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Backstabs, blindsides, backdoors, and betrayals. While quite a bit has changed over 25 seasons of CBS’s hit reality competition show “Big Brother,” every season has asked contestants one simple question: How far are you willing to go to win half a million dollars?
Like each of the reality competition shows that make up the CBS reality trifecta — “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” and “Big Brother” — “Big Brother” first graced U.S. television screens amid the early 2000s reality television boom. Initially borrowing the premise from the show’s Dutch counterpart, the first season was both a critical and commercial catastrophe. Yet after a miraculous renewal, the game was redesigned to take on the modern format still used today.
The premise of modern “Big Brother” is simple. A group of 12 to 18 contestants called “houseguests” are placed in a house entirely cut off from the outside world where they compete to win the $750,000 cash prize (increased from $500,000 in season 23). Each week one houseguest wins safety and the power to nominate two other houseguests for eviction by winning the coveted Head of Household competition. The remaining houseguests then vote between the two nominees and one houseguest is eliminated, or in Big Brother terminology, “evicted” each week.
The big catch? Houseguests are monitored at all times through a 24/7 live stream that viewers can tune into at any time.
While this format has remained the core of the show in the true spirit of the show’s motto — “expect the unexpected” — each season has brought a new set of themed twists and format alterations. From season 16 and 17’s fandom-dividing “Battle of the Block” twist to the season 12’s failed “Sabetaur,” no two seasons are the same, challenging houseguests to develop new strategies and approaches to the gameplay. Most notably season three saw the introduction of the Power of Veto competition, giving one houseguest each week safety along with the ability to remove one of the Head of Household’s nominees — which would become a fixture of the show’s weekly format in every subsequent season.
Yet even after finding commercial success, “Big Brother” has remained the ugly duckling of primetime reality competition shows. While “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” have racked up dozens of Emmy nominations, “Big Brother” has never been nominated. Instead the show has earned a reputation as the chaotic, over-the-top, and trashy outlier, reduced to nothing more than a guilty pleasure show.
It’s easy enough to understand how this divide emerged. While the producers behind “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” have months to carefully sift through hours of footage weaving together a coherent and satisfying season long storyline, the three-episode a week structure of “Big Brother” — which includes weekly eviction episodes aired live — means that producers must tell the story in real time as it plays out. Needing to fill three hours of content per week without a clear idea of where the season is headed, the show’s episodes are admittedly often bloated. Without fail, every season includes the setup for battles between players that never materialize, early favorites receive a winner’s edit only to be unexpectedly evicted pre-jury, and contestants set up to be strategic masterminds turn out to be strategic morons.
And while the messy storylines and bloated episodes might keep “Big Brother” from ever reaching critical acclaim, it's these very aspects that make “Big Brother” the addicting and enticing show that it is, attracting millions of fervent viewers season after season.
In the “Big Brother” house, houseguests are pushed to their limits, challenging their own character, integrity, and morality, often losing sight of the $750,000 grand prize in the process. It's all too common that a houseguest like season 11’s Ronnie Talbott or season 23’s Frenchie French tank their games by going on shortsighted power trips after winning Head of Household only to be promptly targeted the following week. On the other hand, houseguests like season 16’s Cody Calafiore have found themselves shackled by loyalty, unable to cut his closest ally in the season finale, and ensuring his own loss in the process.
Beyond the surface-level competition show genre, “Big Brother” is at its core an experiment, throwing contestants from all walks of life into a social and emotional pressure cooker. The stories that unfold in the Big Brother house are a fun-house mirror’s reflection of the ideas and concerns that are top of mind in any given day and age. With 25 seasons of the show to look back on, each serves as a time capsule capturing the structures, concerns, and progress occurring in the real world.
Beyond the internal battles of individual contestants, the show has also been forced to confront how its format perpetuates societal power structures. As early as season two, the show embraced conversations around topical political issues of the time as the show's first openly gay contestant, Bunky Miller, weighed the danger of revealing his sexuality to other houseguests for fear of being targeted as a result. As public opinion on gay marriage shifted over the last few decades, subsequent seasons saw numerous gay contentestants face less prejudice in the house though the show has continued to embrace conversations about LGBTQ+ identity in subsequent seasons. In season 15, Andy Herren became the first openly gay winner and in season 17 Audrey Middleton became the show’s first transgender houseguest.
“Big Brother” also has a long and controversial record regarding how it has handled racism within the house. The first major breaking point came with the post-eviction confrontation between the show’s host, Julie Chen Moonves, and season 15 contestant, Aaryn Gries over a string of racist remarks she made while in the Big Brother House. The controversy spurred a greater conversation around the role race played in the game that again came to a head during a powerful eviction speech from season 22 contestant Da’Vonne Rogers in which she called out the uphill battle Black contestants faced when playing against majority white casts. Just one month after the season 22 finale, CBS announced that future “Survivor” and “Big Brother” seasons would be required to have casts made up of 50 percent people of color. The following summer, Xavier Prather became the show’s first Black winner and in season 24 Taylor Hale became the first Black woman to claim the grand prize. Producers have also established strict guidelines regarding hate speech in the house, enforcing the new policies in the show’s current season by removing season 25 contestant Luke Valentine from the house after saying the N-word in conversation with another houseguest.
Gender disparities have similarly remained an area of concern for fans unhappy with perceived unfairness in the show's format. Despite each season featuring an equal number of male and female identifying contestants, only eight of the show’s 24 winners have been women. The disparity grows even worse when competition performance is considered, with female contestants routinely winning less than 35 percent of competitions in a given season, drawing criticism from viewers as competitions have grown increasingly physical. This disparity is no secret to contestants in the house. In an attempt to even the odds, seemingly every season includes a group of female houseguests attempting to form an “all-female alliance.” However, none of the attempts has ever meaningfully succeeded, and in fact any well-versed viewer will know that even attempting to form an all-female-alliance is a clear signal that the houseguest leading the effort will soon be evicted.
And while one of the many appeals of “Big Brother” is how it illuminates and challenges the power structures of the real world, viewers also watch knowing that on any given Thursday, these power structures can be entirely upended. Through feats of unexpected athleticism, social manipulation, or pure, dumb, luck a houseguest that appears destined to walk out the door can unexpectedly find themself in power. A seemingly rock-solid alliance can come crumbling down, opening new paths to victory for long shot contestants. Or a new twist can shake up the game and redirect a season's trajectory.
So while “Big Brother” will never have the clean-cut and carefully shaped narratives of its CBS counterparts, the show remains unparalleled in its ability to deliver raw, unfiltered, and novel insights into our ever-evolving society. With a house full of houseguests fans love, and better yet houseguests fans love to hate, the promise of the ever unpredictable “unexpected” brings fans back to their couches year after year, even after 25 seasons, eagerly watching it all unfold.
—Staff writer Jen A. Hughes can be reached at email@example.com. You can also find her on Twitter @Jenhughes_ .
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