Reality TV has always been awful, but at its inception it at least was awful in fascinating ways. In 2000, the first American seasons of Survivor and Big Brother starred everyday folks of the sort no producer could find nowadays: people who had never seen reality TV. On Survivor, that made for high drama, as only Richard Hatch proved savvy enough to recognize that he and his island-mates were contestants on a game show rather than the founders of some lofty new civilization.
Big Brother premiered after Survivor‘s debut but before its villain’s triumph in the finale, and its naifish cast of houseguests turned out to be the most shy, high-minded, and dull in network reality TV history. You know how Real Worlders get that it’s their job to get freaky in that herpetic-looking hot tub? The folks on Big Brother season one thought they were there to teach us all a lesson about politeness and decency.
I’d say it was like watching paint dry, but with paint there’s the possibility that, once the color has settled, something might clash. Not with these folks. That made the show fascinating in ways no other since has been: They banded together, led by a daft and enthusiastic Rockford, Illinois, dad who for some reason called himself “Chicken George,” and resisted every attempt from the producers to stir them up.
They refused to scheme or to backbite. They wrote lyrics to the show’s instrumental theme song urging us to take a close look at who they really were — and not to judge them before that. They developed a maddening verbal tic, a clipped and arrhythmic comedy voice, that they all started to speak in whenever anything felt awkward.
Here’s 40 seconds of what the show was like on an average night. The houseguests, seen here flopped aimlessly on couches, watch Chicken George dance by himself in the kitchen. They’re taking turns participating in the show’s idea of an interesting challenge: All week long, two of them have to be outside and dancing together at the same time. (At risk if they failed to complete this task: 20 percent of their weekly food budget. Seriously, that’s as exciting as Big Brother usually got.)
Things to note in this clip: Eddie, the eventual winner, says, “Boy, if Jordan was here, [the dance contest] would be a lot more entertaining.” She’s one of the first people voted off the show, a young woman whose identity the cast and the producers seemed eager to reduce to “weepy stripper.” George lobs a dumb, obvious pole-dancing joke at everyone, then pretends he’s actually not cruel or crass enough to have really said that, and then young Brittany — the originator and exemplar of that silly voice — offers a definitive example: “That came out a little too fast and easy,” she says, halting and brittle, speaking like a kid’s idea of Super Mario (though without all those extra -ahs).
That’s the show, right there. Asinine challenges. Bored people giggling. People pretending they’re purely nice and swell and would never make fun of anyone else. People reminiscing about the more interesting people who already got voted off — Jordan and Will Mega, whom the show pitilessly caricatured as “Angry Black Man.” (He was the first to go, obviously.)
And that voice, like an infection passed back and forth between them. By the end of their 88 days in the house, these people would hold full conversations speaking only like that — watching this was like being trapped in a room with everyone in your office who, when things get a little uncomfortable, pipes “Ruh-roh!” or “Are we having fun yet?” or any of those other strained awful things people say when they’d like to say something funny but can’t be bothered to come up with anything.
The show actually became about the kind of social experiment reality TV producers used to claim they were going for. The experiment: What if the breakroom at your most boring job ever was, like, our entire society? Almost as fascinating were the producers’ attempts to rile up the houseguests. At one point, host Julie Chen introduced a putative new contestant named Beth, who strutted about in a bikini and promised to be a fierce competitor inside the house. But the producers didn’t just put her in. Instead, they offered each of the six remaining houseguests $20,000 — in cash, in a suitcase — to walk off the show so that Beth could come on.
And right there, on live TV, all six turned the offer down — even the three nominated to be booted from the show that week. George was wearing a plant on his head. “OK, Julie, here goes the Chicken Man!” he shouts, when instructed to open the briefcase.
Relish the awkward silence, the comedy voices, and CBS’s stunned dead air. When the guests refuse to walk, CBS ups the offer to 50K. Muses George, “I could put my daughter through college.”
And they don’t take it, and Beth, a game-minded visitor from the reality TV of the future, never gets to enter the house.
That was hilarious, impossible television, the most stupid of shows glancing against brilliance. What was this hivemind these people were living in? Since they didn’t yet know how fleeting reality stardom would be, most were convinced that they already were stars, a subject they frequently discussed. The grand prize of the season was $500,000, with the runner-up getting $50,000, but they all were happy not to score the easy 50 now — after all, they were on TV, and they were really nice to each other, so obviously they all would soon be millionaires.
As mad as that moment was, Big Brother eventually topped it with its exact opposite. Instead of refusing to walk, the houseguests took a page from The Truman Show (and Pirandello) and decided to rebel against the most basic tenets of the show itself. You can see it in the most amazing episode of reality TV ever seen in the U.S. (Or not seen — I mean, nobody watched Big Brother.)
Led by Chicken George, these very nice, very dull people all pinkie-swore that they would join together to walk off Big Brother. This decision seemed to them so profound that shirtless hunk Josh marveled, “It’s the biggest statement a group of humans could ever make.”
