Summer 2010

Look Who's On TV:

When Networks Elevate Everyday People
to Celebrity Status, and Why We're Okay With That

Phil West

This essay could have been about so many other things going on. Two months ago, when the entire Internet threatened to careen into a ditch thanks to the new Facebook privacy changes, I’d started an essay likening Facebook privacy settings to a clear shower curtain. There’s also the matter of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which now has some network news teams reporting that it’s Day Whenever, reminiscent of the Day Whenever reports for the Iran hostage situation, resulting in a similar level of vigilant helplessness. And on The CBS Early Show this morning, the host just introduced a story with the words, “Another day, another hate-filled rant from Mel Gibson,” which really should just replace “another day, another dollar” in the common parlance. So, really, there’s so much to write about. But my world in this Summer of 2010 has been rocked by a surprise development which not only has me watching The CBS Early Show in the morning, but a lot more CBS than usual.

I have a friend on Big Brother 12.

And no, it’s not the kind of friendship in which I, as a viewer, am making a one-way connection through the TV screen because I can so identify with that person. It’s an actual friend – someone I’ve known for years before he ended up on a high-profile reality show. It’s Ragan Fox, the 34-year-old college professor (and past November 3rd Club contributor!) who is one of 13 houseguests in the Big Brother 12 house.

He’s vying for a half million dollars by being the last person to make it through the psychological obstacle course that is the Big Brother house. You’re closed off from the outside world: no TV, no internet, no radio, no newspapers. The house is filled with TV cameras (including night-vision cameras) and microphones, making it more of an elaborate TV studio in which people live than an actual house. Unlike other reality shows, the footage isn’t just collected and edited down – people can actually pay for live feeds and watch the houseguests 24/7 on their computers.

And there’s a “twist” this season – one of the 13 guests is The Saboteur, playing a different game than the other houseguests. The Saboteur is there to create as much chaos as possible, a sort of modern-day Puck (as in The Real World San Francisco’s Puck), fastening a lock on the storage closet holding all their food, planting an electronic cricket that continually chirps inside one of the house’s walls, and otherwise attempting to foment dissent. If the Saboteur lasts half a season, he or she gets $50,000.

A lot of people, prior to the July 15 on-air revelation of The Saboteur’s identity, thought that Ragan just might be The Saboteur. They pointed to his intelligence and his subversive podcast -- Fox and the City, in which he sprays nearly everyone in sight with rapid-fire, off-color satire – as signs that he’s Saboteur material.

It turned out to be Annie, though – a houseguest so universally despised and/or distrusted that she managed to get herself voted out unanimously with the very first vote of the season. So, when we speak of the Saboteur twist in the present tense, we already must speak of it in past tense. A better twist might have been that there was really no houseguest playing the role of the Saboteur, and it could just be the crew’s ongoing hi-jinks. But I’m not a highly-paid CBS producer who determines that the least strategy-savvy member of the house should be the one trying to stay to the halfway point to make the show more interesting.

Ragan’s also gay, and is the only out member of this season’s cast, though Annie did “confess” to Ragan (and only to Ragan) that she’s bisexual and has a girlfriend back home – who she’ll now presumably get to spend lots and lots of time with. One person on Twitter has referred to Ragan as the show’s “token gay,” which is just where some people will go when they’re trying to keep a cast of 13 mostly-white people straight in their minds and need reductive labels to help them out. But Ragan, to his and to the editors’ credits, is not quite the caricature you’d fear they’d make him. Enzo, on the other hand – an Italian-American from Jersey who relied on a ridiculous Mafia trope in putting together a four-person alliance he named “The Brigade” – is either reveling in stereotype, or he’s a reality show editor’s dream come true, lacking the self-awareness and filters necessary to navigate having your life edited into a show.

So why would you care about one of the houseguests if you didn’t know them personally and have a rooting interest? This is an excellent question – and since I haven’t watched a Big Brother episode since Season 2 in 2001, it’s a question I probably need to be posing to myself.

