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Big Brother: Ain't Watching You

So, now that Survivor has wrapped up, I'm sure every household in America is filling up the idle hours by watching that other CBS reality show, Big Brother. Right, everybody?

Everybody? Hello? Where'd you all go?

No. You're not watching Big Brother. Your friends and loved ones aren't watching Big Brother. In fact, nobody is watching Big Brother. Except for us professional TV critics, and the only reason we're watching this nightly monument to tedium is because we're being paid to do so.

That's right, isn't it, Jason? I am getting paid to watch Big Brother, right?


God, my life is empty.

CBS, of course, maintains it's not as bad as all that. The Thursday episode that aired a week ago scored a 6.3 rating, certainly better than anything CBS broadcast in that time slot last summer. Although, that fact is less impressive when you realize it's Diagnosis Murder and Walker, Texas Ranger reruns we're using as the basis for comparison. And the numbers for Big Brother are but a fraction of the people that tuned in for Survivor's 13-week run.

Ah, Survivor -- its success has given the amateurish Big Brother the air of an Edsel, the feel of a Hindenburg. Survivor captured the nation's imagination, sparking water cooler debates and barroom stemwinders about the show's twists and turns. Big Brother will be lucky if most people remember that the show's still on the air.

Case in point -- Big Brother had scored an average rating of 10.9 on Wednesday nights. But this past week, without Survivor there to prop up the body, the rating fell to 7.5. NBC, which had been trounced by CBS and its merry castaways all summer long, finally won the night.

Blame the two CBS shows' divergent fortunes on their respective production values. Survivor boasted an exotic locale, expert editing and a diverse cast that provided moments of conflict and comedy. Most important, Survivor never pretended to be anything other than what it was -- a glorified game show with tiki huts and torches in lieu of Whoopi Goldberg in the center square.

And Big Brother? Big Brother looks like a public access show. And not the good kind of public access show, either -- the kind where the town crank signs up for 30 minutes of airtime to rail against the city council and the freemasons and the plot to poison the water supply with Tang. No, it's the bad kind of public access show, with spotty editing and sketchy camera work and a gaggle of onscreen yay-hoos oblivious as to just how asinine they look.

The show works like this: 10 somewhat annoying, mentally enfeebled people are brought together to live in a house where their every banal movement is recorded for broadcast. Cameras are everywhere -- the closet, the bedrooms, even the toilet. Once in the house, the Real World rejects are forced by Big Brother's sinister Dutch producers to perform the same sort of tasks weary housewives think up for rambunctious dimwitted offsprings on rainy days. Every two weeks, the housemates must nominate two of their fellow shut-ins for banishment. The viewed public, buoyed by an excess of leisure dollars and a lack of interesting hobbies, then calls a 900 number to vote out one of the top two vote-getters. This continues until one simpleton is left in the house. For his or her efforts, the lucky winner gets 240,000 or so after-tax dollars and the consolation that all he or she had to do to get the money was to act like an ass on national TV.

I could be paraphrasing from the official show description just a bit there.

As of this writing, four cast members have gotten the ol' heave-ho: Will, the angry black man; Jordan, the devious stripper; Karen, the neurotic mental patient; and Brittany, the woman who couldn't stop a) dying her hair, b) talking about her virginity, and c) driving me to kill. Those remaining under house arrest include Curtis, the dopey lawyer; George, the dopey father; Josh, the dopey horndog; Jamie, the dopey beauty queen; Eddie, the dopey palooka; and Cassandra, who seems rather sensible, and therefore, we have to wonder if she's lost some sort of bet or if CBS has pictures of her or something.

Karen has been the most interesting Big Brother participant, so long as we define "interesting" as "dangerously unhinged." Once ensconced in the house, she used the platform of a nationally broadcast TV show to sob nearly incessantly, decry her awful, loveless marriage and then, just for variety, sob some more. Oh, and she did very well in Big Brother's jump rope contest.

It's easy to sneer at the poor simps trapped in a prison of their own making on Big Brother -- it's fun as well, y'all should try it -- but in truth, the fault doesn't lie entirely with the on-air talent. The producers and editors who patch together each episode from footage gathered during the day also have to shoulder a good chunk of the blame for this train wreck.

