For the new generation of Big Brother Canada hopefuls, the real world begins when the cameras switch on.
Twenty years after MTV’s The Real World introduced us to reality television as we know it, you can find a version of the format to suit any sensibility: You’ve got Survivor-style physical endurance shows, you can DIY along with handymen like Mike Holmes, you can follow your favourite celebs on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or you can shudder at the nadir of humanity on Hoarders, Toddlers and Tiaras, or pretty much every show on TLC.
But Big Brother—a reality-competition progam on which a group of strangers are confined to a house with shitty food and no TV or internet—is the purest form of reality TV. It may not be the zaniest (hello, The Surreal Life) or the most fun to mock (The Bachelor, if you please), but its conceit has a brilliant simplicity and an internal logic that takes our addiction to the fish-bowl worlds we peer into week after week and reflects it right back at us.
The only skill you need to be successful on the show is an ability to manipulate people. Because the “houseguests” vote each other off, your survival depends on alliances. You have to be careful whose back you stab: When it’s down to the final two, a jury of former houseguests votes for the winner, who takes home a cash prize.
A show like Survivor, on which players also vote each other off, aims to disorient its contestants by putting them in an unfamiliar place and testing their endurance to the point of misery. While Survivor breaks its players with overstimulation, BB breaks the houseguests by removing stimulation: They’re left to fester in a house that gives off the illusion of domestic comfort. It’s like The Real World, only it actually matters if you’re a dick to your housemates. Unless, of course, that’s your strategy.
On Sunday morning, I went to the Big Brother Canada auditions to speak to Mike “Boogie” Malin, who made his first appearance on the show’s second season in 2001, and was open about the fact that as an actor in L.A., he originally tried out for the show to get some exposure. He went on to win the all-star season in 2006, and entered the house again as a “mentor” on the most recent season. By all accounts, Malin would seem to have a Big Brother addiction—one that’s not easy to shake. “It’s very hard to re-enter the real world,” he said. “You’re used to having a microphone on and having cameras watching, and when the cameras go away…you’re kind of like, Wow, no one really cares anymore.”
I got the impression that most of the people auditioning for the Canadian edition were trying to avoid the boring, no-cameras-or-microphones kind of life Malin described. The mostly twentysomethings lined up at the Fairmont Royal York looked surprisingly normal for reality-show hopefuls. Energetic representatives in Big Brother Canada t-shirts went around telling the contenders, “Be yourself!”
Being a houseguest on BB is probably the closest you can get to “being yourself” on a reality show. While most heavily edit conversations (I’m looking at you, The Hills), Big Brother shows events unfolding more or less as they are, with a completely live season finale. And if you doubt the editors’ judgment, you can watch a 24/7 live feed of the show online, for a small fee.
Despite Big Brother’s Orwellian title, to many people, constant surveillance seems to be more comforting than being left alone. Almost everyone I spoke to at the audition was a fan of BB; they wanted to go on the show to “be as popular as Mike Boogie,” as one man told me. “My life is so dull and boring,” said another. “I just go to work and come home.” One woman was hoping her real-world job as a therapist would help her decide which houseguests to trust; two girls from Ridgeway, Ontario, wanted…well, to get out of Ridgeway, Ontario.
Usually we play a game with ourselves when we watch reality shows—to borrow a line from The Hunger Games’ Peeta Mellark, real or not real? Is this contestant a ditz, or just playing one? Is this guy’s assholery part of his strategy, or is he just an asshole? On Big Brother, the contestants themselves take part in this dilemma, one that is usually reserved for reality-TV viewers.
“You can’t really make a living doing this,” one young man lamented, but if Mike Boogie is any indication, that’s not necessarily true anymore. The winner of Big Brother 14 was a 21-year-old mega-fan who’d watched the show since he was a kid. For a new generation of reality-show super-fans, the real world begins when the cameras switch on.
Big Brother Canada is scheduled to air on Slice in winter 2013. slice.ca.