I loved "Big Brother."
The pitch: Enclose 10 people in a smallish house with no access to the outside world! Record everything with countless video cameras and microphones! Air the ensuing fireworks six nights a week!
In its post-"Survivor" hubris, CBS didn't consider the fact that its 10 "houseguests" were rather unremarkable. Anyone who showed dramatic life was quickly voted off by the viewing audience. The ones who remained claimed to be more interested in being a "family" than in sniping at one another.
Not one person fell into a fire and burned the skin off his hands.
The houseguests -- generally harmless folk much like you or me, except for their entrapment in the Studio City Habitrail -- held the CBS empire hostage with their blandness. To enliven the show, the producers invented a variety of tasks so lame even the housemates rolled their eyes. When the show finally expired, America didn't much care who won.
I tuned in nearly every night, and kept close tabs with a few similarly inclined friends. While others argued over the viperous character of Richard Hatch on "Survivor," we shared our concern about the emotional state of dignified Cassandra during the weeklong dance contest.
When given such a task, the house hamsters didn't complain much. They danced lurchingly until it was over, and then went inside and sat on ugly Ikea furniture. Sometimes they took a dip in the pool. Or ate a snack.
They were often annoying, but just in the way people around the office can be annoying.
I found it captivating, somehow, and always wondered what had happened to these people, once a fixture in my life, since their heady days of summer.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I noticed a flier in the dented Seminar Center ad box on my street. I'd never taken the Seminar Center seriously -- it's one of those outfits where teachers with dubious credentials teach a grab bag of courses, ranging from kayaking to past-life regression.
But the cover of its winter catalog made my heart skip a beat.
In a small box at the bottom were the words "Big Brother Reunion!"
I suddenly found myself paging through the Seminar Center catalog with the deepest reverence. Five of the house hamsters were coming to my town!
"From half-million-dollar Grand Prize winner Eddie to the pert and popular sacrificial lamb Brittany, they've become celebrities with fan clubs, web sites and a legion of followers who can't get enough of these people they came to know intimately. Now you'll have your chance to hear their stories LIVE!"
Tickets ranged from $40 to $115.
I bought four immediately.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I knew we were in for a treat when we saw Curtis getting off the elevator! (I assume you know the housemates, and if you don't, the shame is yours.)
Two hundred chairs were arranged in the basement of an Upper East Side synagogue, and at the witching hour, the audience filled about half of them. I recognized a few people -- friends and relatives of the hamsters -- from the live episodes hosted by the animatronic Julie Chen. The rest of the audience sat placidly, as though they'd been bumped from a more exciting seminar.
The $115 ticket bought one access to "VIP seats" and a pre-show reception. A few withered celery stalks from a sorry deli platter testified to what we, in the $40 coach seats, had missed.
A representative of the Seminar Center took the podium and enticed us with descriptions of the center's other offerings: Motivational speaker Les Brown! Celebrity psychic Kenny Kingston! And the founder of the Seminar Center lecturing on "How to Achieve More Success Than You Ever Dreamed Possible!"
I was more captivated by other seminars in the catalog, but he didn't mention them for some reason: "How to Start a Home-Based Gift Basket Business." "Healing Power of the Drum." "The Total Cat."
He introduced our evening's moderator. In a breathless voice, she described a show I didn't quite recognize: "'Big Brother' was a phenomenon! All of America tuned in to see these world-famous houseguests."
I knew it wasn't true, but I found myself caught up in her enthusiasm. In our two minds, at least, the room was electric with anticipation.
One by one, she introduced the stars of the evening, reading verbatim from a creaky press packet as they stood in shadowy darkness on the floor in front of the stage.
Considering we weren't getting all 10, it was still a good collection: Curtis, the lawyer who sings opera! Cassandra, who works for the United Nations! Eddie, who plays wheelchair basketball (and eventually won the money)! Zany Brittany, who tonight chose to dress like a Björk impersonator at a third-rate Vegas casino! William "Mega," the irritant who got booted out of the house before anyone else and then turned out to be an associate of the racist Khalid Abdul Mohammad!
And then George, the unemployed roofer! I couldn't believe our luck. We were getting six hamsters for the price of five!
I found myself annoyed at the inclusion of Mega. He was mean to just about everyone -- he even made Brittany cry -- and everyone was glad when he left. I hadn't embraced him the way I had, say, gracious Cassandra or Karen, the emotional basket case of a mom.
"Where's Jordan?" a loud voice asked from the front row.
The room shifted uncomfortably. Any fan of the show knew Jordan was bad news. She was the calculating troublemaker, booted right after Mega, and went on to publicly trash "Big Brother" and CBS whenever she could. I must admit I found it hard to disagree with her.
