The Surreality, and Accidental Timeliness, of ‘Big Brother’ in the COVID Era

If you were to design a show that would seem prohibitively difficult to produce in the COVID era, you might begin by bringing together a group of people from across the country and inviting them to breathe the same air in a house for the summer.

Which is not to say that “Big Brother,” which began its current season Wednesday night, actually has been stopped. And to hear Julie Chen Moonves, the show’s host, tell it, the show has ensured that it won’t be derailed by the virus that has had a way of derailing every other aspect of 2020: The competitors on the show, she said, were quarantined for two weeks prior to the game’s beginning. (In an interview with a CBS affiliate later taken offline, Chen Moonves said that some among the contestant pool had tested positive in isolation and were pulled from the game.) This quarantine and testing — Chen Moonves said that she, too, had been tested, and was standing twelve feet from the contestants she interviewed as they entered the house — were mentioned only fleetingly.

It was as if keeping “Big Brother” a COVID-free zone could be achieved not just by testing and isolation but by mentioning the scourge as little as possible. Some of this had the pleasant effect of normalizing social distance and mask-wearing: Prior to their entry in the house, the contestants were masked when speaking to their distant host, a fact that went without substantial comment. (Chen Moonves did have to ask two men which of them was speaking, as she couldn’t figure out whose lips were moving.) This all evaporated once the competitors entered the house. Even if one understood that if all sixteen contestants really were negative, and no one else was to enter, there’d be no apparent foothold for a virus, it was still deeply uncomfortable to see all sixteen crammed together on couches, or to watch some of that number head to their shared bedroom, an in-game punishment whose very point is its cramped, close-quarters entryway. A technical difficulty kept the door of that bedroom from opening; left unsaid by Chen Moonves or anyone was the possibility that production intervening to fix it might necessarily mean bringing the outside world into this coronavirus-free bubble.

“Big Brother,” with its format cutting off any aspect of the outside world not directly related to gameplay, has proven surprisingly inelastic over the years; its inability in recent years, for instance, to meaningfully beat back the accusations of racism that surface over different seasons with different casts suggest either that racism will blossom in any group of Americans sequestered together or that “Big Brother” is more concerned with sustaining itself as it has historically been than about social good. (Or both!) Leaving aside Chen Moonves’s having pointedly taken her husband’s name upon his firing as CEO of CBS — another matter the show decided to leave without further comment — real-world news only intervenes in the most enormous cases. Early in the show’s run, the competitors were informed about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in what was among the stranger cultural artifacts of that time. Viewers were able to watch people just like them as they woke up into the post-9/11 world; one player, who was informed her cousin had been in the Twin Towers the morning of the attacks, opted to continue in the game. 

This season of “Big Brother” does something upside-down: Rather than having news broken to them while the game is underway, these contestants are entering as fully apprised as they can be of the state of things. And rather than spending hours wondering what is going on in the world outside, as the “Big Brother” players of 2001 did, they seem contented to use the game as something of an escape. The show’s all-consuming nonsensicalness — physical challenges that take the form of lawn games, strategic conversations that come around to eating their own tail — are the thing that matter absolutely least at this moment, and as such, they end up accidentally becoming a great distraction. (As someone who never had much time for “Big Brother” before, I am suddenly, randomly planning on watching this season, the latest in a series of sudden, random entertainment choices made under COVID.) 

“Big Brother” seems to want to refrain from commenting on the present moment entirely. But in depicting a group of people amusing themselves with circular conversations and fitfully cute games while bad news rages elsewhere, its premiere presented a somewhat compelling picture of life in so many socially-isolated houses across America this fearful summer.

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