Glass House shatters on its debut, but there’s hope for the pieces

At long last, ABC’s The Glass House debuted last night, and proved itself to be both better and worse than CBS’ Big Brother, inspiring mixed reactions. It started out awful but by the end, showed some signs of hope through its cracks.

First, the obvious: This is not exactly Big Brother, but in many ways, it feels just like it, from the idiots inhabiting the house to the soundstage house to the camera shots. But it also seems like what Big Brother might have been had CBS decided to spend money on it (HD, stunning set design) instead of letting it languish in the same rut it’s dug itself into, where it wins its timeslot so who really gives a shit.

The first 20 minutes were impossibly grating, and seemed to be designed to capture Big Brother viewers rather than those of us who are desperate for an alternative. I was pretty much done by that point: with the screaming, the clapping, the yammering, the pointlessness. That’s generally how I feel during the first episode of Big Brother, though, when I contemplate whether I’d rather be watching or running over my foot with my car.

Casting seems weak, heavy on overly confident morons who are fond of screaming a lot. When the star of your show is a wannabe asshole who viewers will likely vote out immediately, you have a problem. “Without me, this is going to be a boring, boring, boring place,” Alex said at one point. He might have said boring one more time but I was too busy trying to figure out why he was calling the panties he was wearing a thong.

However, he was voted out of the house–surprise–after going on a pseudo-rampage, insulting everyone else, because why? There was no reason other than he wants to be the villain, and he’s convinced viewers will like that enough to keep him in. But they probably won’t, meaning we’ll be stuck with people such as Apollo, who apparently finds Dr. Sean from Survivor season one to be his strategy idol, announced in the most condescending way possible that he was going to make his decisions randomly.

The first challenge was pathetic. This was one way in which Glass House really had a chance to differentiate itself. Instead, while its production design was better, they delivered a conceptually weak and visually uninteresting challenge. First, we don’t know or care about the cast members enough to match them with characteristics. Second, it seemed like all they had to do was line up the lines, choosing between one of two tiles.

But there was some glimmers of hope through the cracked facade of The Glass House, including a really cool voting process. Despite the pointless theater of having them place a rock with their name on a glowing prop, they chose who to vote for with Xbox Kinect-style voting: swiping through faces, and then shattering the picture by launching something at the screen. That was significantly better than watching the parade of idiots in the hallway outside the Diary Room as Julie clicks on and off to ask them the same question over and over again. Replacing the front door with Hunger Games-style tubes was also a good decision.

There are interesting components beyond the awesome set design. Players asked viewers questions last night, and got answers; Erica asked a question about the current results of The Bachelorette (!), while Apollo asked an idiotic question about whether or not we’d smiled today. Only when contemplating your exit from the house, buddy. And Alex started being a prick once viewers gave him the green light.

Also, Jacob quit the game after being sent to limbo with Alex, and FauxSiri/Oracle told the cast members that one of the two men had quit, but didn’t say which one: clever. I think the producers need to find the right balance between pandering to viewers and giving us the right amount of control, and controlling the players (especially during live streaming) and letting them just interact.

There’s a lot of potential, and I’m interested to see what happens strategically as the game progresses and as the players settle in and stop showing off–though maybe they’ll never do that, thanks to the need to win our affections. There are also just nine more episodes, and limited streaming, so even if it does suck, it doesn’t suck one’s life away. That may be The Glass House‘s best part.

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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.