I watch Big Brother, a cheaply produced reality television show that airs three times a week during the oppressive heat of the summer and into the dimming daylight of early autumn.
The show is utter crap – and I utterly love it.
It’s a show where people voluntarily lock themselves inside of a house where every single game movement and personal misstep is captured by hundreds of cameras, some of them obvious as they hang on a wall and loudly swivel to capture the action, some hidden behind mirrors so the viewer at home gets to see an extreme close-up of someone flossing as he thinks he is staring at his own reflection but is really staring at us, and we in turn get to learn far more about dental hygiene than we ever wished to during primetime.
The house is located smack-dab on the CBS lot, and nothing about it is natural, including the grass in the “backyard” that is constructed from a startling green Astroturf, the color a green I think you might be able to see from Outer Space. The home itself is a mélange of loud patterns, so much so that the contestants say things like, “I’ll meet you in the Flame Room,” because one of the bedrooms was decorated to look like the fiery pits of hell you’d find in a Lifetime movie – one where most of the production budget was clearly spent on makeup and wardrobe to try to turn some no-name actress into someone who resembles Jodi Arias instead of using that money to construct a realistic vision of eternal damnation.
All of it is so shoddily over-the-top that I think to qualify to be the production designer of Big Brother, your entire design aesthetic must be summed up with one solitary word: MORE!
On Big Brother, you get to compete in all kinds of challenges, and some of the competitions are not about earning money; they are about earning the right to eat food. Yes, if you lose the competition and become a "Have Not" for a week, you must only consume a gloppy beige concoction called Slop, which looks like unflavored oatmeal and has the added benefit of having the consistency of dog shit. You must sleep on a hard or a frozen bed and shower in only frigid water and eat that Slop garbage for a week while other people in the house are entitled to eat anything they come across in the well-stocked storeroom of the house. I know definitively that if I ever went on Big Brother, I would end up gaining around forty pounds because there’s literally nothing to do in that house except eat – unless you’re a Have Not, and in that case, I’d sleep for a week straight. There’s NyQuil somewhere in that storeroom, I’m sure of it, and if there’s not, I could always pound my head hard against the wall of the Flame Room to make myself go comatose for a little while and at least sleep through one day of meals I wasn’t permitted to eat.
I don’t do well with hunger.
The show is now in its sixteenth season. I started watching during season five. It was confusing at first, the same way it was confusing the first time I watched America's Next Top Model with my friend Dave. I saw that he didn’t break into hysterics when the hopeful contestants would nod reverently each time Tyra Banks jutted her chin out in a ridiculous pose and clapped her hands authoritatively, telling the clearly-hungry-for-fame-and-just-one-fucking-small-bite-of-a-bagel girls to smile with their eyes. Since he didn’t laugh, I tried not to – but I’m pretty sure that my practiced composure lasted for less than thirty seconds and I began to point at the screen and giggle throughout an entire modeling challenge wherein the girls were told to act natural and look serene as they were dangled by a harness above a body of icy water while some photographer took their pictures.
Smile with your eyes, ladies. Chances are you probably won’t drown.
I’m pretty sure that show is still on, but Dave hasn’t invited me to watch it with him for a long time, probably owing to my terrible behavior and my vocal distaste for the host, the contestants, the judges, and the products advertised during commercial breaks. That my friend has not asked me over for a viewing party in years completely makes sense.
There's a vernacular to America’s Next Top Model, to Big Brother, to all of these shows, and I didn't get it at first. The contestants use words that mean something very important in the context of the show and they wave around tangible symbols that seem to carry great weight. Producers concoct these terms and these visuals, and the eventual contestant and the viewer simply learn to embrace them, acting as though all of it really means something until it all actually does come to mean something. It’s pretty amazing how a show’s vernacular and symbols become ingrained in the public consciousness.
The Bachelor, for example, uses perfectly formed red roses as evidence of:
A. Momentary male acceptance from a guy you have interacted with about six times in your entire life, but his acceptance of you has come to mean more than the moon, the stars, and your own sanity.
B. The signal that you get to go to some tropical island somewhere with a guy you’ve convinced yourself you are totally in love with, though if this were real life and not reel life, this guy would never take you to that island and you’d better get used to watching Sports Center on a loop while reclining on his futon.
C. The likelihood that you will soon ditch your short dress while you climb atop the king size bed in the “fantasy suite,” and tell yourself to pretend to forget that the guy you’re straddling for the evening has already been straddled by two other girls – girls you know, girls you have lived with for the last few weeks. And you’ll try with all of your might to put that little paralyzing morsel of knowledge out of your head because the red rose the totally-smug-since-he’s-been-laid-three-times-in-three-days-by-three-different-chicks guy offers you also means that you have a greater chance this week than you did last week of getting ABC to pay for and then broadcast your wedding which won’t be tacky at all, because really? How could it be tacky? This is The Bachelorwe’re taking about. Nothing but class all the way.
