when reality goes right

The 4 Reasons Big Brother 16 Was One of the Show’s Best Seasons in Years

BIG BROTHER Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

Tonight is the night Big Brother junkies such as myself look forward to annually with a mixture of sadness and relief, but mostly relief: CBS’s summer-long (artificial) reality show signs off for the year with a 90-minute finale. Like a summer camp from hell, Big Brother — when it works — lets its devoted audience spend three months pointlessly obsessing over the antics of folks they would (mostly) never want to hang out with in real life but who, filtered through the story engine of a TV show, can become briefly fascinating. Sometimes the formula fails, as it did last year, when producers picked particularly awful people to populate their giant hamster wheel and forced even devoted fans like myself to give up the show. But this summer, in its 16th edition and 14th year, Big Brother bounced back in a big way. In fact, despite the absence of thrilling twists or skillful game play by contestants, producers managed to churn out one of the most enjoyable and entertaining Big Brother seasons in recent years. Yes, we’re ready for it to all be over (hence the relief). But first: Here are the four things Big Brother did absolutely right this season — and the one big problem that prevented this summer from soaring even higher.

This year’s houseguests weren’t assholes.
In fact, Big Brother’s cast this year was, on balance, actually a pretty decent bunch of folks: upbeat, sunny, open-minded. Even when one small group dominated the game (the so-called “Detonators”), said group didn’t go out of its way to bully and berate weaker players, the way past show alliances (e.g., the infamous “Nerd Herd”) have. The season’s puppet master and likely champ, police officer Derrick Levasseur, rolled over his competitors with a smile; his victims still don’t seem to understand just how much he’s played them. And the most memorable “characters” this season achieved their fan-fave status by being relatively genuine.

There was small-town janitor Donny Thompson who, unlike the faux hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, was a real-life Forrest Gump, someone who seemed truly happy for the chance to play the game and unwilling to change who he was to get ahead. Ever-smiling Zach Rance could have been Just Another Reality-Show Bro, but his frequent flirtations with self-stylized YouTube (“star”) Frankie Grande showed him to be refreshingly (for reality shows) nonchalant about his sexuality. The two members of this season’s central showmance, Nicole Franzel and Hayden Voss, seemed to actually like and care for each other (rather than simply tolerate each other to get more screen time). And even a “character” many viewers ended up “hating” — Grande — was for the first half of the season a positive presence, an energetic player who won both mental and physical competitions and, early on, played a masterful social game by befriending much of the house. It was only when he reversed course and stabbed BFF Zach in the back that his popularity plummeted (and that the other houseguests decided to stop trusting him). Overall, while the bar was set pretty low after last year’s gang of racist, misogynistic jerks (not everyone fit that bill, but more than a few did), 2014’s hamsters were generally likable — and sometimes even managed to make us love ‘em.

Producers upped their game when it came to competitions.
Unlike Survivor or The Amazing Race, the producers of Big Brother don’t have the luxury of scale when constructing challenges for their contestants: There’s no ocean or river to throw players into, no iconic landmark to use as a backdrop. As a result, Big Brother challenges have sometimes felt a bit … underwhelming. Not so this season. Producers not only increased the number of challenges this year — more than 40, the most ever in one season — but they seemed to go all-out to make the competitions bigger, grander, and much more involving. The season’s high point: “Black Box,” shot entirely in the dark using night-vision cameras, was a white-knuckle thrill ride (particularly since one of the players deliberately sabotaged her own partner). Even the smaller, game-show-style competitions seemed better conceived and executed this season. Because this season’s players were pretty weak when it came to conniving and backstabbing (more on that below), Big Brother was more reliant on competitions than ever this summer. Thankfully, the show’s game team more than rose to the challenge.

