Ever since its first airing in 2001, CBS’s long-running program Big Brother has maintained one of the most interesting premises in modern reality television. Centered around sixteen houseguests who all live under constant surveillance in the same household, the show tracks the behaviors and actions of its contestants and the relationships that result from high-pressure situations. In order to compete for its grand prize of $500,000, houseguests compete for the weekly power title and evict one peer until a winner is crowned by an outstanding jury of expelled players. Think the Stanford Prison Experiment meets Survivor.
The show is a social experiment within itself. It showcases the effect that power dynamics, depersonalization, sociability, and what the Hawthorne effect has on rational decision-making and performance. By modeling the show in this particular fashion, the house is rarely devoid of controversy, drama, and polarity. When sixteen people are trapped under the same roof, explosions are bound to happen. It’s inevitable.
For the past few seasons, the showrunners have made it a point to reintroduce veterans into the game to stir up the house and change the contestants’ gameplay. This season, they brought back Paul Abrahamian, the runner-up from last season whose shrewd tactics and sociability took him to the end of the game (he, ironically, lost to a veteran contestant). In his original season, he was a loud and abrasive personality that branded the catchphrase “Friendship! ” to play up his affability. He wasn’t necessarily a fan-favorite.
In order to exploit their own Expect the unexpected… trademark, the announcement of the first twist of the season arrived when Paul showed up at the front-door and revealed that he was going to be joining the house as a contestant. The house went wild. Viewers collectively groaned.
Paul is high up on the directory of the most irritating Big Brother contestants of all time, a list that boasts the likes of Aaryn Gries, the violently racist blonde from season 15, and Jeff Weldon, the misogynist pig from season 17 who masturbated under the covers while an unsuspecting Julia was sleeping next to him. But here’s the peculiar thing: unlike America’s Most Hated contestants, his unpopularity does not necessarily stem from morality issues (aside from the fact that his planned blackface stunt solidified his maliciousness). It’s chiefly attributed to his ego. As a veteran contestant, his gameplay is so absurdly self-inflated that the house has begun to treat him like God. He completely runs the house and has warped the contestants to take his word like it’s gospel, parading around the house like a clown and dirtying his hands in every eviction cycle (the only shining beacon of hope against this was the tiny glimmer of resistance that Christmas interposed during Josh’s HOH week, but it faded once Paul convinced her to vote in his favor). His name is synonymous with power and the producers of the show (who continue to edit segments in his favor; Friday night’s episode was the first time he has been given a villainous edit throughout the entire season) continue to fuel his ego. He has single-handedly transformed the house into one of the most boring Big Brother seasons in recent history.
The recent eviction of Cody and Jessica, two romantically-involved contestants that represented the Other Side of the house—that is, the side that refused to work with Paul and follow his word—marked a shift in the season. There was no longer a force of resistance that kept the house remotely interesting. The personalities left in the house are all similarly aligned in the soul-sucking World of Paul. We’re not even halfway through the season.
Besides his obvious sanctimoniousness, it’s not Paul’s fault that the contestants refuse to view him as a target. The question is why exactly the contestants view him this way. Are they intimidated by him (or intimidated to work in opposition)? Is a feeling of inherent inferiority crippling the confidence they have in their gameplay (therefore influencing them to use Paul’s confident strategies as a crutch)? Does the abstract idea of a veteran player create some sort of unspoken power dynamic? Why aren’t they realizing that he is an obvious threat?
Introducing veteran players into the season isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When four notorious veterans were reintroduced into the house as “coaches” (that eventually became competing contestants themselves) in season 14, it provided a much-needed revival to the traditional gameplay. It worked. It created a necessary division between new contestants and the veterans; once the “coaches” were integrated into the season as actual game-players, they weren’t viewed as villains, but as equals (and, similarly, the “coaches” never viewed the original contestants as inferior).
The more recent seasons that used the integration of veteran houseguests as a method of distorting conventional gameplay have also used them effectively. In season 14, one-half of the final duo was a veteran contestant. Last season, a veteran from season 16 was crowned the winning title. If it worked so well in the past, what the hell happened this year?
The unsurprising failure of this veteran twist is partially—if, not wholly—attributed to predictability. Big Brother has a problem with reusing the same unexciting twists until they have become completely exhausted of their appeal. If the Battle Back, Twin Twist, and returning houseguest competitions have all served their purpose, why are they being used again? If the showrunners want to continue using the veteran twist, they should think about choosing an unvanilla player that America actually empathizes with.
This season has seemed to synchronize itself with the show’s overpowering pattern of expectedness. Every eviction follows the same cyclical pattern: one of the same five houseguests wins Head of Household, immediately reports to Paul, heeds his advice and severs ties to any houseguest that disagrees with Paul’s plan, watches the House erupt into a heated argument regarding any opposition to that plan, encourages Josh to make that stupid ruckus with the pots and pans, shames anyone unwilling to conform, listens to Paul condescend to any houseguests he deems inferior to him, lets Paul sleep in their HOH room, executes a backdoor plan under the guidance of Paul (how original!), and rests their case. If America has to watch another backdoor plan unfold on eviction night, the nation will erupt into anarchy.
Nothing is unexpected anymore. What happened to gameplay that involved complex strategies? What happened to resistance? Or impulsive house-shifting decisions (the house targeted Cody after he betrayed his alliance and nominated Christmas, but it was one of the only purely shocking and interesting maneuvers of the season)? Or lethally secretive alliances? What happened to PLAYING YOUR OWN GAME?
Dan Gheesling did not host his own funeral for competitions to be thrown in Paul’s favor.
It’s going to be a difficult task for Big Brother to rid its current season of its dullness. There’s one direct way—to wait until the players slowly realize the threat that Paul poses on their future in the game (something that already seems to be occurring at the rate of a tortoise inching its way across a five mile stretch). This is going to take a major shift in the house’s central power to actually happen at a rapid pace; now that Jessica and Cody have been evicted, this may never happen (the combined emotional intelligence of the house isn’t necessarily high).
The showrunners can slowly start to revive the show’s intended glory from the outside by ceasing rigged production that favors Paul and his authoritative God-complex. The show is going to consistently lose viewers and ratings if the rest of the season continues to unfold in the same fashion.
If we can predict the trajectory of each eviction cycle, then what’s the point in watching?