overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

Big Brother is Watching, Now You Can Too!

by Joel Bergen

There are two things that have always baffled me about Reality television: "How did it take so long to catch on" and "Why did it catch on when it did?" After all, it's not as though Reality suddenly came into existence in that fateful summer of 2000. An American Family ushered in the format in 1973 and The Real World had been a successful phenomenon unto itself for almost a decade, with only sister show Road Rules following in its voyeuristic footsteps.

So what took so long for the genre to become an overnight sensation? The answer, as in many situations, may lie in technological developments.
So what took so long for the genre to become an overnight sensation? The answer, as in many situations, may lie in technological developments. Not on the production side — inexpensive video and nonlinear editing had been around for a while — but on the consumer end. In particular, I'm thinking of the explosion of the Internet and the proliferation of DVRs, which immediately preceded and followed (respectively) the eruption of Reality.

These innovations may not have directly contributed to the initial success of the genre, but they certainly have helped sustain it beyond the flash in the pan many assumed it would be. And while Survivor may not have depended on such supplements to find an audience, another certain Reality show that premiered on CBS in the summer of 2000 did.

By now you've probably discerned that I wasn't cast for the current season of Big Brother, despite my best efforts (perhaps if Dr. Gonzo-les hadn't been "too good" to audition with me, we could've made it onto the show together as one of the pairs that compose this summer's secret twist). But if I couldn't be inside the house, then there's only one way to enjoy Big Brother: Lots and lots of mind-altering digital aides.

Like most television-watching Americans, after sampling the colossally dull post-Survivor series premiere of Big Brother I passed on the remainder of its first two seasons. I was a casual fan of the third and fourth installments, though if I'd had a life or if anything else had been on TV, I probably wouldn't have bothered. I missed several episodes (with three airing each week, how could I not?), and unlike when I failed to catch a Survivor (it's happened three times in ten seasons), I didn't flip out in the least. But last summer, my tolerant indifference for Big Brother turned to joyous obsession as I discovered the perfect alchemic method of imbibing the series.

It all starts with the TiVo (as its Bride pointed out a few issues ago, the ideal conduit for Reality). I no longer need worry about when those thrice-weekly broadcasts occur as the reliable little gnomes that live inside my DVR do all the work for me, even working overtime to record the elusive Saturday night edition.

And when you're devoting three "hours" a week to calories as empty as Big Brother's, the ability to fast-forward through pointless recaps (are our ADD-riddled minds so feeble they can't recall in vivid detail what transpired just two nights prior?), opening credits and commercials (if you're wondering why I didn't mention insipid host Julie Chen, don't worry, I'll get to her) is invaluable, saving an estimated 540 minutes per summer.

Plus, the TiVo's instant replay feature figures prominently in the Thursday night live broadcasts with their many splendored blunders and awkward moments. Yes, Big Brother is yet one more reason for me to love my TiVo more than is natural for any man to love a machine.

So your DVR's recorded a couple episodes for you but you still think it's the most tedious program since The Next Joe Millionaire: An International Affair? Then you're obviously missing the key ingredient: The Internet!

Mocking the Houseguests is as easy as that Bachelorettes in Alaska competition where they shot fish in a barrel, yet one website elevates it to an art form and in the process, single-handedly makes the series appointment television.
Every Reality show benefits from online discussion and analysis, but none more so than Big Brother. The instant water cooler effect of message boards and forums is perfectly tailored to the Seinfeld of Reality shows — a show about nothing that's packed to the rafters with ridiculous moments of mundane human behavior worthy of, well, ridicule. Mocking the Houseguests is as easy as that Bachelorettes in Alaska competition where they shot fish in a barrel, yet one website elevates it to an art form and in the process, single-handedly makes the series appointment television.

I discovered TVgasm last summer thanks to their much-linked-to "Scott and Jase: The Love Below" video and was quickly hooked on their snarky recaps. The boys of TVgasm cover a lot of Reality shows (and a few scripted series) to varying degrees of my personal amusement. Some shows, such as Survivor and America's Next Top Model, don't gain as much from their commentary while others improve dramatically in terms of entertainment value. In my opinion, the two shows that TVgasm does best are, ironically, television's most lauded Reality series and its most derided. And apparently, when it comes to the latter, they agree with me — at least judging by the hype leading up to their second season of coverage. In the weeks preceding the season premiere, they offered no less than 16 posts of foreplay, lubing up both the diehard fans like myself and the Big Brother-virgins who'd discovered the site since last September.

The thing is, reading the TVgasm recaps don't merely provide an amusing epilogue to each episode — they impact (and greatly enhance) future viewings. Tiny moments that might otherwise slip past my mushy brain now engage it as I try to imagine how TVgasm will spin them (and they rarely disappoint). In addition, their personal obsessions and proclivities get me more involved in the show, fueling my love or hate (more often hate) for particular "characters". But more than anything, they've helped me to appreciate the hilarity that is The Chenbot.

It used to be I thought hostess Julie Chen (that's Mrs. Les Moonves to you) was a waste of time, adding nothing to the show. However, now I can see every flubbed line, uncomfortable pause, awkward adlib, mistaken Head of Household competition call, "But first.", fashion disaster, mechanical glitch and robotic movement for what they are: Pure comic genius. The TVgasm guys are merciless towards the Chenbot and it's infectious. Their latest play-at-home game is to say out loud "Yes" every time she nods and "No" whenever she shakes her head. Still bored?

Another thing that makes Big Brother and the Internet two great tastes that taste great together? Scope. The characters on most scripted series start at the opening titles and end at the closing credits, but not Reality "characters". The Internet enables us to get to know them better, through both backstory and post-show updates. It's kind of like "Dawson's Desktop" or the "Chloe Chronicles", except we get to see their mugshots and Playgirl expos?s. Big Brother has the added benefit of the 24/7 live feeds, which help fill in the gaps between the three hours a week of televised shenanigans (much like those Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars and Star Trek novels, comic books and videogames).

Or so I imagine. Since I work from home, I know that a subscription would be just about the worst thing ever for me, but I do occasionally check out "highlights" on one of any number of websites. I find them utterly fascinating in their scientific devotion to documenting the minutiae of the daily lives of these entirely uninteresting individuals. They also provide the best opportunity for people who aren't "in the business" to see how producers can manipulate raw footage to create something completely different for the CBS broadcasts.

As you can see, despite what countless cautionary sci-fi tales (including George Orwell's 1984) would have you believe, there is an upside to technology. Namely, that it helps us maximize our enjoyment of a "Summer of Secrets" in the Big Brother. because without technology, there would be no Chenbot. And that fails to compute.

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