Big Brother: The est Session From Hell

Have you ever noticed that Survivor is the anti-Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? In both of them contestants compete for $1 million, but compared with Survivor, Millionaire is so nice it’s vaguely painful. You’re glad the questions are softballs, and that the knowledge they require is so arbitrary. That way you won’t have to watch contestants being humiliated by displays of ignorance of things they know should matter, the way people sometimes are on, say, Jeopardy. But you have to cringe when Regis Philbin asks in his avuncular way whether a common three-pronged utensil is a) “a spoon,” b) “a cup,” c) “a penknife” or d) “a fork.” And then the contestant calls a lifeline or polls the audience or takes a fifty-fifty chance! And gets away with it! It’s like one of those touchy-feely summer camps where you’re not allowed to get competitive at volleyball! It’s like whole language in which you’re not required to spell, or whole math in which you don’t have to add! The show practically demands a backlash!

That’s what Survivor provides: a firm corrective for the view that the world is a self-esteem-enhancing place where people can win fame and fortune just for having mastered the trivial details of everyday pop culture. What’s great about Survivor is that its punitive life lesson is delivered not through the boot camp experience, exactly, but through something that’s like a snapshot of a network executive’s mind. Survivor is the nightmare version of the Club Med corporate retreat, complete with theme-park falseness, crass social engineering, mini-war games, excessive body-consciousness, bad food, and breakout sessions (I mean the tribes, of course). The only real difference between Survivor and your average off-site managerial bonding experience is that on Survivor the office gossip is solicited and recorded on tape.

So if Millionaire is a portrait of the Oprah-style nanny state and Survivor a view of testosterone-poisoned corporate culture, then what is Big Brother? (CBS’s latest adventure in real-time misery airs Wednesday, July 5, at 9 p.m. Eastern time–right after Survivor.) By any meanness metric, Big Brother is competitive. For a prize that’s only half of what you get on the other two shows–$500,000–five men and five women are to be locked in an 1,800-square-foot house for three months, along with 28 cameras, 60 microphones, a vegetable garden they must tend if they want fresh vegetables, and a food allowance of a paltry $5 a day per person. They will have no contact with the outside world, nor will they be permitted telephones, televisions, computers, fax machines, radios, CD players, VCRs, personal digital assistants, Gameboys, newspapers, microwaves, mixers, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, alarm clocks, or pen and paper. Though there will be only 14 live shows, the video and audio feeds will be available for viewing on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once a week, the group will select two members for expulsion; the audience, voting by telephone, will narrow the choice to one.

But wait! Culturebox forgot to mention the most fascinating part of Big Brother: The Red Room. This is essentially a psychiatrist’s office in the middle of the house. According to the CBS press release, “this room has a table and a comfortable chair. It is an inviting room in which the house guests are expected to share their BIG BROTHER experiences”–with, one must note, Big Brother himself. (Herself, actually: The voice will often be that of CBS News anchor Julie Chen.) The release adds, ominously,

This is an important part of the program and therefore compulsory [italics added] for all occupants. … Occupants will enter the Red Room for the following:
  • To announce their nominations [for expulsions]
  • To express their desire for a voluntary exit
  • Emergencies
  • To have a “heart to heart” chat with BIG BROTHER
  • To come in for a talk at the request of BIG BROTHER.

Here we get to the heart of it, as it were (which is surely the pun behind Red Room). In a sense, the Red Room merely bows to the need to keep the show interesting. On Millionaire, contestants have to explain the thinking that informs their choices. Survivor, too, would quickly pall if the producers didn’t get the contestants to complain about their fellow tribe members on camera. But still, the Red Room takes the nastiness to a whole new level. The point of Survivor is to get contestants to betray each other. The point of Big Brother is to get contestants to betray themselves

Big Brother, in other words, is the encounter group from hell. (An ironic note here is that the encounter group is really just the 1970s version of the company retreat, contemporary management theory being in many ways the product of est, Gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, the Esalen Institute, etc.) Remember how avuncular Werner Erhard was, even while he prevented people attending his est sessions from leaving the room to pee? That’s Big Brother all over: the gentle voice and tender concern of Regis Philbin masking the cruelty of Survivor­, all blended together in a mass mind-fuck the likes of which Americans have not yet seen. Is it a harbinger of things to come? Who knows? But Culturebox is certainly looking forward to it.