September 16, 2009

Big Brother Is Watching - But Why Should I?

Last night marked the end of another season of the CBS reality show Big Brother and unfortunately, it was sheer torture to sit through the two-hour finale of what should be the most entertaining of all the season’s episodes. After all, this is the one where the winner is revealed and all the contestants are made aware of the “secrets and lies” that other housemates have perpetrated against them throughout the season.

In past years, this reveal was always highly anticipated – How would the na├»ve girl react to the video of the “houseguest” she had every intention of marrying telling America he hates her guts and is only pretending to “showmance” her to get her vote? Would the news that one of the players was a “spy” –earning money by acting out orders from the viewers – cause them to question his true feelings towards them? How would the contestant react to the news that he had been fired from his job due to comments he made during his time in the house, nearly three months prior?

This year, what did we get? The big reveal that Natalie had lied about her age. She was actually 24, and not 18, as she had declared on Day 1 in the house. Whoop-de-doo! I mean, for one thing, how hard was it to figure out she was not from the under-21 crowd when the show allowed her to take part in all margarita parties and swig wine and beer all summer? And really, what did the lie matter? There’s no advantage to be had by the deception, unless it helps you realize that the rest of the house is too stupid to figure out something so obvious.

And that’s the big reason this show has lost its luster for me. The contestants don’t know how to play the game. From a game theory standpoint, it’s a really great game mechanism. Each week there are several competitions:

A head-of-household competition (HOH) which allows the winner to get special privileges as well as to nominate any two guests for eviction, a power of veto competition (POV) which gives the winner the right to “save” one of the nominees and force the HOH to nominate someone else (which can’t be the POV winner) and an eviction, where the houseguests vote secretly to eliminate one of the nominees.

That’s it. A completely internal engine to winnow the field down to the final two, at which time the last seven evicted houseguests will vote on which of the two remaining players wins the $500,000 prize.

Sure, the producers of the show add in some prize competitions and food challenges where the losers are forced to eat some hideously unappetizing concoction called “slop” for a week, all to breed resentment between the haves and the have-nots. But other than that, there’s no need to play with the general structure of the game.

And yet, this season, they did. By allowing America to vote on which player would get a “mystery power” called the “Coup D’Etat” the show did itself a disservice. Why? Because this power gave one player the ability to change both nominees right before the vote if he or she so chose to do. And when Jeff did just that, the entire balance of power in the house shifted from the ones who understood how to play the game to the ones who had no clue – but by that time, the sheer numbers of the clueless were enough to propel most of them into the Final 4.

It got so bad that when it got down to four players, Natalie and Kevin plotted to “pretend” to have a fight so that Michelle and Jordan wouldn’t think the two of them were still “together.” So HOH Natalie nominated Kevin for eviction as “proof” that they aren’t still allies. Let’s think about how pointless this was – with four players remaining, it doesn’t matter who the HOH nominates. Why? Because there are only three choices, and whoever wins the POV becomes the only person who can vote to evict (nominees and the HOH do not vote). Therefore, there’s no real bite behind putting Kevin on the block – if he doesn’t win the POV, he’s nominated anyway.

Similarly, Michelle being upset by getting nominated was equally as pathetic – since, again, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the POV competition, which ultimately, Kevin won since he was the only actually “competitor” left in the house.

The POV competition starts at 3:40, for those brave enough to watch idiots try to think.

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the details, but I will say to CBS – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Stop trying to “jazz” up the game by throwing in twists that interfere with the game engine. And please stop asking America to vote on anything that can influence the game – they’ll always go with “nice” over “evil” which seems to be the label placed on anybody who plays the game with strategy as opposed to “being friendly and loyal” to people that they’ve only met when they entered the Big Brother house.

And in the end, you’re left with no strategy to rehash and no real drama to fill two hours of show. And pretty soon, there’ll be no show left at all as the ratings disappear.

In the words of Joss Whedon, “Don’t give the viewers what they want, give them what they need.”

1 comment:

  1. Big Brother always fails with any live shows - Julie Chen is a walking disaster and its clear that the mundane chatter of the contestants is aided greatly by tight editing. It's the reason I like Survivor and The Amazing Race more, because what should be the most exciting episode each week is always - always - the worst.

    That being said, I was happy with the outcome and I thought it was well earned. (Also, how cute is Jordan? Seriously, not just in looks but her attitude is pretty refreshing.)

    I agree that BB seems compelled to always put in a new twist - sometimes, like the identical twins they had a few years ago, it's pretty interesting. Usually, it's lame. But don't kid yourself - the only reason they do the America Votes stuff is to charge them for the calls. Cash is king, baby!