The problem with Big Brother 12, or why I’m having trouble caring now

Typically, seasons of Big Brother follow a predictable arc. The houseguests move in and have a calm week or two as they get to know their competition, voting out the person who stands out either the most or the least. Soon, though, their boredom and time together leads to real relationships and thus alliances, which nearly always shift, change, and collapse, often in spectacular ways. That’s the fun part. Eventually, after most of the houseguests are eliminated, the season limps into its finale with a few boring weeks. The conflicts are over, and the final, lame-ass challenges usually catapult horrifying people into the final two to win the prize, although that’s not always the case. Then we all stick our fingers into our brains and purge and pretend we didn’t just waste two months.

This season, however, had a long, slow burn of nothingness for more than a month. It was excruciatingly boring and uneventful. The twist was an absolute bust, as was its lame reincarnation, and it was so bad we were left to speculate wildly about another possible twist, but alas, there was nothing. Jeff and Jordan showed up; no one cared. The challenges have been so-so–not utterly stupid or unfair, but just average at best.

This past week or so, however, things got interesting and thoroughly entertaining–even though and/or because one of the primary antagonists, Rachel, left the house. After the quasi-dramatic eviction last week, things were ready to pick up as The Brigade, arguably one of the most successful alliances ever if only because it stayed together and stayed hidden the entire season, started to crumble. Three of its members turned on a fourth but were thwarted by his secret power, which should have stirred things up. I should also be dancing for joy at the potential for Matt to go home either next week or, if nominee Brendon wins the veto competition, even this week.

Yet I could barely stand Sunday’s episode. A big part of that, I think, is due to the length of time it took to get to this point; three episodes a week of nothingness week after week is exhausting, and not in a good way. Had this happened a month ago, the season might been starting to go somewhere.

But even after that drama, it’s treading water. Sunday, after we saw the Bridade fracture, there was little more than the houseguests performing to the camera in the diary room as the producers killed time with sequences about exciting things such as a moth. Lane can be funny, like when he compared himself to Britney’s boyfriend, but Lane’s not funny when he’s trying to be funny, and I got the impression that all of the houseguests were given some kind of pep talk this week about being more lively in the diary room. Increasingly, it seems like they’re performing because they have very little to truly get upset about or laugh at, and seem to be reaching.

Usually part of the fun of Big Brother is comparing–and getting frustrated with–the oversimplified version of complex strategy that ends up on the three episodes. This year, the editors have basically nothing to work with so we basically see all the strategy, what little there is. And there have been no real scandals, which is why a guy pleasuring himself in the shower and another guy sneaking food have gotten the most attention in the past week. That’s the most interesting producer manipulation, the lack of punishment for eating food? The whole idea of have-nots is moronic, pointless, and consistently uninteresting anyway that I just don’t care.

Big Brother has a structural problem that no other elimination series has, whether it’s The Amazing Race or Top Chef or Survivor. That’s in part because those shows are edited with knowledge of the outcome, and thus can build a narrative arc over time, getting us to love some people and loathe others. Big Brother cannot, and must rely instead on continual power shifts for drama, which is why the game has its often-frustrating HOH-nominee-veto structure.

That has worked well sometimes, but it’s nowhere near as consistent in delivering good television as Survivor‘s structure is. This season, Big Brother‘s producers found themselves with a group of people who were largely unwilling to engage each other on any significant level, instead resorting to petty sniping and self-aggrandizing diary room interviews to make them seem more interesting than they actually are. They actually seem to like each other, for the most part, though some are in for a hard landing (like awful judge of character Ragan).

What’s really crippling this season is the casting. I don’t want a season of asshole racists, but I do want a season of people able and willing to play, whether they’re smart and witty or dumb and delusional.

One of the most striking things is what executive producer Rich Meehan told me and a few critics as we were standing on the balcony of the soundstage house during our tour: This year, the houseguests have ignored the chess board and couches outside the HOH room. That has been a prime location for strategizing in year’s past, but in season 12, there has been basically no strategizing, and when there has, we’ve made it out to be much more than it is because that’s all we have.

It’s like getting a poorly frosted and decorated mini-cupcake and pretending it’s a stunning sheet cake because it’s been so long since we’ve seen any cake. The irony is that I’m still watching, and so are more people than have watched all summer long. Maybe those new viewers are being rewarded for waiting until now to show up. The rest of us may still get some frosting this season, but I fear it’s going to be three more weeks of searching for sprinkles.

Big Brother 12: C

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.