Class-warfare twist spices up Big Brother

ALASTAIR PAULIN
Last updated 15:32 28/11/2013
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RATS IN A MAZE: Some of the contestants in Big Brother Australia.

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Big Brother Australia, weekdays, 4.30pm, TV3 Reviewed by .

Do you have seven and a half hours a week that you just don't know how to fill? Have you tired of obsessively cleaning every centimetre of your home, watching all the classics of world cinema from the 14th Bring It On sequel to Fellini, and staring at your fingernails to observe signs of growth? Then do I have the show for you.

You may have forgotten about Big Brother Australia. It has been absent from Kiwi screens since 2005 and the human mind is good at blocking out past trauma.

Billed as "the original and unparalleled social experiment", BBA coops up 16 contestants in a house for up to 101 days while cameras film their every move and a voice of god "Big Brother" gives them instructions. Each week they nominate their housemates for eviction, and viewers vote to decide who gets cast out. Last one standing gets $250,000.

It is all very Truman Show, but where that movie derived its suspense from Jim Carrey's dawning realisation that he lived in a simulacrum of reality for the benefit of viewers, the Big Brother house dwellers know all too well that they are rats in a maze. The scale is confined and life is constrained.

The premise sounds intriguing; deep down I suspect we're all voyeurs of some stripe and would love to watch others going about their daily life. But living in a glass box is not daily life and its inhabitants' tedium - not to mention the viewers' - is a major flaw. And so the producers have to resort to the standard reality show crutches of attractive young people thrown together with alcohol and a spa pool, as well as breathlessly announced "twists".

The "gigantic twist" that host Sonia Kruger announced for series 10 of the franchise is that the house has been split into two sections, one luxurious and one spartan. The housemates in the cushy Safe house have the only kitchen and food, and get to decide when and how much to feed their neighbours over the glass wall in the Halfway house. They in turn have the only washing machines, and must do their high-rolling neighbours' laundry.

Is this a clever take on class warfare, or a sly comment on inequality? If only. Big Brother may be styled as a sociological experiment, and early versions of the show, which originated in the Netherlands in 1999, were more explicit in that aim, but at this late stage in the show's evolution, it is rigged for maximum manufactured drama.

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There have been more than 300 series of the show, from Big Brother Albania to BB Nigeria, and the format is now aired in more than 70 countries. By my count, that is about 720,000 hours of 24/7 coverage, and in some versions of the show, hard-core fans can pay extra to watch live, or slightly delayed feeds from the BB house. That was a possibility in Australia for this series, but as it is airing in New Zealand four months later than across the ditch, live is not an option here.

In fact, if you are a fan, stay off the Internet to avoid spoilers, since the winner was revealed in Australia three weeks ago. Based on early episodes, it seems unlikely you would want even more Big Brother because each 90 minute episode is already heavily padded with filler. After the first two cast members exchange hellos, we crossed back to the audience-filled studio where Kruger gushed: "How exciting - our first two housemates have met each other!" Cue big audience cheer.

Rare moments of tension, surprise or outrage will be rehashed endlessly, and Mediaworks' relentless cross-promotion means you won't be able to avoid BB gossip on the radio either.

Early incarnations of the show tended to feature ordinary people doing ordinary things, and there was a novelty in being privy to how other people lived. But by now the whole enterprise has become a meta-game of courting fame. If the contestants are not already radio hosts or celebretainers of some form, they want to be.

When radio host Heidi entered the house, she said "I feel like in a movie or something", as if she didn't already know exactly what she'd signed up for.

The best way to enjoy the show would be to hate-watch it, with one hand on the fast-forward button and the other dishing bile via Twitter about strangers' lives - unless, of course, you already have a life of your own.

- Nelson

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