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Memo to Big Brother: Here's How to Make This Season Work

Lessons learned from last year's stellar Season 20.
  • The cast of Big Brother Season 21 is ready for action (CBS)
    The cast of Big Brother Season 21 is ready for action (CBS)

    Big Brother returned earlier this week for its 21st season, promising reality fans another summer spent watching 16 houseguests compete, scheme, backstab, and lose their minds in isolation. Despite how despicable the houseguests' behavior can be (and over the years, it's gotten truly despicable), the game remains an audience favorite, simply for what a pure social and strategy contest it really is.

    Last season, Big Brother enjoyed a major return to form after several weak seasons, as the 20th incarnation stayed entertaining throughout, giving us some stellar new reality TV characters in the process. But as we've seen too often with Big Brother, a good season can easily be followed by a bad one. So in hopes of avoiding another slump — and because, unlike other reality shows, Big Brother is produced in real time — here are three major lessons learned from the magic of Season 20.

    Cast for chemistry, not for types

    In most seasons of Big Brother, you can take even a cursory look at each houseguest and see why they were cast. There's the nerdy superfan, the clueless surfer dude, the competitive frat boy, the only black woman (because Big Brother rarely casts more than one), and so on. Season 20 broke from that tired tradition, casting true originals like psychic Kaitlyn Herman, spiritualist Angie “Rockstar” Lantry, Muslim football star Faysal Shafaat — and it also subverted it — surfer bro Tyler Crispen being a strategic mastermind, for example. But what made the cast truly exceptional was their chemistry: simply put, they gelled —both in friendly banter and petty rivalry.

    Based on this week's two-part season premiere, this year's cast could go either way. We do have some clear archetypes: Kemi Faknule fits the one-black-woman-only slot, while geeky Nicole Anthony is shockingly reminiscent of Season 20's Scottie Salton (almost like a distaff counterpart). But players like the charismatic Ovi Kabir, liberal truck driver Sam Smith, and plus-size model Jessica Milagros provide hope. If the show's producers can help the group set a strong tone — be it congenial or adversarial — it'll bode well for the rest of the season.

    Tone down the twists

    The first big twist of Season 20 was the BB App Store, a kind of one-stop shop for in-game superpowers offered up to the most popular houseguest (as voted by the fans) each of the first three weeks. These powers ranged from an extra life to safety from nomination, and not a single one got used as it should. Two never activated, while the third — the Extra Life — was wasted in spectacular fashion. More on that in a minute.

    It was hilarious to watch these apps fizzle, but more importantly, it kept the game fair. The pre-jury phase of Big Brother 20 was as pure a game as you could imagine, with the players forced to rely on their strategic, social, and competitive skills. Nothing was there to bail them out. The current season is worrisome what with this camp director twist that will lead to someone being evicted through banishment (!), but here's hoping it won't last too long.

    Embrace the thrill of live TV

    So, about that Extra Life challenge mentioned above. That power was designed to bring someone back into the game if they could finish an extraordinarily easy puzzle (just seven pieces!) in a comfortable timespan. Kaitlyn, the psychic who became everyone's favorite hot mess  last season, was tasked with winning her way back into the house after her eviction by finishing this puzzle. Something literally anyone should have been able to do.

    Reader, Kaitlyn did not finish the puzzle.

    Watching the challenge play out live on television made for such a bizarre, thrilling episode. I remember texting my Primetimer colleague Joe Reid while it was happening as we slowly realized this woman was not going to finish the puzzle. There weren't enough “OMG”s in the world. This is the kind of thing that Big Brother can do that Survivor and The Amazing Race cannot. Those shows do not air live. This one does. And the more it leans into that, the better.

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    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: Big Brother, CBS, Julie Chen, Reality TV