How Big Brother can bring us real human insights
It may have thrown up some of the most depressing and least edifying television of the last decade, but as we come to the end of its era, this year’s final series reminds me once again that Big Brother can be quite brilliant.
And if TV critics were able to think for themselves, and hear their own, honest response above the din of kneejerk opposition about dumbed-down television, they would admit that the show is capable of producing moments of truth and revelation that are rarely seen on TV, even in the best documentaries.
Big Brother is always at its best when the house isn’t over-run by attention-seeking, aggressive bullies. There was a period in the show’s history when the producers seemed to believe that such characters were most likely to create drama, and thus were desirable housemates.
The result was a nightly screaming match between the kind of violent, delusional, self-fixated idiots you’d get off a bus to avoid — why did the producers ever think we’d want to watch them at their worst on our telly every night?
However, this year, as in all of the best series, the housemates comprise a far more balanced mixture of vaguely normal individuals nursing believable anxieties that many of us at some point have experienced.
Some of them are locked in rather poignant crises, like Govan, the strutting but vulnerable 21-year-old West Indian kid who seems paralysed by his fear of his community’s attitude to homosexuality and thus struggles with the daunting reality of his sexuality every day.
John James, the ‘Beckham’ lookalike from Australia is a particularly fascinating specimen. He is desperate to present himself as a typical Aussie, laidback, cool and unflappable. Actually, he is deeply insecure and unable to control his temper. His aggression repeatedly ruins his own chances of making friends and liking himself.
In a compelling sequence this week he screamed and swore at a friend for half an hour, trembling with rage, until she came over to him, touched him briefly on the leg, and asked him what was really wrong. Immediately disarmed, his anger dissolved and he started to cry.
With one simple, maternal act of kindness, John James was revealed for the four-year-old boy he clearly, in psychological terms, still is. He has barely left the side of that girl since, and has inundated her with a torrent of ‘uncool’ confessions about how he was called names and bullied as a child. Freud would have a field day with this guy.
In another, equally gripping scenario, actress and performer Shabby, who initially appeared to be the kind of contrived, over-zealous egotist Big Brother became notorious for encouraging, has provided a tender, thought-provoking storyline of an unusual kind.
She is a lesbian who has fallen hard for another woman who just ain’t interested. Watching Shabby go through the painful steps of excitement, hope, rejection, embarrassment and hurt while she attempts to maintain a real friendship with the woman who keeps breaking her fragile little heart is rather moving — and entirely different from almost every sex-fest ‘lesbian love story’ we’ve ever seen on TV.
Of course, there are still times when the show is dementedly dull and needlessly cruel. But when it’s providing little gems of human truth like these, Big Brother can still justify its claim to be a worthy social experiment.
I’m surprised to hear myself say — I’ll miss it when it’s gone.