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Big Brother? Big Deal!

By Belinda Acosta

JULY 17, 2000: 

"When I can't see myself, I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist." -- Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

By now, you've heard of or seen the newest thing to tantalize television viewers, get under the skin of many a talking head, and become the topic of miles of ink and paper. The newest ingredient into the reality-voyeur-pop-culture soup, Big Brother is here. I know I write about television and this is the hottest topic (until the next one comes along), but this is my limit, my threshold, the most I can take. The last time I felt this way about a "phenom" was when The Jerry Springer Show first made its slide from mind-numbing talk show to mind-numbing trash talk show.

But back to Big Brother. In case you haven't heard, the show involves 10 people in a specially constructed house armed with cameras to capture every movement of the prisoners, er, contestants. They have no contact with the outside world -- no television, phone, Internet, current newspapers, or magazines. Nada. They must grow their own vegetables (a garden is out back), tend the egg-producing chickens in the adjacent coop, and live like a bunch of kids at summer camp, with one bathroom for all 10 of them and a shower that only provides hot water two hours a day. Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre's hell, there is a way out. A door offers an exit to the outside world. But once out, there's no return, and the 15 minutes of fame, alas, begin to fade.

Did I mention the cameras? They're all over the place, even over the commode and shower and behind two-way mirrors that line the walls. There's one "confessional" space, a room painted bloodshot red with a big comfy chair where the residents can enter and spill their guts -- to a camera -- in "privacy." Observers can see what's going on in the Big Brother house 24 hours day if they have Internet access (www.bigbrother2000.com). If not, they'll have to tune in the old-fashioned way -- by turning on the TV.

I watched the entire premiere episode last Wednesday. It lasted longer than high school. I willed myself to sit through the second episode, the first of the half-hour installments that run five nights a week throughout the summer until Sept. 1. That's when the last one standing dashes away with the $500,000 prize money. Which brings up a big question: How much therapy does a half-million buy? I wonder, because I would need many trips to the couch to find out why I thought being on Big Brother was a good idea and how long will it take to get my karma back in sync.

Other observers have remarked on the interplay of voyeurism and exhibitionism in this newest development in TV entertainment, not to mention what lengths people will go to for a little prize money. What strikes me about Big Brother is how incredibly boring it is, as well as the sense of emptiness that seems to lurk around the cheesy theme music and the breathless commentary that ushers in the mundane images of people brushing their teeth, making their beds, eating a berry, or trying to make conversation. There's a sense of loneliness, too. After all, doesn't loneliness fuel voyeurism and exhibitionism alike? Who would want to tune in to these 10 people day after day unless there was hope, a notion that perhaps one or more would become a favorite -- someone to consider the best, the smartest, the cutest, the most able? An invisible friend incarnated, the invisibility maintained by the barrier of the television screen. In the case of the contestants, the invisible friends are the unseen faces they talk to when peering into the confessional camera, or those they know must be watching them as they fall into their routines in the Big Brother house.

Or not.

I don't know the appeal of being a contestant on or an observer of Big Brother any more than I understand why flagpole sitting, marathon dances, stuffing bodies into a VW Bug or a telephone booth, streaking, or any other fad of an era took off. All I know is that I wouldn't do it.

In Sartre's play No Exit, three people find themselves in a predicament similar to that of the contestants in Big Brother. There are some big differences, of course. The characters in Sartre's play are dead, they can't leave the room they find themselves in, and there isn't a two-way mirror in sight. While the characters wait for the fire and brimstone of hell, it dawns on them at the end of the play that, in reality, "Hell is other people." From my standpoint, living in the Big Brother house epitomizes the hell Sartre wrote about. However, are the other people the residents of the house or the unseen people watching on the Internet or from their couches?

Freaks and Geeks Lives!

The former NBC dramedy that fans rallied behind, critics adored, and the peacock network plucked from its season finds a new home on the Fox Family Channel, according to a Reuters news service article published July 9. The announcement was made at the semiannual Television Critics Association Tour. The FFC deal includes multiyear rerun rights, which includes the remaining three episodes not aired. (Three of the final six episodes aired on NBC in a special F&G marathon on July 8).

Hope of the FFC producing new episodes of the series is slim. The cost of producing the show is prohibitive to the network. In addition, many of the cast members have taken other work; most notably, former freak James Franco was recently cast as James Dean in a biopic of the star.

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