Down to the last hamster

Episode 70 (Friday, Sept. 29): And now, finally, the ultrathrilling and very, very exciting conclusion of "Big Brother."

By Jeff Stark - Bill Wyman - Carina Chocano
September 30, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Tonight, on a very special "Big Brother," it ended.

In a squat gray building of only one story, the three remaining hamsters, Josh, Curtis and Eddie, having fused into one indistinct mass of received characteristics and cloned dreams, walked away with cash prizes and the dim satisfaction of knowing they somehow won a game with no discernible rules for no apparent reason.

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But most important, the hamsters had "fun."

We walked away with the "experience" and an aneurysm, but this isn't about us, is it?

Over the main entrance to the house was a sign we hadn't noticed before. It held the words, "Studio City Hatchery and Conditioning Centre." An overhanging banner held the "Big Brother" motto: "Community, Identity, Stability."

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Readers, imagine our shock. This is not a singularly Orwellian fable, after all. Producers Paul Romer and Paul de Mol just had their dystopias disordered.

They were thinking of Huxley all along.

As the eagerly anticipated final hour approaches, the producers dust off some recondite memories of the compound. There were moments: Temptations and tears. Laughter and irrelevance. Pointless distractions. Dog gas.

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"'Big Brother' opens the door to dreams," says the announcer voice, and we believe it. We owe some of the best naps of our lives to "Big Brother."

So, will we now, in the final moments, look deep into the pink, vacant eyes of our captors and find wisdom in their tepid platitudes? Will we rejoice in their staunch conformity? Will we draw new insights from their mild adventures in the single dimension?

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Were we supposed to?

Inside the studio, Julie Chen is looking refreshed and well-rested. In fact, she looks radiant. And she's looking forward to a long, undeserved vacation.

The results of the votes, Chen tells us, are sealed in an envelope.

Even she doesn't know the answer, she tells us. We have no reason to believe her, of course, but it does make us think for a moment of the new breed of game-show hosts, Regis Philbin being the prime example, who are not trusted with the actual answers to the show's questions, and seem proud of the fact.

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Julie tells us she and we will learn the results after she actually goes inside the "Big Brother" house later on in the show.

After a night like our boys had last night, it'll be "fun" to see her pretend she doesn't smell anything!

Curtis, Josh and Eddie are not looking their best. Josh looks as though his brain has been soft-boiled and someone just broke the yoke. Curtis looks as though he's been struck by lightning.

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But seldom is heard a discouraging word on "Big Brother," so Eddie replies with the same refreshing honesty and directness that has made all the "Big Brother" contestants so dear to us all.

"We're doin' great. How you doin'?"

"I'm doing great," replies the Chenbot. "But I've got nothing to win, nothing to lose."

This strikes us as true. She whirrs, hums and clicks with self-satisfaction.

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Julie and the boys volley a few bon mots back and forth, and then she welcomes the seven former houseguests to the set.

They look good, but not well.

George has swathed himself in a yellow chicken costume, dyed the crest of his hair a pinkish orange and painted a pair of black, peaked brows above his eyes.

He looks like John Wayne Gacy on Sesame Street.

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Brittany has acquired a mass of black hair extensions since we last saw her, and Mega has donned a denim leisure suit for the occasion, complete with floppy hat. Karen, Jamie and George appear to be standing on a great deal of turmoil.

As though they don't quite belong.

It occurs to us that next year we may be watching a very special "E! True Hollywood Story." One that will make the biography of Dana Plato seem uplifting.

The banished hamsters are asked to predict who they think will win, and all but Cassandra and Jamie say Eddie. Cassandra, of course, doesn't really believe Curtis will win, but she's still stubbornly clinging to the illusion that brains and some aimless stabs at discretion and personal hygiene count for something in this crazy mess of a world.

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But as NBC's coverage of the Sydney Olympics has demonstrated, there's nothing like a story of triumph over adversity to inspire the viewing masses. Had Eddie been more fortunate, Curtis might have had a chance.

America might have rallied behind the heartwarming story of a boy's courageous battle with acne.

So Julie proceeds to question the former houseguests.

Mega reminds her that CBS president Leslie Moonves once told him he was the J.R. Ewing of the house. After he left, it became "Big Boring."

There is general dismay at this statement. Brittany wears a look that says, "But I was in there!"

Julie lunges for a scapegoat.

"Do you blame other people for not being real?" she asks Jordan.

"This is about entertainment, Julie," she says. "People were aware they were on TV ..."

Julie tries to interrupt her.

"... You know, I'm just living like I'm living today," Jordan continues. "I'm feeling the thrill of life, and I'm not afraid, Julie."

In one sentence she nicely slices up Jamie and the "Big Brother" theme song.

Then Karen: "Why do you think you're out here, while they're still in there?"

"Because I didn't want to be in there," Karen says nervously, her eyes wild. "I couldn't have been there for this long. I couldn't have made it. Obviously! I couldn't have made it!"

We think Karen is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. We fear she may dive under a couch before the night is through.

So a desperate Chenmaster 2000 turns to Brittany. She wants to know more about what the very poor man's Gwen Stefani told Josh in the Red Room that fateful night.

She'd basically told the credulous Josh that only Eddie and Curtis could be trusted. Brittany was of course nuts.

In response, Brittany launches into a baroque explanation that culminates in her back-pedaling furiously away from anything that might have sounded less than super-nice.

Happily, everyone agrees there are no hard feelings.

Of course, no one asked us.

