The Big Brother Season 25 premiere featured one of the biggest surprises in the show's history. After rumors swirled around Survivor legend and recent The Traitors champion Cirie Fields joining the cast, it seemed like Cirie's son, Jared, would be the one to appear. This could be intriguing in its own way, and hardcore Cirie fans would likely have shown up to see if Jared was a chip of mom's old block. But BB25 had one more trick up its sleeve, revealing Cirie herself in the episode's closing minutes as the surprise 17th houseguest.
If you didn't watch the episode and are imagining Cirie's introduction in your head, you're likely envisioning fanfare, a shocking moment of revelation, and the shocked reactions of the 16 other houseguests. But this is Big Brother we're talking about, a show that once ruined its own triple-eviction twist because of a production snafu. So, instead the houseguests wandered back into the house with less than a minute to go in the live episode, some of them reacting to Cirie's presence, others either not registering or not knowing who she was, and the episode ending before any actual interaction got underway.
Welcome to Big Brother, Cirie. It's like this all the time.
The hierarchy of CBS reality shows has long been established: Survivor is the godfather, the popular one, the legend. The Amazing Race is the prestigious one, the one that wins all the Emmys. Big Brother has always been the unruly child at the bottom of the ladder: less prestigious, less popular, less challenging. While Survivor castaways are battling the elements and making fire out of sticks and flint, and Amazing Racers are exhausting themselves on a race around the world, Big Brother players sleep in a bed every night and are "punished" by having to eat peanut butter and jelly or wear leotards. This is a show that can and has been thrown into chaos by random people yelling things over the studio walls. Big Brother is by far the messiest of these shows. Its second season, the one in which it finally got popular, was marred in its early weeks by one contestant being removed from the show for "playfully" holding a knife to another contestant's throat. The show's myriad racist controversies have been a stain on the show for years. Big Brother is the black sheep of the CBS reality family.
CBS has also enjoyed cross-pollinating its reality show contestants through the years. Survivors like Rob and Amber have run The Amazing Race. Racers like Natalie Anderson have won Survivor. Big Brother players have always been able to move up the ladder; multiple alums have been on The Amazing Race — Cody and Jessica from BB19 even won — and BB players like Caleb Reynolds and Hayden Moss have played Survivor. Cirie is a casting coup though: the first Survivor alum to ever play Big Brother.
Cirie's not just any Survivor, either. She's widely acknowledged as the best player never to win the show. Her triumph on The Traitors this past January was presented as the long-time-coming coronation of one of the great reality stars of our era. It's more than just how well she plays social strategy. She's the ideal reality show contestant: a self-described couch potato who decided to apply to Survivor to see if she'd be able to hack it. And from her first day on the island, when she was afraid to pick up a pile of leaves because of what critters might lie under it, she evolved into a capable, Machiavellian mastermind who was three days away from winning on two occasions, and on a third was eliminated via an unprecedented confluence of twists in the game. Survivor host Jeff Probst has called her "one of the greatest gifts Survivor has ever received."
Naturally, fans were flipping out throughout Wednesday as word leaked that a 17th houseguest might be added. Rumors began circulating that Cirie had been cast on the show in addition to her son. When she finally appeared on screen, even former Big Brother winners like Cody Calafiore (who was one of the people she defeated on The Traitors), reacted like he'd been shot out of a cannon:
For anyone who's watched both Survivor and Big Brother for any length of time, seeing Cirie in the Big Brother kitchen was simply surreal. The crossover offers Big Brother an opportunity to pull in some eyeballs from Survivor fans who've been averse to the show. Those Survivor fans and Cirie herself are in for an experience. Wednesday's live premiere episode was Big Brother at its most characteristically chaotic, both bombastic and embarrassing, flush with strategic possibility and also a trainwreck.
Big Brother straddles these dualities constantly, and it's why fans of the show can't stay away. After introducing the 16 new contestants via the traditional video packages that highlighted their careers and personal circumstances — Season 25's cast includes a farmer, a deaf Olympic swimmer, a political consultant, a flutist, the show's first Sikh contestant, an Australian lawyer/DJ, and a gay Arab Muslim who is a doctor by day and a burlesque dancer by night — host Julie Chen Moonves introduced the theme of the season, which meant it was time for the time laser.
Earlier in the week, CBS had released the promotional video of BB alums Danielle, Britney, and Frankie "sneaking in" to the Big Brother house and firing a "time laser" with the intent of turning back the BB clock and fixing the parts where they lost their seasons. Thiscampy bit of over-acting was cheesy but also highlighted Big Brother's willingness to be silly. It was also a quasi-cringey/lovably silly way to introduce this season's "multiverse" twist (exactly what that means hasn't been fully revealed, though it seems to involve the show mixing up its usual order of operations and letting events from past seasons bleed through into Season 25). But when included in the live episode, with the 16 contestants just standing around watching it for minutes on end, with expressions ranging from bemusement to revulsion on their faces, it was unbearably awkward.
Big Brother's live episodes tend to be high-wire acts that see the production work against the clock, fight dead air, contestant mishaps, and Chen Moonves's occasional flubs. It's janky as hell, but it can be hilarious trainwreck TV if you're in the mood for it. Case in point, one of the competitions in the live premiere involved four houseguests lying flat on a mat while a big prop monster paw latched onto their legs and steadily pulled them backwards. It was meant to evoke a monster movie in which a creature reaches up from the ground and drags its victim down to the underworld. But what we saw was four contestants lying flat on the ground, not moving, for long stretches.
If the players were struggling to hang on to their grips, battling against whatever machinery was pulling them backward, it did not translate to television, where we couldn't even see the strain on their faces. Because they were flat on their stomachs. It was a ridiculous segment of television, punctuated by Julie Chen Moonves interjecting awkwardly about how no one was budging and they were all being pulled towards the "nether region." All this was happening while Cirie was waiting inside the house to meet her competition. It was a clown show of a premiere episode, charmingly typical of Big Brother but wholly unworthy of a serious gamer like Cirie.
There are things about the game of Big Brother that make it a thrilling prospect for a strategic player like Cirie. When the houseguests aren't taking part in silly-looking competitions, the game is purely social. That's where an operator like Cirie can thrive. The best and most beloved BB players — your Dan Gheeslings, Will Kirbys, and Danielle Reyeses — have excelled at manipulating the players around them in exactly the way Cirie has played on Survivor and The Traitors. If she can fight her way out of the straitjacket of her own celebrity, she might be able to put on a spectacular show this summer. But as Wednesday night's premiere showed all too well, it's going to be an awkward ride on an often shoddy rollercoaster.
Big Brother airs Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights on CBS and streams next-day on Paramount+. 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.