Eavesdropping: Big Brother & Daytime Television

So today I was pondering my prolonged absence from the Aardvark and why it may have come about and then it hit me: Big Brother.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it consists of maybe 16 or so mid-twenty-somethings moving into a house next to a studio in LA (I presume it’s LA) for the summer. Each week, after a series of challenges determining who is and isn’t eligible to be kicked out of the house, the house votes and sends someone packing.

It’s like Survivor if, instead of being on some remote island, the contestants just lived in a house together and did nothing all day.

Big Brother mostly consists of conversations that involve scheming about who to vote out. Apparently CBS now offers a 24/7 feed where you can watch the contestants live in the house around the clock. I think it’s a free membership, and you’ve got the means to watch these strangers on a reality show eat, sleep, and hang out whenever you want. For the more casual viewers, like myself, the television show airs 3 nights a week for an hour—essentially a montage of highlights of the contestants living and scheming in the house together.

Full disclosure: the show is mind-numbingly stupid. It’s compiled with airheads—the kind of people who are just a bit full-of-themselves-enough to lure an audience into investing in a show that really offers very little substance. They’re people that likely desperately craved attention their entire lives, and this television show threw them the bone of a lifetime by accepting their application.

After the show they’ll amass Twitter followers, and likely serve as the C-list promo at a bunch of shitty clubs near their hometown.

But then again, I’m the one watching them, so who’s really winning? They’re competing for $500,000 on a television show that’ll launch some sort of PR career, however lame it may be. They’re interesting enough to be selected for a television show that entirely relies on its contestants being polarizing figures. Who’s to say if the person they play on the show aligns with who they are in real life? I wouldn’t know.

What perplexes me is that I watch this show that I will readily admit is wicked fucking dumb. Quite religiously. This will be my third summer in a row where I have tuned in to this filler of a show sandwiched between the Spring and Fall shows that rake in the big bucks for the networks. IMDB gives the show a failing grade because it sucks. And yet Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 8pm you can find me watching Big Brother. When I miss episodes, I’ll watch them sometime later in the week online.

I could be writing. Or living. But they’ve got me hooked. What I am trying to solve is why?

The most readily available answer is that at the end of the day it’s nice to mentally decompress with blue light that isn’t intellectually strenuous. My parents have engaged in similar tactics for years. Well, sort of. Just about every night, like clockwork, they tune into Days of Our Lives, a long-running soap opera which looks absolutely terrible, and then they proceed to watch the daytime judge shows (Judy, Mathis, Divorce Court) and when my mom goes to bed my dad tosses on Dr. Phil.

In high school, I’d walk through the family room to grab a snack and sometimes depart with a snide remark.

“How’s Victor [one of the characters whose name I’d hear often] doing?”

“That Phil, huh, y’know he really thinks outside of the box with his advice.”

I didn’t understand why they chose to dumb themselves down night after night. My dad would read the paper while watching the shows, half the time it’d be tabloidy papers like the Post or the Herald but he’d make his rounds to the credible journalism too, my mom would be on her phone or her laptop reading articles. They’re relatively informed people in my book.

As I’m writing this one of the Judge shows is blaring from the other room. They always have it on so loud. I think this is a new one called Hot Bench. It’s an all-star cast of a bunch of the judges that I’d hear from the other room growing up. They’re the voices that never go away, demons of my past, I can’t escape them. I close the door of the office to get away from the sound of Judgment to the Plaintiff in the amount of… but my dog hates closed doors so he barges into the room and the sound re-emerges.

So it mildly bothered me that they would watch the daytime crap that they taped. Why weren’t they reading novels, or watching the news, like I was? There were outlets that they could subject themselves to that were just unequivocally better. Outlets that would make them more informed. Their politics could align with mine, we could talk about a few of the classics together, if only they chose to refuse to sell their leisure time short with the incessant yelling or poorly written storylines on the television.

I developed the nerve to just flat-out ask my dad why he watched Dr. Phil. Verbatim: Dad why do you watch Dr. Phil? He laughed, and told me he wondered when I’d ask him that question. He told me he was interested in the human psyche. In my head I screamed: Yes! As am I! Read Dostoevsky! Watch The Wind that Shakes the Barley! Pick up the Times and not the Post at the convenience store! Having an interest in human psychology was a fair answer, I didn’t press him on it. I nodded and left the room.

It remains annoying to hear the shows blaring in the house, but I’d like to think I’ve grown less self-centered about it. People can watch whatever they want to watch, obviously.

I think what I feared was that part of the reason they watched the shows was that the people that go on them weren’t too bright. They still aren’t. Y’know, Phil and his producers will fly a family in from the heartland to LA with some outlandishly wacky backstory for the entire country to eavesdrop on if they so desire. Phil belittles the people, like Judy belittles the people, it’s all under the guise of advice or some stern lesson but part of the appeal for audiences is that they can pat themselves on the back and go well, I might have some problems, my family might have some problems, but thank God we’re not that fucked up.

I’m not raising heroin addicts. Or prostitutes. We’re not suing each other in court over a fucking car payment, we’d sort it out in-house, as families do.

Indeed, the people that go on the shows are dysfunctional, they’re more dysfunctional than you are. That’s the point. They’re almost always poor. Their lives are train wrecks. They’re willing to sell the tale of their train wreck for their 15 minutes. That’s depravity, personified. It can be seductive, reassuring, cathartic, to watch the clowns perform at the circus.

For the record, I don’t think my parents watch these shows to feel better about themselves. They’ve always had an interest in laws, courts, they’re the type of people that might just go to a courthouse to observe. They happily recount their jury duty stories. My dad likes stories, hearing them, telling them. And they have to be nonfictional. He doesn’t watch movies. Perhaps the sensationalism of Dr. Phil fills the void of a bit of sensationalism that he doesn’t get like the rest of us who watch movies. Documentaries, papers, they can admittedly get stale and dry.

Nonetheless, I can’t get on board with the shows they watch. I can’t get past the fact that the people on them are unsuspecting pawns and jesters, and that can never be entertainment for me. I don’t like the butt of a joke being teed up for me.

But I do watch Big Brother during the summer. I think the distinction is that the people brought on the show aren’t being brought in to be laughed at. They’re in on the joke with you. Yes, they want attention to a degree, but they’re not airing their dirty laundry on national television. Hell, they don’t even have to act like themselves at all. A guy who won the first season I ever watched played dumb all the way to the grand prize. That was his strategy.

When I watch Big Brother, I can go, Y’know what, it’d be fun to be on this show. If they wanted to take me on, I’d play the game. I’d kick it with so-and-so. That other dude’s such a damn backstabber though—I hope he gets found out!

I can’t say the same for the people in the court room or in Dr. Phil’s studio. Maybe they’re in on the joke, I don’t really know how it works, maybe they’re paid a sum they just can’t pass up. It all just feels a bit crude, like they’re being used, like how they’ve probably always been used.

But alas, I’ll tune into my show as my parents will tune into theirs to decompress from a day spent thinking. Bringing the mind down gently before we go to bed. And then we go again.

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