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Could Big Brother Actually Be Righting the Ship?

Wednesday's promising season premiere has us thinking maybe, possibly, yes.
  • (Photo: CBS)
    (Photo: CBS)

    Feelings of optimism after a season premiere of Big Brother are very much the Lucy Van Pelt holding a football for Charlie Brown of the reality TV world. It's not like I don't know that Big Brother is trash. But at its best, the venerable reality TV series that premiered the same magical summer as Survivor can be very compelling trash, and when the personalities on screen can manage to not be unbearably toxic, it's a fun show to pass the time with every summer. But Lucy sure has been mercilessly yanking that football away lately.

    By virtue of the fact that its contestants are webcast on a live feed 24/7, Big Brother is more prone than most shows to having its cast members' less-than-admirable (and often outright bigoted and/or deplorable) personalities put on display. Over the last few years, Big Brother has come under increasing fire for the show's casting practices and the fact that the contestants have consistently isolated, bullied, made comments about, and generally mistreated contestants of color. At long last, CBS seems to have decided to do something about that, setting a goal to cast its reality series with 50% people of color. Wednesday night's premiere of Big Brother's 23rd season is the first time we're seeing that casting process in action, and at the risk of setting myself up for yet another humiliating fall, I have to say … I'm intrigued by this mix of people. Whether a reality show with a long history of ugliness — one whose host added the hyphenate surname of her accused-of-sexual-harassment husband two summers ago in an apparent show of defiance — can turn things around after one summer of improved casting practices remains to be seen, but after watching the season premiere, it's clear the show is attempting some other fixes as well.

    With its motto of "expect the unexpected," Big Brother is known for its big twists, going back as far as its fourth season when it secretly cast the exes of five of its cast members. This season's twist is one the show has gone with before, splitting the 16-person cast into four teams of four. In the past when the show has gone with the teams concept, the teams have often been captained by returning players (which has tended to result in the returnees dominating the newbies). Not so this season. And rather than have the four team captains (who each won a challenge to earn their captaincy) simply pick their teams gym-class-style, Big Brother took a heavier hand in engineering the team selections, giving each captain the choice between two contestants at a time. The result was four teams with an even distribution of white and nonwhite players. Is it more than a little sad that the producers felt that the show's contestants needed that degree of hand-holding to keep the white players from cloistering together yet again? Yes. But drastic times call for drastic measures, and the last couple seasons have been drastically terrible.

    The premiere episode was, for the second season in a row, completely live, which gave things a slight air of danger, knowing it could devolve at any time into Julie Chen (Moonves) hysterically trying to get the players to finish their competition on time. Before announcing that this season's cash prize is increasing from $500,000 to $750,000, Chen Moonves introduced us to the contestants, where we learned that even a network-wide initiative to cast more inclusively will not stop the first cast member on a Big Brother season from being a cute 20something white surfer bro. Nor will it prevent the show from casting a pretty blonde woman who thinks she gets discriminated against for being pretty.

    Still, though, this is a markedly more interesting cast of competitors than we usually get. Highlights include Derek F, a gay Black man from Philly who's the son of famed boxer Joe Frazier; Britni, a masters graduate and akrate champion from Niagara Falls who mentioned her autism in her opening clip package (bullying an autistic contestant is also something awful that happened on Big Brother last year); Frenchie, a Tennessee farmer who has "Black Lives Matter" scrawled on his pickup truck; Derek X, a smoking hot tennis enthusiast who was the only Asian in his high school; Azah, a first-generation child of immigrants from Cameroon; and Claire, a super-tall, bisexual A.I. engineer from New York City.

    At first glance, this is the most promising cast of Big Brother contestants in a long time. Which feels absolutely like I'm whistling past the graveyard when not a single minute of live-feed footage has been broadcast. Will Big Brother 23 devolve into the same ugliness as past seasons, or has the show actually turned over a new leaf? The good news is, we've got multiple episodes per week and a 24/7 live feed to find out.

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    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, Julie Chen