Cassandra still hasn't watched episodes in order to "stay true to the experiences she lived in the house."

Someone -- we think Jordan or Mega -- mumbles something in the background.

"Well, you know I'm a diplomat!" she ripostes.

The general laughter implies that, deep down they are all diplomats -- at least the ones who made it to the final rounds.

Jamie, who was banished less than 48 hours earlier, looks dazed. With access to the full lip-gloss reserves of Southern California, she is back to her normal self. Her lips glow with an almost radioactive menace.

She says being recognized on the street is "different." She keeps repeating Julie's name in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Julie may have to unlist her phone number.

And now, the results of the game:

Third place goes to Curtis with 13 percent of the vote. As all his people have done before him, Curtis responds with a quick smile and a wink. He's happy for the others!

There is no rent-a-crowd for Curtis tonight, no dramatic walk to the gate. His family greets him in the studio and they hug briefly. Then Curtis sees all his former hamsters and he is overcome with emotion and disbelief.

He actually yelps.

Julie tactfully points this out, as Curtis' father looks on sternly. She asks if he wants to do an encore of the Trinitron dance, his big "I have a 32-incher" boast. He wisely declines.

Next, it's time for the Curtis montage.

When they get to the part with him telling Brittany the first hug he got from his dad was on his 21st birthday, Curtis cringes.

"What did you think looking at yourself on TV?" asks Julie, who spends a lot of time thinking about how she looks on TV.

"I think I look pretty rough on video."

"Last night, you guys had a conversation in the house," Julie drawls, "about which of the women you found attractive -- all of you said Brittany."

Brittany squeals and raises her hand.

So Julie says, "But we saw you and Jamie bond."

"Curtis, I have hundreds of 'You should marry Curtis' e-mails," Jamie chimes in. "It's hilarious." She claps her palms together, fingers straight up, like a trained seal. Then she flips her hair back, the way Susan Dey used to do in "The Partridge Family."

Curtis doesn't reply.

We embark on a tour of backstage at "Big Brother," with our fearless Chen leading the way. She introduces us to one of the story editors (the Voice of Reason, the Voice of Good Feeling), who demonstrates how he would speak into the microphone, unseen by the hamsters, and, in the nicest way imaginable, make them do his bidding.

Wrote Aldous Huxley: "The sound-track roll was unwinding itself in Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech Number Two (Medium Strength). Straight from the depths of a non-existent heart, 'My friends, my friends!' said the Voice so pathetically, with a note of such infinitely tender reproach that, behind their gas masks, even the policemen's eyes were momentarily dimmed with tears, 'What is the meaning of this? Why aren't you all being happy and good together? Happy and good,' the Voice repeated. 'At peace, at peace.' It trembled, sank into a whisper and momentarily expired. 'Oh, I do want you to be happy,' it began, with a yearning earnestness. 'I do so want you to be good! Please, please be good and ...'"

Julie enters the storage room, goes through the Red Room ("They're going to be totally shocked," she says) and appears in the living room.

They're not totally shocked.

The rest of this historic broadcast is largely devoted to Eddie and Josh gazing at their own image in the screen.

Eddie tells us that living in the house was "a wild ride." He enjoyed every minute of it. He met a lot of really cool people. It caught him off guard when he found himself caring for the housemates.

Josh, in particular, watches himself with an intensity that rivals even Jamie's. He rubs his lips with his thumb ` la Jean Paul Belmondo in "Breathless," intoxicated with his own image.

Josh promises to walk out and be a better person in society thanks to the fact that the girls "shut him down a few times."

And the winner, of course, is: Eddie with 59 percent of the vote.

Somehow, watching Josh, Julie and Eddie celebrate in the overlit Ikea showroom just doesn't pack much of an emotional punch. It feels bereft of something we can't quite place. Fun, maybe.

So Josh's family is ushered in through the Red Room: The much-touted niece, some other whooping people making happy noises.

Eddie is asked to take a seat and gather his thoughts while Julie leads the happy family outside.

Josh goes outside and the rent-a-crowd goes wild.

Julie reminds us that Eddie is now half a million dollars richer.

We hope he doesn't spend it all on beer.

Eddie can't believe it. "Josh is All-American, a valedictorian," he says. "And Curtis is a hard-worker, he's going places."

"Alpha children wear gray," Huxley wrote. "They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard."

Eddie exits the compound and greets his family, the extras rhythmically chanting his name. Chickenman George joins Eddie and his mom in a group hug, and Eddie yells, "Whazzup!" to Brittany.

The camera zooms in on Julie, who stands awkwardly on the steps of the compound, thanking us for our participation.

"In the beginning, none of us knew if these 10 individuals would become strangers in a strange land, or create a brave new world for themselves. Now we know. They lived, you watched. Good night."

Create a brave new world?

That's when we understood.

This was not a show about the disappearance of the individual under totalitarian oppression.

This was a show about the disappearance of the individual under the guise of fun. And the unseen idol of this "Big Brother" was not a mustachioed Stalin figure. It was the Hollywood assembly-line dream factory.

O brave new world! we began, then suddenly interrupted ourselves.

We gazed up at Julie Chen's enormous face. Three months it had taken us to learn what kind of smile was hidden behind the mask of total indifference. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Six gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of our noses. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.

We had won the victory over ourselves.

We loved Big Brother!

(C.C.)

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Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

MORE FROM Jeff Stark

Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

MORE FROM Bill Wyman

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

MORE FROM Carina Chocano


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