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Big Brother 20’s premiere: plenty of potential, a few problems

Big Brother 20’s premiere: plenty of potential, a few problems
The robot on the left is Sam's punishment, one of BB20's first two punishments of the season.

“I’m a fucking robot.” Those four words, spoken by Sam, one of Big Brother 20‘s best characters so far, adequately sum up the BB20 season premiere, which was a mix of utterly absurd, amusingly comical, and frustrating moments.

While the audience was packed with former Big Brother houseguests doing the typical Big Brother audience blank stare and clap, none of them entered the house or the game. Hallelujah!

CBS appears to have finally learned after last season was ruined by their decision to bring Paul back, never mind all the advantages he was given:

  • Julie Chen: “It bit us in the butt last year with Paul [Abrahamian]. He ran that house up until the very end and then he lost it all. It made it predictable and we want it to be a full season of unexpected moments. Paul was running the house last year. We don’t want that again.”
  • Allison Grodner: “Everyone respected Paul [Abrahamian’s] game no doubt, but they were very frustrated with how everyone blindly followed him and couldn’t think for themselves. We’ve got a very different cast in the way the gameplay has already started. It’s much, much different. There isn’t just one leader.” “Listen, we have some really strong players in this house, much stronger than last year.”

With that lesson learned, and with a cast that has some really bright spots (including Sam, robot or not); an abundance of athletic, hopefully competition-oriented people; and some witty editing choices, I’m more optimistic than I have been in a long time.

So let me get this out of the way: Big Brother’s game design and twist choices are structured in a way that gives the production way too much power, and it’s frustrating that they keep coming back to that instead of just letting people play the game.

They didn’t let the big night-one winner, Swaggy C, choose to keep eight people safe, they let him give immunity to two of their pre-selected groups of houseguests.

Also: Why give immunity to half the house for the first eviction? It feels like a clumsy attempt to force alliances.

For the first of the two punishments—these producers and network executives love punishment so much that a 50 Shades of Grey season can’t be far off—producers are choosing when Kaycee has to stay in the room she’s in, and when she can leave. In a game of paranoia where being left out of one conversation can be consequential, that gives them the power to affect her game.

Sam has been punished by having to operate a robot instead of being in the house, so they’re choosing when she can and can’t be physically present. (I’m curious if she’ll be able to go upstairs to the HOH room as a robot.)

While the underlying idea bugs me, Sam is perfect for this; her personality and voice combined with the wonderfully comic animation on the robot’s face are just stupid, in a good way.

And Sam will, thankfully, be switching between her robot self and actually being in the house, which I assume is the production’s way of allowing her to still live in the house, occasionally taking her to a private booth where she can control the robot.

These two punishments will last two weeks, since the first live eviction isn’t until next Thursday, and the houseguests started the game last Wednesday.

Thoughts on the challenges and this season’s theme

Big Brother has upped its challenge game these past few years, both in terms of their spectacular set design and game design. They’ve managed to repeatedly transform the back yard, and design challenges that generally don’t prioritize randomness and unfairness.

I like the night-one idea of splitting the cast and having two different competitions leading into a final competition, but these three competitions were disappointing based on the standard the show has set in previous years.

Also: Why not just make the winner the first HOH? You don’t have to have a day-zero eviction. Let someone get power-drunk with an extended reign.

The two competitions weren’t even remotely similar; one was entirely random (grope around in the dark and hope you get lucky) and the other was building a block tower while being hoisted in the air.

The final competition, Surfing the Web, was the best of the three, from the title’s wordplay to the obstacles being physical manifestations of Big Brother cliches (back doors, chopping blocks).

The set design for all three seemed to be a kind of 1970s idea of what technology would be like way off in the distant future of the 1980s. It’s just on the border between cheesy and cheap.

And it created some whiplash with the house’s decor and Julie Chen’s discussion of the theme.

The house’s interior looks amazing, but does not suggest Silicon Valley or technology in any significant way. Meanwhile, Julie Chen talks about technology (mostly) like they want us to take this seriously: “Technology has taken over the world!” “Prepare yourself for high-tech twists.”

It’s really just a muddled theme, like they couldn’t decide which way to go so they went in all directions at the same time.

They hid a key under a baby

The intro packages for the houseguests were, for Big Brother intros, pretty great, in no small part because the editing condensed and flew past the fake key-finding moments (THEY HID A KEY UNDER A BABY).

It also gave us some depth and actual character development. Plus, as a bonus, there was even self-awareness from a few of them!

I’d virtually written Tyler off, but then he won me over by saying things like, “I’d say my big weakness is my brain” and “I’m just gonna try to play really dumb, which is really easy for me.”

And lines like “my name is Angie but most people call me Rockstar” were followed by “so now I’m a pagan witch,” and that held my interest.

There are a few contestants who were non-starters for me in their intros and then doubled-down on what I didn’t like once they got into the house (Winston, Brett, Scottie, no thanks).

And throughout the first episode, I was bothered by a thread of comments that made women into problems for men, or objects for men: Scottie worrying that “the femme fatales get you killed.” Winston’s metaphor (“darker than any of your ex-girlfriend’s hearts”). Tyler saying he’d “give mouth to mouth to any of these girls” because he’s attracted to them, because trying to save the life of an unconscious person is really about who you want to kiss.

Also, I remain baffled by the strategy of hiding one’s profession. Has someone’s profession ever put a target on their back? Isn’t it the lying about their professions that can cause real problems? Brett doesn’t even know what his fake profession is!

But Steve will definitely be able to pull off concealing that he’s a detective and a college professor, because no one will be able to notice him under that waterfall of sweat that poured off him when he told the group he was a mechanic. At least he’s not the robot, or it would have short-circuited immediately.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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