Glass House picks up the pieces and cleans up its smudges

The first episode of ABC’s The Glass House was such a mess of a letdown that I disengaged from the show all week, and didn’t watch the live feeds (no loss there). But the hope I had for the format came to life in the second episode, which was a remarkable improvement over the first.

This is still not excellence in reality television competition format, but it’s quickly rising to the low, low bar set by Big Brother–which, let’s face it, is 98 percent predictable from minute one, regardless of who’s in the house or what happens. This, at least, is fresh and new and offers interesting possibilities.

The second episode settled into life in the house, and the players were a lot less grating. There was a lot of humor, both playful (mocking Alex, providing dialogue for people who were in the yard) and unintentional (Holly). In a classic reality TV conversation, several players realized Holly was lying about being an art major in college, and challenged her. The other women were like, name one artist. Anyone. She couldn’t, and confessed that she was a psychology major. Then they asked her to name a single psychologist. She stumbled and paused and finally said–ready?!–Dr. Phil. She was not kidding. I peed myself.

Eventually, we all learned whether Alex, who became the antagonist last week with his dumb aspiration of becoming the greatest reality show villain ever, would return to the game. Glass House‘s production design succeeded again, as he was raised up in his tube, facing the players who hated him. It made for a ridiculously dramatic moment, especially when he sank back down, having been voted out of the game by viewers.

Gene, who even last week established himself as the series’ unintentional oracle, was right when he predicted that there’s no way viewers would vote to bring him back, even if Alex being an ass would make a better TV show. The house was thrilled; the producers, probably not so much.

This week’s voting results aren’t as clear-cut, perhaps because the house smartly sent Holly, the (apparent) third-least-popular player, into limbo with Apollo, one of the two least-popular players and thus a team captain. Apollo, by the way, is convinced that he’s a brilliant player, justifying being in the bottom two by saying, “My strategy might have been unclear to the viewers. I’m playing a very intellectual, psychological game.” No, it’s just stupid.

Combined, Alex’s departure and Apollo’s dismay represent the series’ greatest source of potential and biggest potential problem. On the one hand, our decisions can cause psychological trauma in the game, and that’s fascinating. As they watched the reveal of the team captains, the tension was palpable. But as Gene said, viewers aren’t going to make decisions that benefit them. He also pointed out that the structure of the game demands a particular for choosing teams: “you’ve got to strategically pick people that you think you can beat in limbo just in case you end up there.”

In an unacknowledged twist, Apollo actually picked Gene for his team after talking to Gene about the fact that he’d have to pick the weakest people for his team. Then he accused Gene of throwing the game with the most irrational argument possible, something about Gene being the most athletic person on their team (!) because he’s a stunt person (!!). Apollo is seriously delusional, both about his perceptions and about how to play a smart game. Also, I like Gene.

The challenge was significantly better than last week’s, though not necessarily any better than a typical Big Brother challenge. A thought and a complaint: First, I kind of wished the eggs they threw had the other teams’ names on them. In other words, they’d be forced to choose who to punish and who to reward with $1,000 (not that the “burdens” were that punishing or interesting, even when Jeffrey did his egg peeling in drag).

More importantly, I’d like to actually see a competition where everyone is competing at once so there’s head-to-head competition. There’s a reason Survivor challenges don’t happen in a vacuum: it’s a hell of a lot more interesting when there’s unpredictable tension and drama in the moment. The Glass House needs more of that.

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