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Celebrity Big Brother Recap: Fame Game

Celebrity Big Brother

Episode 1
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****

Celebrity Big Brother

Episode 1
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS

One of the most decisive moments of any season of Big Brother happens right at the beginning, when that year’s fated coterie of houseguests-to-be enters the close quarters where they will be sequestered for the next several months and meet for the first time their fellow competitors. First impressions mean a lot, and how these total strangers shake hands or make small talk can doom them to suspicion or worse straight away — even how people smile on the first night has been known to banish them to the block almost immediately. You don’t get to make a first impression, though, if you are thrown into game-show bedlam with a dozen men and women who are already famous. That is the intriguing wrinkle that distinguishes Celebrity Big Brother from the classic edition: these contestants may be blessed or damned by the preconceptions of their fame.

Or that’s the idea, anyway. In practice, Celebrity Big Brother tends to greatly exaggerate what constitutes the first word of its title, and who qualifies on those grounds range from the washed-up has-beens of television’s yesteryear to obscure public figures who were not at any point household names. The funniest moment of last night’s second-season premiere was when Dina Lohan — mother and manager of Lindsay, and not exactly a luminary in either field — confessed that she only chose Anthony Scaramucci as her HOH competition teammate because she couldn’t remember anybody else’s name. She’s not the only one. This is a sterling fraternity of that-guys and what’s-her-names, and it is surely telling that of the dozen leading lights assembled for this season, the goddamn Mooch is the most recognizable.

And so, in two waves of six, the 12 contestants enter the house with all the teeth-gritting faux-enthusiasm of those performing a gig beneath their dignity. There is an awkward minute in which Kato Kaelin is obliged to explain his role in the O.J. Simpson trial to a bunch of people who evidently weren’t alive in the ’90s, and another in which Ryan Lochte and Lolo Jones, in a lapse of discretion that in a traditional game of Big Brother would be disastrous, compare the medals they won as world-class Olympic athletes, a show of arrogance one hopes somebody rightly translates as “I am a threat.” Also among the notables are Ricky Williams, the disgraced NFL running back; Tamar Braxton, sister of Toni; and Joey Lawrence, former Blossom star, who seems to be the only person everyone in the house is at least passingly familiar with. Incredible, the career mileage you can get out of “whoa.”

Little transpires over the course of this fleeting introductory hour. We’ve met the players, and — though the ultimate victor of the first Head of Household competition remains to be determined for the time being — we have seen just enough of their game to get a sense of how they might fare. With that in mind, we offer a highly tentative attempt at describing a hierarchy of the house.

This is Vulture’s Official Celebrity Big Brother Power Ranking: five contestants who made moves good and bad. Some are poised for domination. Others seem condemned soon enough to the block. All are in thrall to the household forces of turbulence and caprice that make this a white-knuckle social experiment. As our beloved host Julie Chen is always reminding us, expect the unexpected.

Tom Green

The Canadian national treasure and creator of underappreciated absurdist masterpiece Freddy Got Fingered was by far the most entertaining houseguest of the evening, gently mocking Tamar Braxton for binge-eating a vine’s worth of grapes and mock-seriously wondering whether O.J. might be the next guest to arrive in front of a visibly anxious Kato Kaelin, much to the amusement of the rest of the house. Playing the clown can backfire if the shtick shades from funny to abrasive — and abrasive is basically Tom Green’s metier — but for the moment it feels less grating than ingratiating, and people seem to like having him around. In the HOH comp he acquitted himself admirably, and is proving to be a stronger physical competitor than you might expect of a man nearing 50. It’s to the benefit of the season as a whole that Green stays in the game a while, so here’s hoping the sentiment doesn’t sour.

Ryan Lochte

In terms of pure ability, it seems perfectly obvious that Ryan Lochte is far and away the most imposing player in the game right now, as he just demonstrated handily in the demanding “Drinks on Us” Head-of-Household competition. It seems equally obvious that Lochte is about to secure his first HOH title against former teammate Jonathan Bennett, and that ought to carry him through the week — though depending on his political inclinations, he may exit the role with enemies. Nobody wins Big Brother on the basis of brawn, and Lochte, by his own admission, doesn’t know anything about how Big Brother is actually meant to be played. His best hope moving forward is that none of these other celebrities have any idea either.

Jonathan Bennett

You will probably remember Jonathan Bennett as the dreamy Aaron Samuels, Lindsay Lohan’s longstanding math-class crush in Mean Girls. Apparently he also hosts some kind of cupcake-related game show or something, but unlike the rest of his pseudo-famous adversaries in the Big Brother house, Bennett is refreshingly comfortable with the meager breadth of his renown: he knows what little he’s known for, and he’s okay with it. (A contrast with Joey Lawrence, who introduces himself as “producer, musician, sometime filmmaker,” and refuses to utter his catchphrase.) Bennett is extremely charming, amiable, and above all enthusiastic about the game, and combined with his humility and sense of humor about himself, he has what it takes to move frictionlessly through the household and, if that holds out, to go far. The biggest risk now is whether a loss to Lochte will land him on the block before he has the chance to make friends.

Lolo Jones

Over the course of Celebrity Big Brother’s first hour, Olympian Lolo Jones said the only thing that remotely suggested honest-to-goodness strategy: She said in a diary=room cutaway that she only chose Tom Green as her partner in the comp because she didn’t want to win the first HOH and make herself a target. It’s not the most novel approach to week one — indeed, on regular Big Brother it’s a common tactic — but with few bona fide superfans in the celebrity bunch, even the faintest suggestion of a long-term game plan puts Jones way ahead of the rest of the roster. Then again, Jones seemed to abandon her own strategy the minute it became feasible for her and Green to win — just the sort of inane comp hubris that made an early-game target out of the similarly disposed Erica on Big Brother Canada last year. Take a knee.

Anthony Scaramucci

It’s the Mooch. He showed up, acted like a doofus, and fumbled his way through the HOH comp so ineffectively that he might barely survive because he poses so little threat to anyone. “I know what it takes to succeed in business”-types do not generally fare well on Big Brother, conflating the whims of the free market with the rather more mercurial vicissitudes of petty people. Add to this his distinctly of-the-moment notoriety and it seems all but guaranteed that he’ll be out of that house swiftly.

Housekeeping

• Is the theme of the house … the roaring ’20s? A few art deco flourishes from the production design team and a competition that riffed vaguely on Guys and Dolls seemed almost like a coherent motif, but if that’s what they’re going for, I have no idea why or to what end.

• Between Joey Lawrence’s refusal to say “whoa,” Tamar Braxton’s thinly veiled disdain at having to mention her sister Toni, and Scaramucci’s embarrassment at any reference to his time under Trump, it seems the one thing every contestant this season has in common is their reluctance to accept the real reasons for their fame.

• Tom Green saying the word “sandwiches” is Big Brother ASMR.

• This brewing Tamar-Kandi rivalry feels a little too manufactured, but at least they’re aware of the fraught situation and are intent to address it. Besides which, Tamar’s reactions to even benign news are completely over-the-top, so one can only imagine how she’ll handle an actual confrontation.

• Big Brother aficionados will recognize this week’s HOH competition as an exact replica of the first-ever Battle of the Block comp, “The Pouring ’20s,” from way back in season 16. To the credit of the struggling celebs, it didn’t seem any easier then, either.

Celebrity Big Brother Recap: Fame Game