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THE NATION / CULTURE

'Big Brother' Perfectly Captures America's Psyche

October 01, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — According to the sages of television, the big hit this summer was "Survivor," while the big disappointment was "Big Brother," which sputtered to its conclusion last Friday with none of the fanfare that accompanied the blockbuster "Survivor" finale.

Reaping huge ratings, "Survivor" was part game show, part outdoor adventure, part soap opera and part confessional with a cast of intriguing characters, including one bona-fide villain, the Machiavellian Richard Hatch, who became the J.R. Ewing of reality programming. "Big Brother," on the other hand, was essentially a human ant farm: routine where "Survivor" was dramatic, enervated where "Survivor" was energized. More than one wag compared watching it to watching paint dry.

But sometimes you can watch paint dry and wind up seeing a mural. No one in his right mind would claim that "Big Brother," which locked 10 strangers in a house rigged with 28 cameras to record their every move, was high art or even low entertainment, but for those who watched enough episodes it may have been the most revelatory program on television in years, and the one that cut closest to the grain of contemporary America. If "Survivor" was pure TV hokum, full of bombast, "Big Brother" was Proustian, inching along day by day, exposing character through gesture, inflection, glance and in the process exposing a great deal about who Americans are and what they value. As it turned out, it wasn't pretty.

One doubts that CBS had any of this in mind when it embarked on the project. In taking a program that had been a huge hit in Holland, where it originated, and in Germany, the network was no doubt hoping for the same sort of sexual frisson that had ignited the shows there and for the same sort of scheming, while the housemates vied for the $500,000 prize that would go to the person who managed not to get voted out of the domicile by the show's viewers. But these American contestants turned out to be much more circumspect than their European counterparts when it came to romance and much more conflicted about the competition for the money. Instead of sex and greed, "Big Brother" inadvertently provided a reified dialectic of one of the basic tensions in American life--community versus individuality--and showed viewers an ongoing struggle of people attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Americans have long prided themselves on their independence, a trait said to be shaped in part by the rigors of the frontier. It is one of the reasons we disdain the social-welfare mechanisms that every other industrialized country has. We don't need help. Our heroes are lonely men, silhouetted against the sky, single-handedly challenging an array of forces. At the same time, Americans think of themselves as part of a larger enterprise: in the 19th century, nation-building; in the 20th century, community building. The country stands poised between these images of the solitary man and the solidarity of the group. Even today our politicians claim to stand bravely against large, impersonal forces while their rhetoric invokes the buzzword of the day: community.

On "Survivor," which created an ersatz community of "tribes" only to deconstruct it gradually, this tension never really surfaced meaningfully because the community only existed to further each individual's own plan. You formed alliances to eliminate rivals. "Big Brother," at once less sophisticated and more honest than "Survivor," created a more durable and recognizable form of community even though it, too, was artificially constructed. The housemates lived together, slept together, cooked together, ate together and, above all, killed time (lots and lots and lots of it) together and formed not only alliances with one another but eventually relationships--in part a function of the difference between spending a little over a month with one's companions on "Survivor" as opposed to three months on "Big Brother." When, in accord with the rules of the game, each contestant had to nominate two housemates for "banishment" every two weeks, there was often pain and tortured justification rather than the bloodless gamesmanship that usually prevailed on "Survivor."

What was remarkable about "Big Brother" is how little the game seemed to matter in the face of social bonding. In the beginning, the participants worked at forging community, and, in the American pioneering spirit, they sought to banish those who threatened their social order. The first two inhabitants expelled were an African American provocateur who baited his fellow housemates into arguments and a narcissistic "exotic" dancer who, like a Jezebel in an old Western, flirted with the boys in the house and had to be jettisoned to keep the peace. The third was a brittle, chain-smoking housewife who announced that she was going to divorce her husband. That left CBS with seven more or less ordinary folk, all of them duller and much more obvious than the compelling connivers on "Survivor."

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