Big Brother embraced its meta-ness as never before.
As one of the longest-running shows in the modern era of reality TV, and one whose format has changed very little since season two, Big Brother can’t help but hit some of the same notes each season (and even each week). Producers did try to refresh some staples of the game this season: There was far less explanation of how the game is played (a nod to the fact that, at this point, the bulk of the show’s audience has been watching for years), and the nomination ceremony got a high-tech makeover (good riddance to the damn lazy Susan and giant keys!). But in other cases, producers had fun with the show’s touchstones. Each week, for example, the HOH winner (or, this year, winners) must loudly ask her fellow players, “Who wants to see my HOH room?”; viewers then hear the same awesomely annoying bit of music. The melody is so familiar, this season, Frankie took to loudly humming it every time the HOH question was asked — and producers actually showed it, even though it could be argued Frankie was gently mocking the show’s predictability. Big Brother similarly poked fun at itself by inviting Kathy Griffin on the show to blow up (brilliantly) the annual appearance of the Zingbot (it’s a wisecracking robot; don’t ask.) The cast even had fun with the weekly eviction process: As each player passed the other en route to cast their votes, they did a sort of comical secret handshake/endzone dance routine with each other. All of these things are admittedly very tiny details, but combined they helped make the show much more lighthearted and enjoyable.

HD is awesome.
It took way too long, but Big Brother finally converted to HD broadcasts this season. It made everything look better and was much less depressing to watch.

And the one bummer: This year’s cast totally forgot they were playing a game.
As I noted above, I really liked this year’s contestants as “characters,” and I suspect they’re mostly nice folks in real life. But save for Derrick and maybe Frankie, this bunch had zero idea how to think more than five minutes into the future. Sure, they prattled on and on about “alliances” and “big moves,” but that’s all they did: talk. The trouble started almost from the beginning of the game, when makeup artist Joey Van Pelt tried to get her fellow females to band together in order to avoid being picked off later by the guys (something that happens far too often on the show). Naturally, the women turned on her immediately; she then made the mistake of “confessing” her sin to the guys. She was dumb to admit what she had done, but the other players were even dumber for turning on her (particularly since the dudes did, in fact, end up eliminating all but one female). Again and again, this year’s players seemed unable to think for themselves or hatch any plan to shake up the game. Virtually all of the evictions were unanimous votes, testament to how little anyone wanted to go against the supposed “house opinion.” Most recently, even Frankie — who actually seemed to have a strategic sense early on — declined to make an obvious move against one of his supposed alliance members because he didn’t want to be “disloyal.” He was voted out a week later, eliminated by the only person who actually played Big Brother this summer: Derrick.

CBS and Big Brother producers bear a big part of the blame for this year’s mediocre game play. Yes, casting a reality show is not an exact science; players who look good on paper can easily turn into duds on-camera. But as is almost always the case on Big Brother in recent years, the network and producers chose to fill the Big Brother house almost entirely with really young people who looked great and didn’t demonstrate much obvious intellectual firepower. Only 3 of this year’s 16 players were over 30; the oldest, Donny, was 42. As a summer-based escapist entertainment, it’s understandable that CBS wants Big Brother to be filled with lots of good-looking folks: Sex sells, duh. But the fact that the most popular player this season was also the oldest should demonstrate that viewers aren’t as ageist and look-ist as CBS thinks. (Also, where is it written that good-looking people can’t also be very smart and over 40?) It might also help if producers went after folks who aren’t self-described Big Brother gamers who’ve seen every episode. Yes, Frankie’s meta-mocking was cute, but unless producers want to completely blow up their format (unlikely), it could be much more interesting to watch contestants who’ve never seen the show figure out how to play the game.

As much as I can hope for a change in how Big Brother is cast, I’d actually be shocked if the formula is changed much next summer. Fact is, audiences seem to like the show exactly as it is. Viewership among viewers under 50 this summer is up 4 percent from 2013, with all three weekly editions ranking among the top ten shows of the summer in the demo. At a time when networks are struggling to hold on to viewers, Big Brother is a summer anchor for CBS, drawing loyal diehards like myself back into the fold year after year. It’s understandable why everyone involved in the show is wary of “fixing” something that its fan base clearly doesn’t think is broken. The good news is producers this season stepped up to make Big Brother a better show in a variety of other ways. And while the people who did get cast this season might not have been the best players ever, they also didn’t make me want to avert my eyes in disgust or shame every few minutes (as the inmates on Fox’s Utopia do). Given the stink that surrounds so much unscripted fare these days, this is no small accomplishment — and why I’ll be back when Big Brother 17 arrives about 275 days from now.

Why Big Brother Worked So Well This Season