sixteen people shoved into a house that has clearly been designed by someone on speed who might also be colorblind. Houseguests complete to be the Head of Household so they can nominate two people for eviction every week. The Houseguest who lasts the longest wins $500,000, about six weeks worth of fame, and gets a reservation quicker than you or I can at The Cheesecake Factory. Many of the people appearing on the show call themselves “superfans” and can recite the name of every person who has appeared on every season (it’s season seventeen right now) and the exact moment each contestant psychologically broke due to the heavy levels of competition and the stench that must come from living in a house with fifteen other people and windows that don’t open.
There are always more contestants I loathe more than I like, so why I watch the show at all has become a question that ranks right up there with Why am I here? and God wants me to buy those shoes, right? I really do suffer from a bit of an existential crisis because of watching this show, but here’s the thing: I. Can’t. Stop.
Maybe one of the reasons I can swallow the game whole is that I know that it eventually will end and the same people won’t appear again – though they seem to show up to host competitions and announce they are pregnant and it terrifies me that there are people out there who actually care and are so excited to see some of them again. Perhaps one of the reasons I still watch the show is that I think it’s mildly hilarious that the person hosting it is married to the President and CEO of CBS and I get off a little bit on seeing the lowbrow and the highbrow mix like a potent cocktail. But the biggest reason I probably continue to watch this show is that it’s vapid entertainment populated by characters who will eventually go away and it’s formulaic and predictable and there’s something safe and easy about that. I know that the nominations will end an episode. I know that scheming will take place in the bathroom. I know that somebody will end up giving a handjob underneath some blankets and that the moment will appear online but not on the show itself because Big Brother likes to pretend it’s tasteful programming and it was bad enough that summer when they filled the house with people who turned out to be rabid racists.
The number of contestants has shrunk rapidly because the show ends in about a week. Only three people remain and I despise two of them and am almost ambivalent about the third, making this year’s finals something I could care less about – but I know I’ll be watching it go down anyway because it’s a habit by now and I am trying to work on not eating so much as a morsel of food after seven in the evening and I can only work on breaking one habit at a time. Still in the house are Vanessa, Steve, and Liz. So I can whittle it down to what I see as the basics, let me offer just a small read into who these people are:
Vanessa – the person I think will win – is a professional poker player who told the rest of the contestants that she’s a D.J. so they won’t know she’s been bluffing them all summer. She is currently a lesbian but she used to be married to a man who passed away. She is never seen without a hideous beanie atop her blonde hair and she lines her eyes in the darkest color of grey liner that one can buy in a CVS. She bursts into tears every hour on the hour and is fond of sidling up to someone the moment she gains the power in the house and saying comforting things like, “What did Austin tell you about me? Think really hard because if you say anything other than what I want to hear at this very second, I will nominate you for eviction and get someone in the outside world to murder your kitty with a fork.” She has almost drowned about twelve times in a torrent of salty tears and it’s almost always because someone she has already betrayed alludes to the fact that he doesn’t trust her. I do not watch the live feeds because doing so feels like I’m embarking on the path to total agoraphobia, but I have read reports that she has bribed other contestants by saying that, if she wins and the contestant votes for her in the finals, she will buy that person a car. I have also read that she is chock full of Adderall, has plans to host her own poker show, and will probably not wind up in an asylum in an effort to make society a wee bit safer for the rest of us.
Compared to Steve, Vanessa is normal. Steve is one of those guys for whom appearing on Big Brother is his lifetime dream. He has watched every episode of every season and maybe all that viewing kept him so busy that it’s why he’s never touched a girl’s breast. He is a self-proclaimed nerd and he does things like speak directly into the camera about his plans going forward. He weeps because he misses his mother desperately and he isn’t bad looking now that he’s rocking a little bit of summer scruff but I see him as wimpy and far too trusting and he perhaps has the least amount of quantifiable edge ever measured in a human being.
Liz is the last remaining contestant. She is a twin and both were in the house this summer but her sister was evicted relatively recently. Luckily, her Big Brother boyfriend was there to dry her tears and fondle her beneath a comforter. Liz is from Miami and has blonde hair and the deepest voice I maybe have ever heard on a woman. She makes Kathleen Turner – after a night of chain-smoking Marlboro Reds – sound feminine and there is an odd inflection to her voice where every statement or question sounds like a whine. (A example of this would be that “Why?” gets turned into “Whyyyyyyy-uh?” and the whole thing makes me want to punch my television screen while wearing my largest ring, but then how would I watch this travesty next summer? I find it best to think ahead.) Liz spent the beginning of the summer all but being stalked by a wannabe wrestler who is covered in bad tattoos and rocks a ponytail beard that apparently smells like tuna fish, and she broke somewhere near late July and decided she was completely in love with the guy. From that moment forward, Liz and Austin were together until he was blindsided and evicted by Vanessa and left the house stunned and shoeless and it was maybe the only time I have ever liked Vanessa. This Austin guy used to dream out loud about all the fame and fortune that would follow him the second he left the confines of the Big Brother house because the show has been on for seventeen straight seasons and every single one of those contestants is starring in the next Brad Pitt movie.
Who will win? My money’s on Vanessa. Who do I want to win? I could honestly care less. But I’m in now. I’ve committed to watching this show for reasons I can’t fully understand and I think that it is entirely likely that one day in the distant future I will come across a full episode of Big Brother 17. Maybe it will be the one where the houseguests had to wear ill-fitting tutus and twirl on a handlebar before hopping down and then having to knock bowling pins over while feeling dizzy from all the twirling. At any rate, my belief is that watching just five minutes of the cheaply-produced madness will cause me to want to blink my eyes to change the channel (that’s how it’ll be in the future, right?) and at least I will feel some relief that, should it all make me feel really terribly about how I used to spend my time, I can hop aboard an invisible jet and go live in some area where nobody has ever heard of Big Brother so I can overcome my shame.
I hear Easter Island in Chile is lovely this time of year.
Nell Kalter is the author of the books Student and That Year, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.