We were all so happy, we Big Brother fans, when we saw that not only would network TV's messiest reality show be back this summer — under COVID-19 protocols, of course — but that it would be back with an all-star season, something we hadn't gotten since 2006. Coming at a time when so many of us were cooped up indoors with little to do, Big Brother: All-Stars 2 felt like an oasis. Then came the cast announcement — full of fan faves (Janelle! Kaysar! Da'Vonne!) and other unlikely but intriguing players (Keesha! Kevin! David!). Sure, there were some bros who didn't contribute much in their original seasons other than helping their fellow bros win, but what were the odds that Cody, Enzo, and Memphis would make it to the end?
Cut to this week's season finale, with Cody and Enzo in the final three, along with fan un-fave Nicole, who all ousted the aforementioned Memphis and the similarly disliked Christmas to make it to the end. It's been a cataclysmic winnowing down of players the fans liked in favor of… these people. And while sometimes you have to accept a bad boot order on a reality competition series, the biggest problem with this season wasn't the destination, it was how we got here, namely through a central power structure that was never seriously challenged and a social environment that, while not as racially toxic as some other Big Brother seasons, nonetheless ostracized and alienated every person of color in a series of eliminations that couldn't help but feel systematic.
This wasn't the fault of the pandemic or an unlucky bounce of the ball; it stems from a series of structural issues that the show's producers need to fix it before next season or we're likely in for more of the same.
For starters, the game has become so heavily weighted toward competition wins that there doesn't seem to be any room left for strategic inroads outside of winning the competitions. What that means is there are only two things (The HOH and the Veto) that can change the strategic direction of the show in a given week.
What's worse is that competition wins tend to reverberate far into the future. Here's what happens: a young, fit, athletic male wins the first HOH of the season (as Cody did this season); since they're the first locus of power, they draw allies to them. The allies that Cody values tend to be other young, fit, athletic males. He nominates two physically weaker players for eviction because he thinks they're the least likely to win the next competition and thus come after him. So, fine, these are the benefits that come with winning. But what happens is that the next week, someone else wins HOH. Do they then go after Cody and try to take out the power in the house and shake up the game (which would be great and exciting to watch)? No, instead the new HOH goes after "floaters," i.e. weaker players who aren't threats to win competitions, because if you go after Cody and he survives (by, say, winning a Veto competition), he'll then come after you.
None of this would be so bad if the competitions weren't weighted toward fit, athletic alpha males, but they are. Even the comps that don't outwardly seem to favor the athletes — like, say, disassembling and re-assembling a puzzle — require repetitive running back and forth, rewarding alpha males with stamina. A reminder, dear producers: Big Brother need not be a test of athletic ability. (In fact, in its best seasons it hasn't been). Even Survivor, a show with a far stronger claim to a notion of rewarding athleticism, realized long ago that weighting things too heavily toward alpha males who win competitions wasn't in its best interests. That show pivoted hard to multi-stage competitions with puzzles that serve as equalizers, giving less athletic but mentally strong players an advantage.
With there being so much fear of the "comp beasts" in the game, the other players see that the smartest move is to play scared and not strategize to topple the power structure, hence all the talk among Big Brother houseguests these days about "honoring the HOH" and voting out who they want voted out. The result is what we got this season, where a dominant alliance was established in Week 1, nobody ever tried topple them until it was too late, and each week the outer rings of that power structure got dropped until the endgame landed on the same three people (Cody, Enzo, Nicole) who were at the center of the power structure on Day 1.
This brings us to another problem: the show's deep issues with diversity. This season kicked off after the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd were well underway. With Big Brother already having a history of racist behavior among its houseguests over the years — including just last season, when winner Jackson Michie was called out in the finale for his bullying and bigoted behavior — the show seemed hyper-aware of a need to do better. This season cast four Black houseguests — Da'Vonne, Bayleigh, Kevin, and David — as well as Iraqi-born fan favorite Kaysar Ridha, making it one of the most diverse casts in the show's history. And yet, as the game played out, it became maddeningly clear that the show's Black and brown contestants were expendable to the core alliance. Of the show's first nine evictions, five were POC, along with three white women (Keesha, Nicole Anthony, and Janelle), and one white male (Ian Terry, a former BB winner who was mocked behind his back by members of the core alliance for behaviors associated with his autism). It took until week 6 for a white male to even be nominated for eviction. From week 4 to week 8, there was a stretch where 10 of the 11 nominations for eviction were BIPOC.
Even worse, during that stretch, a white contestant (fan favorite Tyler) was moved by guilty feelings to volunteer himself for elimination in order to save Bayleigh and Da'Vonne, who he felt had not been given a fair chance to succeed by the alliance. After a lengthy meeting with the Head of Household (Christmas), with the live-feed cameras turned off, during which it was later said that Big Brother producers intervened, Tyler went back on his word, and Bayleigh was evicted. For the audience, it was a brutally frustrating series of weeks, watching the Black and brown houseguests we all loved run into brick wall after brick wall only to be targeted for elimination week after week.
So what's to be done? How can Big Brother fix its problems if the problems — at least this season — boil down to basic human fallibility, as white players gravitated to their own, and physically weak players played in fear of stronger ones? For starters, if the Big Brother players are going to cloister themselves so aggressively to the people that look like them, then the show needs to become even more aggressive in its diversity initiatives when casting. There is no excuse for the next season of Big Brother not to be majority minority. If this is the only way that people of color have even a chance to win, then that's how it has to be. There has never been a Black winner of a non-celebrity season of Big Brother in TWENTY-TWO seasons. Something has to change and change drastically. Up north, Big Brother Canada has recognized the need to remedy this kind of problem, as they have pledged to cast at least 50% of their house with BIPOC players.
As for game structure, it needs to be completely revamped. The show has become far too predictable, with competitions Xeroxed year after year, to the point where the players begin to strategize around what comps they assume are coming next. Not only does the next season need brand new comps, it needs brand new kinds of comps, ones which test different skill sets and reward a far more diverse array of talents. It's no coincidence that the one week of genuine intrigue this season came when Da'Vonne won the Veto competition, which was a test of balancing miniature items and was generally like no other comp the show has done before. Take Survivor's lead and make puzzles the great equalizers. One of the most shocking and compelling moments in Big Brother history — Jen betraying Kasar in BB6 and the subsequent vengeance that followed — emerged from an endurance comp that simply required players to stand and push a button. It didn't reward upper arm definition or strong core muscles; just the will and determination of its players.
I also hate to say it, but the show needs to introduce more elements of randomness and chance, with an eye toward actively messing with power structures. I'm not saying bring back the controversial Coup d'Etat power that stole Chima's HOH reign in BB11 and led to her rage-quitting. But the show needs to actively work against a season where the same alliance stays in power every week, and if that means throwing in some twists and handing out new powers, then that's what they have to do. They might even consider… and I can't believe I'm saying this… bringing back Pandora's Box. These are desperate times.
Ultimately, the reason Big Brother fans flock to the show is because in its chaos and silliness and trashiness, there is excitement in rooting for the players we love. But a dud season like we've just experienced is dispiriting as all hell. And there are things the show can do to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. Here's hoping the powers that be realize this, and that BB23 is the start of a remedy.
Big Brother 22 wraps its run tonight with a two-hour finale beginning at 9:00 PM ET on CBS.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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.