George’s idea is that the houseguests have discovered they’re something more than just participants in a TV show. He believes they’re an example for all of us of our own greater human potential, and his selling everyone else on his idea is a dramatic monologue for the ages:
“There’s more to the show than the stupid challenges, and the stupid banishment, and everything else. This show is meant to tell us, and to tell the world, that if we all stay together, and if we all work together as one, we win.” He pounds the table. “It was that son-of-a-bitchin’ simple right in the beginning! We coulda walked out of here as nine winners.”
And then he convinces them all to quit the show.
A little backstory. By this point in the season, the house has been purged of anybody who’s not totally into happy-time groupthink. But the community has recently come under assault from the outside world. Fans of the show have taken to paying an airplane to fly over the Big Brother house with a banner warning cast members that not all of them are as honest and kind as they seem…
That first season, houseguests nominated for eviction were voted out by viewers via telephone, and George’s wife had gathered lots of support from Illinois media. Her “Save the Chicken” campaign struck fans of the other cast members as somehow unfair, just as Richard Hatch’s scheming on Survivor upset the simpler America of ’00. Eventually, word of Mrs. Chicken’s politicking got into the house: first, vaguely, from those airplanes, and second from another desperate move on the part of the producers, who allowed evicted Brittany to speak to Josh for a couple minutes from the outside. Once voted out, Brittany no longer held to the group’s idealism, and she issued Josh a scrappy warning: Nobody but George has a chance.
Josh, being a go-along, get-along guy, then promised never to tell anyone this ever, as it might upset group harmony. Everyone found out, though, so the George you see here, leading a revolt, is one who is actively rooting against his own (perceived) financial interest. He’s offering to forgo what must seem like an easy victory — and $500,000 — in favor a group walkout. In essence, he’s prizing the new society of the Big Brother house above everything else, even ten times the amount of money he once said could send his daughter to college.
You don’t see madness like that on The Bachelor.
It goes on. George next admits to the group that, in the show’s diary room, he occasionally made signs saying things like “Save the Chicken.” “I stepped out on my own,” he says, aghast. But: “It all fell into place. What they were trying to do was to break us all apart.”
Instead, George insists, they should all walk off a network show that is scheduled to run for several more weeks, and send a message to the world.
What follows is a priceless back-and-forth, one rich with what could be some of the best-observed comedy of the ’00s, if only someone had written it: “We holded the cards in our hands all along,” George says. Note how nobody is brave enough to come out and say “You are clearly mad, and we’re all on a game show.” (You can tell from the carefully composed face of Jamie, a shy young woman, that she thinks this is a terrible idea even as she goes along with it.) Note the odd Big Brother coinages: “I don’t trust the sky worth a piss,” says Eddie, at first the lone holdout, referring to the airplanes and their messages.
Somehow, George wears even Eddie down. (Their relationship, over the course of the series, develops a touching Of Mice and Men quality, with George as the Lennie who needs to be reassured about the rabbits.) The sad belief that finally seems to bring everyone on board: that they’re already famous and destined for great wealth anyway. George says, “I got a feeling there’s gonna be so much out there for us, it’s gonna be unbelievable,” and everyone nods and agrees.
And here’s a couple more delicious quotes, all revealing of a peculiar and too-seldom-remarked-upon American problem: the way, in a group, the nice will go along with the mad.
George: “You got a chance to make your family maybe one of the proudest families they could ever be in their entire lives.”
Josh: “There’s certain times where I’ve said, ‘Look, society does work in here.’ ”
Curtis: “Maybe the meta-game, meaning this game itself, is that we can all win it as a whole. And even if George is wrong that that was the point from the beginning, one thing that we have stumbled upon is that we as characters and people are bigger than the show.”
(Curtis, being the smartest, immediately adds, “Not that I think I’m so great,” in that godawful comedy voice.)
Josh: “Mankind is bigger than the show.”
George: “When you’re an old man, are they gonna remember you for the money? That money might be gone. They’re gonna remember you as ‘Eddie, he got a chance to change things to how they really are.’ ”
And here’s Eddie, finally giving in: “You know what? Yeah, I’ll walk with yas. I’ll walk with you on Wednesday. If you wanna walk, I’ll walk with ya?”
And immediately after that, once they’ve all agreed, Curtis — who is no fool — suggests they not be hardheaded or anything and stay open to suggestions. Then, in the comedy voice, he says, “Pool time?” and everyone laughs even though it’s not funny.
SPOILER: They didn’t walk. Instead, they sat around, did challenges, and pretended that they weren’t rooting for each other to be evicted. It was endlessly boring, but it was always interesting, and it’s probably a truer look at what many of us are actually like than any of the exhibitionistic seasons of Big Brother to follow. This was anxious people losing their minds together, all hoping that the rest of us loved them.
Finally: Other challenges they participated in besides the dance-off: Putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Memorizing the interstate highway system. Setting up 12,000 dominoes.
“What if it’s the cover of TV Guide?” Jamie says, convinced it will have their famous faces on it. Before it became competent TV, Big Brother could break your heart.
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