You see, with the cameras on 24 hours a day, the Big Brother production team has plenty of material from which to cobble together a show. But, as those meddling kids at Salon found out, the producers don't always pick the most interesting footage for the broadcast. Or air the footage in the proper context. Or, indeed, show events in the right order.

So desperate are our little Dutch friends to generate even an iota of excitement and scandal amid the pie-eating contests and the jigsaw puzzle challenges, that they've taken to selective editing to try and jury-rig some drama. So the brains behind Big Brother are doing all they can to paint their 10 wards as horny, petty or, if that fails, horny and petty.

"Come on, Jordan, you're a stripper!" you can almost hear them shouting in their comical Paul Verhoeven-like accents. "Show Josh your ya-yas, and help us get a 20-share. We've got house payments to make, you know."

Well. They are Dutch. No doubt they have a hard time understanding how the word "reality" is a part of "reality show." They certainly seem to be having a devil of a time understanding the word "entertaining," too.

So the Big Brother 10 may not actually be as dim as they've come across on TV. Then again, people who live in glass houses shouldn't complain about their editing.

It's like St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean once said of his nemesis, Bill Terry of the New York Giants: "Could be that he's a nice guy once you get to know him. But why bother?"

That's just the problem -- Big Brother's contestants are convinced that you should bother, that you have to bother, that you need to bother. It's not just the prize money they're after -- they only get half of the going rate for telling Regis that Richard Nixon did, in fact, appear on Laugh In, after all, and besides, it's not like any of the Millionaire contestants have to live in close quarters with a nasally Minnesotan with green hair -- it's the fame.

Yes, the Big Brother contestants are convinced that the road to fame and fortune leads smack dab through their hermetically sealed living arrangements.

A frequent discussion around the Big Brother dinner table is just exactly "how big this thing" has become. After Jamie won one of Big Brother's what-I-did-at-summer-camp contests, the producers gave her a choice -- meet with your mom who flew down from Washington state, or meet with a casting director for two minutes. Jamie picked the casting director. The Big Brother contestants went into their isolation tank just as Survivor was taking off. Surely, they've concluded, Big Brother has captured the hearts and minds of America, that once they're free of their IKEA-furnished purgatory a grateful nation of agents and publicists will beat a path to their door. To a man, the Big Brother contestants dream of parlaying their stint in the nation's fishbowl into a lifetime of fortune and acclaim.

I dream of tending goal for the Detroit Red Wings next season, by the way. I guess we'll all have to cope with life's disappointments.

The Big Brother cast will not be visited by the fame fairy, not because they aren't nice folks or because the ability to humiliate yourself on command isn't a marketable job skill. Rather, they will come up short in the fame game for one simple reason: the Stench of Awful encompasses Big Brother so thoroughly that anyone associated with the program will be lucky to ever find honest work again.

Julie Chen is bathed in the Stench of Awful. The CBS news reporter with the bulletproof hair has done such a poor job as Big Brother's fidgety, cloying host that she's doomed to a lifetime of low-visibility, dignity-free employment. That she's currently the news reader on CBS's The Early Show proves that God's justice is both swift and merciless.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, Big Brother's "relationship" expert, has been stained with the Stench of Awful. So much so that answering fratboys' questions about fellatio on MTV's Loveline may well be the apex of his on-air career.

But a veritable cloud of Awful hangs over the heads of Paul Romer, John De Mol and the rest of the flailing Dutchmen who've brought Big Brother to our shores. Most of us are lucky enough to suffer through our failures in private. These guys have laid an egg that airs six nights a week and reaches its sure-to-be stultifying denouement about the same time the Summer Olympics have kicked into high gear. They haven't just produced a boring show; they've produced a crass, manipulative and intellectually dishonest show that's forced to rely on edit room trickery. In a just world, Romer, De Mol and the rest would be locked in an eight-by-twelve cell, forced to play the same mind-numbing games they've inflicted on everyone else, their every inanity broadcast to an uncaring world. And they'd only be given enough food to keep one person alive.

Now that's a reality show. And it'd probably get a better rating than Big Brother.


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