In short, it’s actually kind of impressive what just one red rose can mean on just one shitty show.
Symbology is pretty cool.
Survivor has Immunity Idols that people on remote islands fight to the almost-death for while they subsist on rice and while they sweat their collectives asses right off in hopes of winning one million dollars. Stated outright in the contract for the show is that CBS will not be held liable for a contestant’s death while he or she competes to win, and thousands of people still sign that legally-binding document every single year.
Top Chef has the host say words like Quickfire Challenge, where genuine culinary geniuses must do random things like scale a monkfish in a timed contest or create an epicurean masterpiece out of food found in a gas station's vending machine – and let me tell you, what some of these people can do with a Cheeto is nothing short of amazing.
Big Brother uses terms like HOH, which means, for the week, you're the Head of the Household who gets your own room, a letter from the family with whom you've voluntarily cut ties with for the summer, a basket of the good shit you like to eat – there's always someone who gets a ton of beef jerky, and I'm always confused that that's actually someone's favorite food – and you get to decide which two competitors you put up for eviction. The whole thing is ceremonial and often predictable, and the person involved in making the decision is clearly made to do things like stand and stare at the wall of pictures of all of the contestants. (Those still playing have photos in color; the evicted suckers are pictured in black and white, as a symbolic visual illustration that their lives has been drained from the game, much like the scene of the water flowing down the drain in Psycho.) The photographs are of the people they live with every day. They know what these people look like; they know who these people are. But stand there they must, and it's so obviously choreographed.
"Look like you're really torn up about what you'll do," you just know a producer coached the contestant in The Diary Room, a separate space with no windows and an armless couch where the contestants vent their frustrations, reveal their strategies, cry their retinas out, and speak to off-screen producers whose questions we never get to hear.
"And look contemplative," I think the producers tell the person who now has to go stand and stare at a wall while being filmed by cameras mounted to and behind every single surface in the house.
Bet you a hundred bucks, a canister of freshly-warmed Slop, and the bottom half of an Immunity Idol that over half of the Big Brother contestants say, “What does contemplative mean?’ This is not a show for geniuses; the people who compete have job titles like VIP Cocktail Waitress and Hunting Guide.
After the two houseguests are nominated for eviction, there’s usually tears and huffed mumbling about how those targeted will get revenge against the HOH – and maybe the guy's family too. It's always fun when the person vowing vengeance is someone who has up until that moment done nothing noteworthy in the game, so their threats are laughable. This year, for instance, there's a girl on the show named Victoria. In an entire summer, she has won one competition – and that's only because the guy that would have won chose to take the monetary prize of $5,000 instead of the competition win. But Victoria is still there, and now she's in the final three of a competition that ends tonight. She's been put up for eviction something like nine times, and each time the other person nominated thinks he's safe, figuring that the chance of being eliminated against what amounts to a piece of pink flowered plastic furniture like Victoria is slim to none. But nine different weeks someone who was not Victoria walked out the door, away from the half-million dollar prize, and towards the grinning host of the show, a studio audience of screaming fans, and the misguided notion that now he will be a movie star – a fate that has befallen absolutely nobody in the entire history of Big Brother.
But still they dream.
The editors of the show know that Victoria is a total joke, and they make sure the viewers know it too by cutting between fierce strategy sessions other players have, whispering furtively behind closed doors, while Victoria sits alone in the kitchen, chewing her food slowly, before she goes into the Diary Room and proclaims herself a force in this game. Once I swear that during one of her interviews that I saw the camera shake as though the person operating it was silently but seriously laughing as he aimed the lens at her face. She's the only one who takes herself seriously, and it's been almost stunning to watch such bravado from such a waste of space.
It's been pretty clear all summer that this one guy, Derrick, is probably going to win the whole thing. He's a cop in real life, but he told the rest of the house he works in Parks and Recreation, keeping his skill at making other people talk and reveal secrets just seem something he's good at doing instead of something he was actually trained to do. He has managed to make every person in the house believe his fake backstory, even as several of the guys spoke with certainty that another contestant, Donny, the sweet and simple groundskeeper who rocked a beard like he's a descendent of the Duck Dynasty family, was really a Navy Seal or someone who had been trained in special, covert military operations. They came to that conclusion because Donny was kind of quiet, when in reality he just had little to say to the testosterone-fueled morons ten years his junior who never figured out that Derrick wasn’t nominated for eviction all summer and was really an undercover cop who played them all.
The whole thing has been kind of glorious to witness.
The show is non-cerebral, silly fun – the viewing equivalent of the foamy froth on the top of a cappuccino that the Have Nots never get to drink. I laugh at all of it: the competitions, the cheap props, the fake grass, the contestants who scheme themselves right out of the game.
And I'll be watching again next summer, as I feel very strongly that escapism should always and forever be a key part of my warm weather routine, and I’ll do it with a margarita in my hand as I toast to a life where I will never have to taste Slop.