Big Brother is widely known as a television staple where 14 to 16 strangers move into a house full of cameras and, depending on your geographic location, figuratively cut each others’ throats for an underwhelming sum of money. Whether or not anyone would like to admit it, the show is a phenomenon and, in an odd way, important. Yes, it also doubles as trashy summer television but the mere fact that something like this occurs—an annual documentation of human beings for three months, 24/7, all across the globe—is quite fascinating. You can revisit past seasons on YouTube and see what humans, in just about any country, were like for that specific year.
While the “recap” shows aired three-times a week on CBS (in the US) do not always do the contestants or events in the house justice, the show itself is a compelling human experiment in both nature and privacy. The mere fact that the US edition is on its 16th season only furthers that point. Viewers at home develop an interest in these houseguests year after year—some to excessive and quite unhealthy lengths. With the 24/7 live feed, viewers can neglect their families and let their skin get oily by sitting in front of a computer all day, watching houseguests do nothing. It’s bizarre and yet not when you consider how modern society functions. We’re obsessed with reporting about our lives through social media and being objects of attention. We stalk one another, albeit mildly, over the internet and look for opportunities to criticize behavior. Big Brother, in some sense, is social media in its purest form, even if it is one-sided.
With that being said, I’m a big fan of the show. I’ve been watching since the second season and, although I don’t often admit it, I consider it one of the most intellectually stimulating programs on television. People (usually folks who don’t watch the show or only know it from the recap episodes) are often quick to shrug it off as garbage that is on par with The Real World. And while that may be true at times, it’s also a brilliant concept that can be recycled endlessly.
The format that CBS adopted following the show’s failure of a first season has ensured Big Brother a lifespan beyond any other show, including its fall/spring cousin Survivor. They’ve developed a formula where the program itself can remain consistent in format, yet always be different. While fans of reality TV shows like American Idol and Project Runway have gradually tuned out as seasons pass, Big Brother has only gained steam and secured a brighter future for the series and the network.
Without its contestants, though, Big Brother would be nothing. For 16 seasons casting director Robyn Kass has delivered nearly 200 houseguests with consistent results. I mean, sure, there might have been a few blemishes here and there—like last season’s cast full of racists or the winner of season 9, who was caught at an airport, ready to sell Oxycontin. But hey, at least it’s not like Big Brother Africa where the public voted for a rapist to win the game over his victim.
And besides, Big Brother is a microcosm of life. If the goal is to represent civilization then it wouldn’t be complete nor accurate to feature fourteen likable houseguests every year. You need a couple of bags of shit to liven the place up and remind us of how much better we could be as a society.
One component of the series that is exclusive to the US and Canadian editions is the element of strategy. Since the second season of Big Brother houseguests have employed strategies to navigate their way to the end and earn the $500,000 prize. In the original season of Big Brother, the public voted contestants out of the house. This is a format that ninety percent of the world uses to determine who is evicted and who the winner will be. In the United States and Canada, houseguests nominate each other for eviction and then proceed to vote one another out. This generally leads to a less predictable and far more exciting game. Houseguests are less likely to pander for America’s affection and more likely to act as they normally would, being the conniving, self-interested individuals they are.
For most people—including myself—strategy is the ultimate draw. It turned the series into an elaborate game of Risk played out over 90 some odd days. Perhaps it speaks volumes that Americans were the first to implement this change to the game, and that American contestants have outdone Canadians at it in every way. In the United Kingdom, fans of Big Brother find themselves more enamored with the houseguests’ personal bonds and how they develop over the course of the series. North Americans, however, seem more interested in the deconstruction of relationships and the individual growth of people as players in the game.
Two contestants who’ve excelled at the game like no houseguests before or since are season two winner Will Kirby and season 10 winner/fellow-Thought Catalog writer Dan Gheesling. Their strategies and personas in the house have been talked about for years and consistently emulated with poor results. Since their initial appearances there’s almost always a token, 20-something white guy who forces charisma in the diary room (where houseguests go to vent) and acts like a mastermind… only to be voted out the second or third week. Much like Will and Dan, another former-winner that was often emulated until recently was season eight winner ‘Evel Dick’ Donato. Dick used verbal abuse and grating tactics to piss off his fellow houseguests as an attempt to deliberately make himself unlikable and boost his stock in the game. Oddly enough, Dick—despite his antics—was far more likable than any other contestants that season and became a fan favorite. In the show’s ninth season, coming off of Dick’s win, almost every houseguest thought it was a good idea to act like an asshole—thinking that it would not only be good for their games, but also stellar TV. In actuality, it made the season nearly unwatchable.
Having been on the air for almost 15 years, Big Brother has constructed two realities. There’s the one confined within the walls of the house and the one outside, which the rest of us are living in. People walk into the house, allowing themselves to be under a microscope for 90 days, with every element of their personality exposed to the world in its purest form. They develop complexes while trying to repeat past events, and justify Walter White-like transformations under the guise of it being “just a game.” Which it is. But it’s a game where, much like life, the lines of what is considered acceptable and appropriate behavior for advancement are constantly blurred and ever changing. And that’s what makes it so damn compelling.