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Big Brother Doesn't Belong on Fall TV

CBS needed a long Big Brother season to shore up its strike schedule, but that led to a very frustrating second half of BB25.
  • Cirie Fields on Big Brother (Photo: CBS)
    Cirie Fields on Big Brother (Photo: CBS)

    The two-hour Big Brother finale caps a season that kicked off way back on August 2. One hundred days and 41 episodes ago, in fact. On Thursday night, the season comes to a close and Julie Chen Moonves (bobbed hair or none) will crown a winner from among the final three players. The final three include Olympic swimmer Matt Klotz, truck company owner Jag Bains, and Australian DJ/barrister Bowie Jane Ball. A hundred days ago, this would have been a fascinating and widely embraced outcome for the season — early on, Matt was seen as the wildly attractive swimmer, who is Big Brother's first deaf contestant; Jag, likable and friendly, and the first Sikh to compete on the show; and Bowie Jane, whose early aloofness blossomed into an exquisitely dadaist ineffectiveness that has turned her into a kind of mascot for viewers who want chaos to reign. Even if that wasn't your ideal final three at the outset, there was a lot of promise in these players.

    One hundred days later, Big Brother 25 is dragging itself across the finish line with a final three devoid of much intrigue and not nearly as lovable as they initially seemed. There is always a degree of attrition to Big Brother. With three TV episodes per week plus 24/7 live feeds that are easier than ever to keep up with thanks to YouTube recaps, we have so much more access to these players than before, and that much access to people who are locked in a house within a pressure-cooker environment is not the recipe for the heart to grow fonder over time. There are other factors making the endgame feel especially draggy, not least of which is the fact that the season's most beloved players and most prominent villains were all voted out mid-game. But this season of Big Brother is as much a victim of circumstance than anything else — this is not a show that is meant to exist outside of summer.

    Big Brother is only airing its finale in November because the AMPTP chose to sacrifice their fall schedules in order to avoid giving their writers and performers a fair deal. (The WGA strike officially ended on September 27; SAG-AFTRA is still negotiating with the studios.) CBS needed some workarounds to fill out its fall lineup, and so in addition to importing Yellowstone reruns from the Paramount Channel and the original Ghosts from the UK, the network expanded its longstanding reality TV offerings. Survivor and The Amazing Race were given 90-minute time slots, and Big Brother's season premiere was pushed back a month so that an extended season could run through most of the fall. On paper, this was cause for Big Brother fans to celebrate. They'd be getting more show, for one thing; and the rest of the TV audience might finally have to reckon with Big Brother as one of CBS's most indispensable shows.

    In practice, this hybrid summer/fall season has only reinforced the notion that Big Brother is a summer show. That doesn't seem like it should matter anymore at a time when the networks program TV year-round. But Big Brother's unique format and decidedly unserious presentation were perfectly designed to be consumed during the summer. It's perhaps an overly vibes-y way to look at TV, but Big Brother has always felt like a vacation from more serious programming (or even more respected reality TV). There's some lingering impulse from our adolescence that doesn't feel guilty whiling away the hours following the reality show antics of a bunch of people who dress up in silly unitards and try to vote each other off of a soundstage in Studio City as long as it's still summer. Once we get past Labor Day, that feels like an indulgence, like we're wasting time on a school night. Three nights a week to build up to Bowie Jane not making a big move while Jag is dressed in a chicken suit and Felicia sleeps all day? Even during a strike, there are better ways to spend our TV time.

    There are also structural reasons why the last month and a half of Big Brother have been a slog. 100 days and 42 episodes is just too much. This is the longest Big Brother season ever, in terms of scheduling (seasons 18, 20, and 21 all lasted 99 days, though all were over by the end of September), and it's the most episodes since Season 1, which infamously aired five nights a week. The length of the season gets especially frustrating when the show is as formulaic as Big Brother currently is. Year after year, it's the same competitions, same variations on the wall-hanger competition, the OTEV competition, the numerous humiliation unitards. Even the double-elimination nights are par for the course.

    Airing in the fall also means that Big Brother has had to stack up to Survivor, a show that is better produced and more impressive to look at on almost every level. When the CBS promos hit and the new Big Brother promises the latest twist from the "Scary-verse" while the Survivor promo is some grueling clip from an immunity competition, the difference is stark. The comparison has been particularly unkind this year, with Survivor enjoying a particularly fun and exciting season while Big Brother limps to the finish line.

    Big Brother’s fall placement also meant getting bumped around the schedule to make room for shows like Survivor, Yellowstone, and NFL football. This led to such fan-enraging moments as an episode that didn't begin until 10:30 PM ET one Sunday night.

    In terms of non-structural reasons why Big Brother 25 is going out with a whimper, the game just shook out in a particularly unhelpful way. The season heavily featured Survivor great Cirie Fields and the dorky blossoming romance between houseguests Cory Wurtenberger and America Lopez, but all three were eliminated before the final four.

    Cirie's experience on the show was particularly indicative of the arc of the season as a whole. She's been known as a master strategist on Survivor (and on The Traitors, which she recently won), but the shaggy nature of the Big Brother game caused her strategy to go haywire at times. With one very long week from one elimination to the next (rather than a zippy three days on Survivor), it was hard to hold onto one plan, so strategies keps flip-flopping, often multiple times in a day.

    Her strategy seemed erratic at times as she tried to corral allies, like the hot-headed Izzy Gleicher and her own son, Jared. Once Izzy and Jared were voted out, Cirie seemed to throw in the towel for a while, undone by the interminable number of days she'd spent inside the house. She got her revenge on Cory, but that was about all that Cirie had left in her. After she was voted out, she told Julie that Big Brother was harder than any of her Survivor campaigns, but she likely meant she hated the experience of it more.

    Big Brother 25 was a battle of attrition for its contestants, certainly, but also for the fans. The leisurely delights of summer aren't meant to hold up to the crisp productivity of the fall. That said, the exception that proves this rule may be on the way, as Julie teased a "holiday surprise," which many think will be another Celebrity Big Brother season. CBB has traditionally been a short season that's aired either as Olympic counter-programming or winter break fare. Winter break, summer vacation, the hypothesis remains solid: Big Brother doesn't belong on TV on a school night. (In fact, at the finale, Julie announced we'd be getting a two-week, six-episode mini-season called Big Brother Reindeer Games, beginning December 11th. Returning Big Brother legends yet to be named will be guided through a series of competitions and challenges by alums Derek Xiao, Tiffany Mitchell, and Jordan Lloyd.)

    Big Brother's two-hour season finale airs Thursday, November 9 on CBS. You can stream the entire season on Paramount+. You can join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Big Brother, CBS, Survivor, Cirie Fields, Julie Chen