On Sunday's episode of “Big Brother,” the show's first transgender houseguest Audrey hit a major snag in her game. Fellow houseguests discovered that she was manipulating them, and those jilted gamers confronted her like an angry mob in front of the White House. It was astonishing, yet a completely typical day in the life of CBS' most perverse reality show.
You have to wonder what makes this game of organized pettiness so fun. Better yet, you have to wonder what kind of viewership keeps the show's ratings at a consistent high. The fact is that “Big Brother” fans are completely distinct from other reality show fans, and they know it. Here's why.
1. “Big Brother” fans don't convince newcomers to watch. They're content being with their own kind.
“Big Brother” fans are like soap opera devotees: They're a lone klatch who gossip among themselves about their obsession. “Big Brother” fans know most outsiders are too proud of their own tastes to join them, and they're fine with that. This is not “Breaking Bad' or “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones,” shows where fans race to Facebook to write “Wow” and wait for random friends to comment, “I know!!!!” in response. “Big Brother” is a private fixation and discussion for those who can handle its unpretentious addictiveness.
2. They know Julie Chen deserves more credit.
Julie Chen is a magical force on “Big Brother.” As host, she brings newswoman austerity, a sly sense of fun, and critical moments of sympathy during elimination interviews. She's delighted to shake up the house with game-changing updates and clearly relishes presenting the day's drama to us like an embedded war correspondent. She gets the silliness of the gameplay and the seriousness of the game. I can't imagine the show without her.
3. They're aware that the live feeds can suck up your life.
The 24-hour live footage of the houseguests at CBS.com can be sometimes dull or ho-hum, but honestly? It usually isn't. “Big Brother” throws its contestants into a sustained state of paranoia and fear, so even their banal conversations teem with suspicion. Although it was fun watching Audrey's overzealous machinations blow up in her face this week, watching it unfold on the live feeds as Da'Vonne, Vanessa, and
4. All reality TV is manipulated. “Big Brother” fans know that and love it.
“Big Brother” makes a spectacle of its manipulated gameplay. Sometimes Julie Chen will kick off a week of programming by announcing that, randomly, some eliminated houseguest will get to play again. It's not always fair, and it doesn't always make sense. W-h-a-t-e-v-e-r. Because the mantra of “Big Brother” is “Expect the Unexpected,” the lunacy of the game's twists and turns doesn't detract from the gossipy drama. It enhances it. While more slickly manipulative shows like “The Bachelor” expect you to ignore the Machiavellian producer antics at play (which is pretty hard in the wake of “UnREAL”), “Big Brother” invites us to enjoy those antics as part of the show's carnivalesque experience.
5. “Big Brother” fans love making heroes of the wicked.
Do “Big Brother” fans want to hang out with Rachel Reilly, who whined her way to victory on the show's thirteenth season? Probably not. Do they want to be buddies with Dan Gheesling, who weaseled his way to a win on the tenth season and a runner-up spot on the fourteenth? Uh, no. He is scarily good at “Big Brother” and films himself playing video games for a living. In fact, with the possible exception of Britney Haynes (who hasn't won a season yet) and Daniele Donato (the daughter of the grimly embarrassing Evel Dick Donato, who won season eight), I can't think of any truly human-seeming “heroes” from recent years of “Big Brother.” We've had likable winners such as Ian Terry, but “Big Brother” fans tend to exalt the grotesque. I can't think of another reality series where fans readily support (ironically or not) such successful sickos. It's a good time.
6. The thrill of “Big Brother” is that home viewers are essential to the show's fun.
Is “Big Brother” ever really “good”? Or “bad”? I would argue it's neither. While sometimes a backdoor elimination or a hotly contested veto challenge can be entertaining, the draw of the show is that houseguests present themselves one way to each other and another way to us, the viewers, in the diary room. In this way, home viewers are an essential cast member of the show. Fans show up not just to watch, but to act as desperately needed confidants. Unlike on “Survivor,” contestants seem exhilarated to speak with us. That's addicting. Houseguests are often superfans, and thus they speak to the superfans at home like longtime pals.
7. The biggest secret among “Big Brother” fans: They have deep respect for how hard it is to win.
In order to win “Big Brother,” you have to be athletic, but not too athletic. You have to be smooth, not slimy. You have to be aggressive and meek and reverent and opinionated and quiet and a silent detective. You have to seem sympathetic while internally playing the role of Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate.” In short: You have to have whatever it takes to win “Survivor” plus the general coolness to accept that casual TV viewers call the show trash. “Big Brother” is a conversion camp for people who want to be Sims, and if that makes everyone in the house seem subhuman, “Big Brother” fans are fine with that assessment. “Survivor” invites contestants to feel heroic as they survive a battle with the elements with some added psychological warfare; “Big Brother” asks wannabe sociopaths to survive an endless party. Frankly, the latter might be more impressive. “Big Brother” fans are the only ones who seem to get that.