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'Big Brother 2': Righting Some Wrongs

CBS tries to make a winner out of a loser.

by Mark D. Johnson
July 8, 2001

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'Big Brother 2': Righting Some Wrongs_Mark D. Johnson-CBS tries to make a winner out of a loser. There must have been something missing in my life last summer. It’s the only way I can explain my embarrassing dedication to the high-profile fiasco called “Big Brother,” which was hyped up to be TV’s Next Big Thing from the network that brought us “Survivor.” What we got was a lackluster cast and less drama than you’d see during a typical hour of C-SPAN. Maybe there was some guilty pleasure in seeing the show’s producers get foiled time and time again in their blatant efforts to rile things up. Whatever it was, “Big Brother” was not something you would readily admit to watching even to your closest friends for fear of losing their respect for you as a human being. Despite all the negative press it received, “Big Brother” nevertheless pulled in better ratings than sitcom reruns, and ultimately, CBS was convinced that the format was good enough to try again as long as some major changes were made. “Big Brother 2” made its debut on July 5th.

For the blissfully ignorant, the show confines twelve strangers in a no-frills house, one member voted out each week for three months, and cuts them off from all outside contact: no phones, TV, radio, music, newspapers, magazines, or books – just a group of mixed personalities competing in various challenges designed to create chaos. Whether chaos actually erupts is up to the fools who volunteer to be on camera 24 hours a day. Last year, a group of mostly nice people opted instead to bond with each other, leaving the chaos to the production staff. This year, things are different, and storm clouds are gathering. This could be good – but time will tell. Early ratings indicate another slow start. Has CBS just signed on for another three months of ridicule?

Changes for the Better

The show has undergone an extensive overhaul, and the result is a much stronger show.

  • Casting. Good potential for conflict, with enough good-looking and/or likeable people to keep the audience coming back. Standouts include the abrasive Nicole, emerging leader Mike, Bunky, a sensitive gay man paranoid that the other guys will vote him out once they know he is gay, and Kent, an older politically incorrect crank who is eager to form an alliance, yet excludes himself from spontaneous group activities. Romance is clearly on the minds of some, with adolescent whispers of “who will hook up with whom” going around. Overall, this batch has more kick than last year’s cast – possibly too much kick. Reports of morally questionable behavior viewed on the live internet feeds are already starting to surface. A cast that is too controversial may not go over any better than the polite cast.

  • The House. Last year’s house was intentionally utilitarian, but was done with such a lack of flair that it made a boring cast look even more boring. Much more style to this house, with better use of color and lighting, and more comfortable furniture.

  • Head of the Household. A new concept. Each week, the houseguests vote for a new Head of the Household, who gets to live in a relatively plush private room, but also has to nominate two members of the house for banishment. Adds an interesting strategic element.

  • Voting. Last summer, all the houseguests nominated two for banishment, leaving the voting up to the viewers. This time, the houseguests themselves vote out one of the two nominees, giving them more control over the outcome and making strategy more difficult.

  • Directing. Faster pace, fewer extended scenes, less narration, and better use of “Blue Room” confessionals. The first episode was much, much better than last year’s debut, which spent the whole hour on set-up and corny dialogue. This cast entered the house a couple of days before the first episode, giving the director much more to work with. The show airs each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday throughout the summer, less frequently than last year, allowing more time to produce a tighter show with better content.

Persistent Problems

Last season, many felt that the show destroyed the credibility of its host, newswoman Julie Chen. While she improved markedly as the show progressed, the less Julie the better, and it seems she will only be on the Thursday episodes. So far, there has been no sign of pop psychologist Dr. Drew Pinsky or AOL spokeswoman Regina Lewis to make matters worse. Live broadcasts were disastrous last season. They will be unavoidable on Thursdays, but they should be kept to a minimum.

Several of last summer’s cast were put off by some of the challenges that were obviously intended to stir up conflict, viewing some of the “mean-spirited” tasks as unethical in which they were required to potentially hurt the feelings of their housemates. The producers are still taking this risk in effort to avoid the dullness of Season One. There is potential for backfire, if not among the contestants, then among the show’s fans. Conflict, along with uncensored raciness, is what has made “Big Brother” the number one show in Europe. American audiences may prove to be less tolerant of such manipulation, and perhaps less tolerant of such voyeuristic entertainment in general.

If we are destined to accept a show such as that portrayed in the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” then it is along the path of “Big Brother” that we must trudge. For what it’s worth, however, this is a vastly improved show - one that I’m almost not ashamed to watch.

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