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Big Brother: 20 stories from 20 years of CBS’s worst reality show

Big Brother: 20 stories from 20 years of CBS’s worst reality show
Big Brother starts as summer fun, but nearly ends up as a lot of garbage and toxicity. (Photo by Brian Yurasits/Unsplash)

Big Brother premiered 20 years ago tonight on CBS. Since that first season, it’s changed the format of its game; moved into a new, permanent house; and aired a streaming-only season plus two celebrity editions.

While it’s absolutely delivered some entertaining moments during its two decades on the air, and has hosted some strong players and decent people, there’s also no question that the show is mostly garbage, home to a deluge of racism, violence, and ugliness. That’s clear when you look back at its first two decades on the air.

The show that premiered on July 5, 2000, was very different from what we know now. It started its American life much closer to its international predecessors. Ian O’Malley was Julie Chen’s co-host, and episodes aired six nights per week. The house was some trailers in a parking lot, and the game allowed viewers to vote out contestants, so all of the interesting people went first. That assclown Dr. Drew—who recently spread dangerous misinformation and then tried to stop people from seeing it—showed up to provide analysis.

That first season was new and different, but it wasn’t great television in the way that Survivor: Borneo absolutely was. That was in part because Big Brother’s game gave viewers power, and they voted out the most interesting players right away. While it was mostly boring, it did have its moments, especially when viewers started communicating with the cast by hiring planes to fly over the studio trailing banners. One said: “Big Brother is worse than you think. Get out now.”

After season one, the show restructured its game. Instead of turning toward viewer interactivity and making that better, it leaned more heavily on twists and the heavy hand of its new producers.

That new format worked, creating wild shifts in power and drama. Season two gave us the alliance Chilltown and Dr. Will, a great strategist/villain—and also resulted in an expulsion after one houseguest held a knife to another’s throat and asked her, “Would you get mad if I killed you?” From the very beginning, the rot was there.

The production has consistently cast people who act in abhorrent ways, and the format has frequently resulted in winners who’ve done and said horrible things. It seems to reward bad behavior. Some houseguests have faced consequences outside the game, like being fired from their jobs. (Remember the winner who was sent to federal prison for being involved in a drug ring?) Others have been rewarded, by CBS and others.

Is Big Brother actually light, silly summer fun?

Big Brother 18, Julie Chen, live eviction
Julie Chen during a Big Brother 18 live eviction. (Photo by Johnny Vy/CBS)

Big Brother’s branding is all about pretending that it’s a light, fun summer show, but the pristine, glimmering blue water of the backyard swimming pool is actually no different than that blue liquid at the bottom of port-a-potties, ready to receive a firehose of shit, which then gets fed to rabid, often toxic fans. The house has been home to sexual harassment, physical violence, and abusive behavior that is tolerated, especially when the producers love the contestant and want to play up their storyline.

Sure, you can run your hands through the chunky raw sewage and find some treasures—hilarious, charming moments like this one—and it can be absolutely addictive to watch, especially online. I watched the live feeds during season two, and was fully absorbed.

But does Big Brother contribute anything meaningful to the world except money for CBS, which steadfastly refuses to do anything to make the show better?

The show now airs three episodes a week, and its production turns those around in just days, which is impressive except it’s also so formulaic now the contestants know exactly when to expect everything. It’s a shoddily produced competition with consistently bad and unfair game design, especially the sorry excuses for twists that are usually dropped after a few weeks.

It’s kept my interest because I’ve always hoped it could be fixed and realize its full potential as a social game in a confined environment, with audience members able to play a role.

As a reality TV fan and critic who likes to learn about how TV is made, I appreciate the way it makes its raw footage available via the live feeds, which is captivating for feed-watchers and reveals so much about how reality TV is produced, like last summer when a producer asked a black woman to act in more stereotypical ways during confessional interviews.

But even the best season, which for me was BB6, devolved into “raving lunatic racist” comments, which is something we just expect from the show now. Ugh.

To mark the 20th anniversary of this shitshow’s arrival on CBS, here are 20 pieces from the reality blurred archives, including behind-the-scenes stories, recaps of some of its ugliest moments, interviews with some of its winners and its producers, and stories about what keeps people watching.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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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