A lot of it has to do with championing reality show celebrities who are more everyman and everywoman than reality shows on maybe any other show. Survivor purports to be a “regular person” show but necessitates skewing toward the more athletic side of the spectrum because of what cast members are asked to do. The Real World still maintains a certain level of Benetton ad consciousness but is skewed to a fairly narrow window with respect to both age and worldview. The Biggest Loser wouldn’t work without overweight people seeking to become thinner.

And, strangely, Big Brother isn’t just an American phenomenon or an American phenomenon borrowed from England. Since its inception, there have been Big Brothers airing in an almost incomprehensible number of world regions. There’s a Western Balkans version. There’s an African version featuring contestants from multiple African nations. There’s a Philippines version. There was even a version set in Bahrain and aired throughout the Arab World in 2004, before it was suspended by the Middle East Broadcasting Center due to outcry that the show was, according to a BBC online article, “entertainment for animals,” and went against Islam by having men and women living in the same quarters for an extended period of time.

On one hand, it’s watching people who are just like us. The casting strategy seems to be to have people who are compelling enough and different enough from us that we’ll want to watch them, but enough like us to where we can see ourselves (or, at least, people we could see ourselves being friends with) in the contestants. When we root for individuals on the shows, we have the possibility of rooting for ourselves, or the type of people we’d root for in real life to get a promotion or a great new job or a dream house. Sometimes, we fall in love with villains and root for people that we’d loathe if they were co-workers. But, in watching the show, we can theoretically learn more about ourselves and the character traits we value.

It does seem, though, that the novelty of being on camera 24/7 is not as shocking as it was a decade ago. Those comfortable with social media will themselves, to a certain degree, to the sort of “always on, always public” status that the Big Brother houseguests find themselves in. I imagine that one of the most wearing deprivations in the house would be the lack of Internet access – after being used to being able to connect with literally hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers in the way we’re increasingly growing accustomed to, a Big Brother houseguest can only have communication with a small group of people that will get smaller from week to week. As contestants are eliminated, it’ll be interesting to see if they actually join the fan pages CBS has created for them and interact with the people who are “offering them” either support or venom that they’ll never see while still in the house.

Sometimes, I wonder how desensitized we’ll become as a society to various taboos, and if we’ll someday see a Big Brother in which one of the houseguests is a deranged killer and survival means actual survival rather than making it through a vote. I wonder if technology will allow for a holograph in which you can watch everything happening in the Big Brother house at once, allowing you to experience what it’s like to be Big Brother, the panopticon, your own little slice of God. Or, perhaps cynically, will a randomly-selected American be linked into the show via his or her own government-mandated in-home surveillance camera, and get to participate in Big Brother in that way?

It’s more likely, of course, that Big Brother will be cancelled than any of these bad premise for a movie scenarios. But, in the meantime, the show is meeting with enough success and attention for CBS to put it up on our screens in the languid summer months, before regaling us with another season of The Big Bang Theory and various sundry CSIs.

While Ragan’s success on the show won’t be a realistic indicator of anything other than Ragan’s success on the show, Ragan’s acceptance among a broad cross-section of Big Brother viewers, as evinced by Twitter threads and discussion boards proclaiming him a favorite member of the cast, is certainly a sign of an encouraging sea change for a nation that hasn’t always been comfortable with gay people on TV. And yet, Ragan successfully traversing a bed of rocks by swinging across it on a giant inflatable hot dog won’t bring us closer to gay marriage rights in all 50 states, as fantastic as it would be for sweeping civil rights victories to be that easy.

But, ultimately, Ragan on TV makes TV better than Ragan not being on TV, even as I find myself committing to a show that has already jettisoned the one characteristic that was going to separate it from previous seasons. I’m rooting for Ragan to not only do well in the show, but to parlay his exposure in the show into something more lasting on E! or VH1. Those who know Ragan know that he’s as built (if not more built) for snarky commentary about Big Brother rather than in participation in Big Brother. In the meantime, I will be watching a show I normally wouldn’t be watching, confirming things I think I already know, but watching with an untoward fascination all the same.