“Expect the unexpected” has been the Big Brother catchphrase since almost the very beginning, but the fact is there are certain aspects of the game that are staunchly predictable — and the show’s 21st season began with a two-night premiere event that swiftly addressed several of them. Following our introduction to the new summer camp-themed house, we met the 16 men and women who are this year’s competitors, and right away heard a confession that rang all too true: Cliff, a cheerful petroleum engineer from Houston, admitted his concern that his age might prove a liability — because of course, as is obvious from even cursory experience with Big Brother, players over 50 rarely survive the first eviction. “I’m not Steve,” he insisted, referring to the middle-aged undercover cop who was the first to go last season. Maybe, but it was sheer luck that got him through the first competition.
Soon after the houseguests were admitted to their quarters and started to hesitantly mingle, our host Julie Chen revealed the first twist of the season: one contestant would be elected to serve as “camp director” for the week, guaranteeing their safety but obliging them to nominate four of their peers for what’s been dubbed “banishment,” whereby they must compete for the chance to remain in the house. When Southern stud Jackson swept the vote, he quickly tried to talk David, a photographer from Atlanta, into volunteering as pawn — but as every Big Brother fan knows, and as David himself was as quick to point out, pawns go home. Forced to fumble blindly through the dark in a race for survival against three much less capable players, David lost his way, and, early into the second episode, was removed from the premises. See what I mean about predictable?
The strapping, charismatic Jackson, meanwhile, was about to prove another Big Brother axiom: It’s always better not to get blood on your hands. Coming out strong and winning comps early can be a dangerous strategy, as players who seem particularly fast, fit, or otherwise capable of influence make targets of themselves among those who fear serious competition; while Jackson may have an easier time than most seizing head of household or the power of veto, the collateral damage he’s already incurred as director has made him the house’s most conspicuous threat. Pawns go home, but so do comp beasts, and unless the alliance he’s established with Jack, Analyse, Isabella, Nick, and first-week head of house Christie is enough to protect him from the inevitable rancor of the three surviving players he targeted for banishment, he’ll be at serious risk of reprisal. Remember how short-lived Winston’s reign was last year.
For the time being, at least, Jackson is well-aligned with Simi Valley boutique owner Christie, who emerged victorious in the season’s first Head of Household competition, besting a lot of much brawnier-looking men and women in the process. What Jackson doesn’t know is that Christie has another covert ally outside of her six-person power alliance: Broadway dancer Tommy Bracco, who was apparently a relative of her ex-girlfriend. This is where the 21st season of Big Brother really does seem to be dealing with the unexpected. Why are people with shared (and fraught) history in the Big Brother house together in the first place? And maybe more importantly, are they the only ones? We know, so far, that Jackson and Ovi both went to the University of Tennessee — might they have something more in common than they realize? And what are we to make of the fact that a curious number of contestants hail from the same parts of California and New York?
It’s possible that the connection between Christie and Tommy was an oversight — the connection, after all, is pretty tenuous, and one can imagine two apparent strangers signing up for a reality-TV show only to realize upon arrival that they are affiliated in some obscure or distant way that the producers could hardly have sussed out. On the other hand, Big Brother’s longtime casting director, Robyn Kass, is one of the shrewdest and cleverest in the business, and a huge part of the show’s continued success is her canny knack for picking people. It would not surprise me if these threads were deliberately connected — nor if we learn they each have more in common than they’ve yet discovered or revealed to us on camera. This season might have a touch of Lost about it.
In any case, it’s an intriguing way to start, and I’m eager to see how Christie and Tommy develop their relationship (or keep it hidden). As we head into the weekend, we’ll learn about another new twist (the so-called “whack-tivity comp,” to be unveiled this Sunday) and the nominations for next Wednesday’s live eviction. This is very much early days, but based on what little we’ve seen of the cast thus far, let’s consider a tentative hierarchy. This is the Big Brother Power Ranking: Five players who’ve made moves good and bad. Some are poised for domination (perhaps). 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. It can still be the case, all things considered: Expect the unexpected.
The real-life Ken doll, as he was described early on by a swooning Analyse, is a classic Big Brother comp beast: ready, able, and willing to play to win, starting with a vigorous and ultimately successful campaign to procure the votes to become the house’s first camp director. Those qualities don’t always make for the most successful game, as early victories often put a target on the victor’s back — but while he may have established himself firmly as a threat, he’s also emerged as a frontrunner on the grounds of his strength and alliance-building. Even if others want to take him out, someone needs to be able to.
A plucky entrepreneur in her late 20s, Christie didn’t make much of an impression across the first two hours of the season, which in Big Brother terms is a massive compliment. The ability to play less conspicuously is the key to long-term survival, and if she can continue to exude an even temper and equanimity once she’s installed in the HOH room, she may parlay this power into more than a one-week reign. Secure in a seemingly stable alliance, and with an old friend in the house watching her back on the sly, she is ideally situated to make key moves through the end of the first week.
Like Christie, Tommy may greatly benefit from his proximity to power and having information the others do not; as Christie is in an alliance he’s outside of, and as he may wind up in an alliance of his own (he was brought in with the girls for the director vote without hesitation), he may be in a unique position to play multiple sides. He’s also in great shape physically and performed extremely well in the Head of Household comp — if he can temper his Broadway extravagance enough not to get on anyone’s nerves, he could go far.
It was obvious before he said anything about it: Jack looks a lot like Jason Momoa, and more specifically, Jason Momoa in Aquaman. It didn’t take long for the resemblance to seem more like a vain affectation, but whatever: the guy is charming, and he’s winning hearts and minds every minute he remains in the house. Add to this his self-evident physical strength (he is, as he himself boasted, the most jacked Jack in the game), his place in the newly formed six-person alliance, and the fact that his ally Christie is wielding power, and you have a good bet for big things, if not necessarily long-term success.
Unusually for a season of Big Brother, nobody did much across the course of the first two episodes that qualifies as actively dumb — but if one person came close, it was Kemi, who secured her spot in exile when she flatly refused to talk to Jackson when he was making his nominations. The stubborn attitude does not bode well for her game, and although she managed to evade eviction in the first comp, I suspect it won’t be long before she’s on the block and ill-advisedly expressing her disdain about it.
• “Camp BB” is a cute theme for a show that doesn’t usually bother with such extravagances. In this they seem to have taken a cue from Big Brother Canada, whose themes are always over-the-top. It’s nice to see them putting in the extra effort, and the team has done a fabulous job with the production design. The house actually feels like a new space for the first time in as long as I can remember.
• Holly Allen is a sommelier slash safari tour guide — by far the coolest person in the house, as Jack declares after she introduces herself as such. It remains to be seen whether these vocations will translate to success on the show.
• It took all of ten seconds for elementary school teacher Nicole to betray her first ally, Jessica, and backtrack on the plan to vote her in as director — she claims it was because she’d rather have Jessica angry with her than a big muscular man. This is not the display of integrity and fortitude one hopes of a Big Brother contestant.
• Likewise, it took all of ten seconds for every unmarried houseguest to express their taste in the diary room for various other houseguests. Any bets on probable season showmances? The smart money’s on Jack and Jackson hooking up with two of the women, though it’s hard to say for sure yet whether it’ll be Analyse, Holly, or maybe Isabella — there seemed to be interest in and from all of the above.
• David lost the first comp and was told he’d be leaving the Big Brother house “for now,” though we were never told what that “for now” quite entails. A battle-back competition? A chance to be exchanged for whomever is evicted next week?
• Welcome to Vulture’s Big Brother recaps! I’ll be recapping the show once a week, after each live eviction, covering all the stuff that went down that week.