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Love and loathing on ‘reality’ TV


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IN his Rule and Exercise of Holy Living, the 17th-century Divine Jeremy Taylor, warned his readers against taking pride in the kind words of others:

“Remember that we usually disparage others upon slight grounds and little instances . . . consider that whatsoever good anyone can think or say of us, we can tell him of hundreds of base and unworthy and foolish actions, any one of which were enough (we hope) to destroy another’s reputation.”
 
Such a gloomy reflection cuts both ways. Besides illuminating the value of a proper humility, it also reminds us forcefully of how ill-equipped we are to criticise our neighbours. We know little of the workings of our neighbours’ hearts, however much we feel compelled to pronounce on what “really” motivates them. They themselves may have only a partial understanding, depending on their capacity for rigorous self-reflection. God alone knows the state of their souls.

Yet still we feel compelled to criticise. From the family to the workplace to the national stage, it seems we are never so happy as when we are spouting cod psychoanalysis about the actions and motives of others, however limited our knowledge may be. No longer is it enough for us to pronounce on the moral state of those next door but one; we also have to have an opinion on the break-up of Tom and Nicole’s marriage, or the driving forces behind the Blair-Brown relationship.

We sometimes seek to provide an authoritative air with half-digested theories on body language or Freudian slips, but often we just want to put someone in their place. All we need is the opportunity for a bit of moralising, and we’re off.

Another reason, then, why summer is such a joyous season is that, along with sun, sand, and disposable outdoor barbecues is the reappearance of Big Brother on Channel 4. For 11 long weeks, we get to play God with about a dozen largely silly wannabes.

The central premise of Big Brother has always been problematic, despite its cheery billing by makers and contestants as being “only a gameshow”. The psychological pressures on strangers forced to live cheek-by-jowl in a hermetically sealed environment, and the chosen mix of personalities most likely to spark conflict, are almost guaranteed to bring out the worst excesses of selfishness, cruelty, and paranoia.

Not wishing to rest on their laurels, and as viewing numbers slide with each series, the programme-makers have resorted to messing with house-mates’ heads, redesigning the physical environment to maximize stress, setting house-mates against each other, plying them with alcohol to banish the longueurs (prompting a police visit in response to one violent outburst), and favoring potential contestants who trumpet polymorphous leanings, in the desperate hope of delivering the Big Brother “bonkfest” they assume viewers so ardently desire.

Such skewing hasn’t gone un-noticed by potential house-mates, who, in the latest series, have sought to outdo each other in awfulness. One described himself as the “best liar in the world”, and boasted of his excellence at spreading rumours. Another, asked why other housemates might nominate her, said: “For being a bitch, and for stirring things up”.

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In these mission statements from hell, alas, originality has few outlets. This is why “I’ll get nominated for being too loud, confrontational, and for bitching” has little to recommend it over “I’ll get nominated because some may find me arrogant and self-obsessed”, or “I’ll get nominated for being too loud for acting childish and spoilt when I don’t get my own way.”

What makes this aspect of Big Brother so awful is that there is no evidence that the contestants, who so loudly trumpet their awfulness, are as universally brutal as they demand to be seen. The contestants who boasted of his lying and backstabbing abilities, for example, spent much of the first week in tears when it appeared that his house-mates didn’t like him.

Yet to get into the house the contestants need to be controversial — bitchy, sly, sexually predatory, and arrogant. Once they’re in, they daren’t show any signs of humanity for fear of being labelled boring and therefore fodder for eviction.

Big Brother has been called a real-life soap opera in the press. But it’s perhaps easy to argue that soap-opera characters are more well-rounded than some Big Brother housemates. At least we knew that there was more to Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street than a brassy tart with a sharp tongue, because the scriptwriters felt it was important that we understood her as a human being with all her frailties.

The producers of Big Brother appear to feel no such obligation, arguing disingenuously that the “all-seeing” format allows the viewers to see the housemates as they really are.

In reality, the show’s format — especially the nightly selected highlights and the accompanying website commentary — acts as a particularly biased filter and shaper of opinion. Some measure of how few viewers see Big Brother as “only” a game show can be gauged by the Billingsgate howls of execration and genuine venom whenever a house-mate is evicted.

ONE of the attractions of Big Brother is the opportunity it offers viewers to play God at the touch of a red button, and they certainly didn’t pass up that opportunity — more than six million votes were cast during the final in 2004. There are few thrills greater than casting out a housemate, banishing him or her to the living hell of shopping-centre openings, nightclub appearances, and interviews on early morning regional radio.

But are we really exercising power at all? Even 24-hour cameras secreted in bedrooms, bathrooms, and garden gnomes are a poor, and often dishonest, substitute for the all-seeing eye of God — especially when we know the eyes of the camera are not likely to be all-loving and all-forgiving. 

Much has been written about how Big Brother is a bad influence on the people who seek to become housemates. I suspect it is a far worse influence on those who watch it.

It urges them to dislike and even hate people of whom they know next to nothing. It wants viewers to be judgemental, dismissive, and cruel. It wants them to believe that their  anger and loathing are reasonable and justifiable after so many weeks of seeing these people “as they really are”. And the programme’s makers have been so successful in this that it is now virtually impossible to tune in on eviction night and not cheer heartily when one of the housemates is brought low.

Big Brother offers us a salutary reminder that there is much more to sin on television than sexual titillation and supposed blasphemy. Its well-crafted appeal to our baser instincts strikes me as far more degrading to the viewer than anything Jerry Springer: The Opera could come up with.

I’m too often tempted to pass judgement when it’s none of my business, too often tempted to criticise others for my own faults. Once they start to promote such temptations as a commodity (at the premium rate of 35p a vote), it is time for me to switch programmes for good.

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