Fascinating, frustrating, and a little frightening, Big Brother is a far more problematic proposition than CBS' other entry for our Summer of Self-Consciousness, Survivor. I have a lot of sympathy for most of the 10 people residing in Brother's prefabricated house stuffed with 28 cameras and 60 microphones but only two bedrooms. Eating bugs and trying to avert one's eyes whenever Richard decides to drop his shorts and ''go native'' are easy tasks compared to sharing cramped space with George, the insufferable Illinois roofer who's in love with the sound of his own choked voice telling the group how much he misses his wife and three kids, or with Jamie, the chattering beauty queen with a voice like Rocky the Flying Squirrel gone rabid. Watching them, I knew I'd found new TV personalities I fervently want to see suffer the grave embarrassment of rejection.
Like Survivor, Big Brother is all about ruthlessly gutting it out while faking charm and sincerity, lest those around you vote for your removal. (Brother adds the interactive twist: The houseguests narrow their least-favorites down to two every other week and let us, the home audience, cast votes for the definitive heave-ho. When there are three houseguests remaining, viewers choose who has outstayed their welcome.) But watching Big Brother, you quickly begin to identify not with the contestants but with the show's producers. Imagine the joy they must have felt upon learning that they had a young woman (Jordan) who was not only a triathlon athlete but also a self-described ''exotic dancer''! Don't you think, along about week 3, George is going to try and install a floor-to-ceiling pole in the center of the living room? Big Brother meets The Sopranos' Bada Bing Club!
If Survivor shows the castaways as increasingly philosophical with, for example, the deceptively chuckleheaded Colleen recently opining of a luckless desert-island chicken, ''It does no good to befriend dinner'' Brother is turning into a harrowing group therapy session. Karen, Indiana mother of four, confessed that she's no longer in love with her husband of 22 years. ''Has he ever said you're, like, beautiful or pretty?'' asked George as he and a few of the gals sat around chopping vegetables. ''Oh, never!'' said Karen. ''Never. Never!'' Her voice rose in a panicky quaver as everyone at the table suddenly became verrr-y interested in their salad greens.
On the July 5 edition of 48 Hours, Survivor graduate Jenna paraphrased Andy Warhol to ask, ''Why do you think they say everybody gets their 15 minutes [of fame]? You don't think everybody wants their 15 minutes?'' Well, Brother's Karen is using hers to dis hubby big-time, even admitting that her mate didn't want her talking about their problems because ''the people at [his job] don't know anything about it.'' William, a self-styled cool dude, later remarked, ''Karen...I don't know how she passed the psych test.'' Which is typical of William's sensitivity. He's the kind of smooth operator who tells Jamie she's the last person he's going to vote against because ''I need something beautiful to look at.'' Eeeeewwww.
Big Brother like Survivor, a transplanted European concept got off to a high-rated but annoying start on July 5 with an hour filled with the arrival of the 10 house guests and an endless tour of the house with an awful new specimen of TV correspondent, the gigantic, lumbering Ian O'Malley, who greeted the food-providing chickens at that location with an idiotically cheerful, ''Hello, ladies, how are you?'' (Chickens would be well advised to steer clear of CBS this summer.)
The next night, a half-hour edition of Brother was beaten in the ratings demographic that matters by a rerun of NBC's Friends; on Saturday, an hour-long edition garnered even lower ratings. Clearly, viewers now used to coming home to CBS for the spectacles of roasted rats and tribal backbiting were miffed at the way any spontaneous drama had been quashed by O'Malley and Brother announcer-host Julie Chen, herself an escapee from Bryant Gumbel's House of Horrors I mean, The Early Show. Too bad; the editions that have aired since Brother's debut have all but banished the hosts, and the house guests quiver with barely suppressed rage, fear, and sensory deprivation (clockless as well as clueless, they don't ''know what time it is,'' says the voice-over).
Unless I miss my guess, that house is gonna blow soon. But who'll be there to watch? The middle-age skew to the folks getting the most airtime is driving away CBS' desperately sought younger viewers. Plus, Big Brother's five-nights-a-week schedule and its frequently slack editing may be too much for even the most dedicated viewer-voyeur. After all, we've still got to winnow down those Survivors (I've narrowed my bets to either Gretchen or Susan) and read that new Harry Potter book. It's getting so entertainment is practically like, y'know, work. B+