My theory about people who enjoy Big Brother, now in its fourth wonderfully fetid season, is pretty simple and helps explain two things about the phenom: why the show is a huge hit in Europe (where creator John de Mol first launched it), and why it's, ah, not so much a hit here. This is a series for people who dislike all the things the majority of Americans do at this time of year -- such as suntanning, visiting the beach, and barbecuing. To us fans, the premise of BB4 is intensely appealing: Ah, to be stuck in a house with a perfect excuse -- whoever stays the longest wins half a million bucks! Oh, to have nothing to do for three months except sleep, eat, converse, and possibly make the beast with two backs with one's roommates!
Of course, the food and talk parts are a bit tricky. Big Brother inhabitants -- citizens voluntarily living in a flimsy house built on a concrete lot close to CBS' Los Angeles studios -- must engage in weekly ''food competitions'' that require a certain amount of time spent out in the broiling sun. Then, too, there's what host Julie Chen cumbersomely calls the current version: Big Brother 4: The X Factor, in which five of the nine ''houseguests'' (as the contestants are primly called) were joined in the season premiere by their ex-boy- or girlfriends.
Thus David, a chiseled former Army ranger, was reunited with his ex, Michelle, all baby-fat curves and little-girl voice (she's the sort of legal-age bunny who is appropriate for the queasy porn-music soundtrack that plays beneath all Big Brother activities). The X Factor is intended to ratchet up tension in the house, and David and Michelle (before her 6-to-2-vote eviction on July 23) certainly behaved appropriately -- they squabbled, momentarily remembered why they once liked each other (cue the porn music), and yakked to their housemates about the other's flaws. One contestant, the sullen Scott, was so undone by the sudden introduction of his former soul mate, the willowy Amanda, that he went bonkers, throwing around the house's plastic chairs (it's a home furnished with Martha Stewart's jailhouse nightmares!). Scott was hastily evicted by the producers before the houseguests could emerge from cowering beneath their beds to do so themselves.
Last summer, the BB cast was full of vibrant personalities like the frisky Marcellas and yappy Josh. This summer, they're a dour, self-conscious bunch, some of whom can be made entertaining only via editing -- perhaps the reason the producers assembled the diverting montage of whiny Dana telling the cameras, ''I'm pissed.''
Another reason BB is not a smash here is that, for most viewers, it's on too many damn times a week. With fewer than a million people nationwide equipped with God's gift to TV critics, TiVo, who other than diehards can remember the show is on Tuesdays and Fridays at eight, and Wednesdays at nine? You'd think BB might exert the appeal of a soap opera, with its frequent airings and leisurely yet emotionally fraught ''story'' lines, but I believe CBS made a mistake: BB should either be on five nights a week, like a proper daytime soap, or on just two nights, Saturday and Sunday, to become a weekend habit.
The aspect of BB that I love most -- its dank claustrophobia -- is precisely what dooms its Tuesday-night lead-out, Cupid. It too was created by an imported hustler: American Idol judge-producer Simon Cowell, the California-ized Brit whose tan looks slathered on with a paint roller. Cowell's dubious star and inspiration is Lisa Shannon: single, pretty, and so patently dull and indiscriminate that it's necessary to have two of her best friends, Laura and Kimberly, accompany her as she winnows down legions of men to find a guy who -- get this for a hook -- will propose, tie the knot, and stay married to her for a year, at which time the couple collects $1 million.
Early Cupids have offered a procession of losers and boors, edited in quick succession exactly like American Idol's audience-pleasing Parade of the Tone-Deaf -- except on Cupid, the rejections are usually delivered by Laura, herself a horror show of bad manners and poor taste. But she's a blonde with long legs, which makes her the Ann Coulter of reality TV, willing to say the worst about even the most defenseless suitors.
Going unexplained is, just who in Cupid is Cupid, the winged imp god of love whose arrows unerringly choose the perfect romantic target? Simon? Probably not. His interstitials look as if they were inserted at the last minute. If it's supposed to be Laura, romance is officially dead: Lock her up in the Big Brother house and throw away the key. BB4: B- Cupid: D