I loved her, though, for a cruel video message she gave the media-deprived housemates near the end of the show's life, in which she coolly told the hamsters they'd be entering a glamorous world of fame, fortune and "Letterman" appearances when they got out of the house.
Brittany and her five pigtails fielded the Jordan question. "I think she's -- in Minnesota? None of us keep in touch with her? I heard she was doing a radio show in Minnesota, but she got fired?"
The lilt of her Minneapolitan patois, every sentence and phrase rising in a cascade of questioning imprecision, had warmed my heart all summer. But I sensed a new edge in her voice. Was it ... bitterness?
It quieted the loud voice in the front row. It must have been hard for the guy, expecting sexy Jordan or even comely Jamie, the beauty queen, and getting Brittany instead.
The moderator had clearly never seen "Big Brother." She made it seem like each installment was filled with excitement and intrigue.
She was no Julie Chen.
"How did it feel to be trapped inside that tiny, claustrophobic house for all those days and days?" she asked the group, encouragingly.
"It wasn't bad," replied Curtis, sensibly. "It had a pool. It was a decent-sized house."
The moderator looked deflated. "What emotions did you feel when you got kicked out of the house? Mega?"
"I felt I would have done everything the same way. I felt the housemates thought I was their greatest competition."
The others groaned. Mega always tried to mask his utter failure on the show by acting as if it was some sort of badge to have been ejected first.
Then, thrillingly, he added, "When I got out, a friend of my mother's said, 'That Brittany girl? She's a virgin whore!'"
The room crackled with something like liveliness, and I found myself liking Mega immensely.
"Imagine being the only black man with a bunch of white folk!"
The other houseguests sat, mouths open in shock.
The awkwardness didn't stop there. Mega on why he christened George "Chicken George":
"Did anyone see 'Roots'? On 'Roots' they gave their slaves derogatory names. And I saw this as my chance to humiliate a white man on national television, so I thought, 'I'll call him Chicken George.'"
This was what "Big Brother" could have been!
Genial George looked up, stunned, and said, "Hey, it's all entertainment," a phrase that he repeated intermittently throughout the evening as though it explained everything.
"So, Brittany," the moderator said, trying to wrench attention away from Mega, "what do you feel about George's hometown voting you off of the show?"
This is of course an unproven charge. (In one show George's wife was seen rounding up the troops in Rockford, Ill., George's hometown, but she never did seem capable of organizing much more than a car pool.)
George attempted to stammer a rebuttal, but Brittany topped him, venting her acrimony for the evil people who voted her mutant ass off of national TV.
"A lawyer was trying to get me to sue CBS?" she said bitterly. "But the reason I didn't was because I felt I was lucky to be picked?" After all these months, she seemed remarkably sour. "I think people are kind of sue-happy these days anyway?" she added philosophically.
The moderator asked Cassandra why she seemed so delighted to be booted. She explained, "I felt the show was sinking to a level that was far below us. I was concerned that humiliation was the name of the game."
"Despite the pressure, she maintained her individuality," said the moderator. "That was nice."
I noticed that the elderly couple sitting to my right had slipped out of the auditorium.
Brittany seemed remarkably invested in the social minutiae of the household. At one point, Eddie denied having visited the ridiculous "love bed" Brittany had constructed to allow cuddling with other hamsters, two and three at a time. In response, Brittany shrieked, "My ass! You got into bed with Jamie and me!"
Brittany ranted on about tiny social infractions with a memory of alarming clarity. In the meantime, Cassandra seemed to be taking a nice quiet nap.
But then, she was attacked!
"I felt betrayed by Cassandra," Brittany declared. "When we had to write down on a slip of paper what we felt about people, she wrote that she felt Curtis was the most dishonest? But later when he asked her if she said that, she told him she didn't say that."
The majestic Cassandra did a wonderful stunned, slow burn that drew a hearty laugh from the audience. Brittany didn't seem to notice.
"I mean, people watched everything you did," she rambled hypnotically. "A cameraman said to me afterward, 'You're a crumpler'? And I didn't know what he meant, but he meant some people folded their toilet paper and others crumpled it? Jamie was a folder, he said."
This image of finicky Jamie precisely folding her T.P. was mercifully interrupted by the intermission.
For 20 minutes, we had the chance to mingle with the celebrities who only moments before had captivated us onstage. Cameras in tow, my friends and I got pictures with gracious Curtis and Eddie, Cassandra and George, and even a surprisingly courteous Mega. But Brittany drew an impenetrable crowd by talking excitedly about herself.
"I was at Vinyl dancing with Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears? Like this?" she said excitedly.
She graced the assembled crowd with a grotesque dance move.
"Say, what did you think about her security people?" a large man asked slowly.
"What?" said Brittany.
I recognized the man. He was the guy in the front row who'd been asking after Jordan. "Britney's security people. You know. Adam, Lloyd?"
"They were OK," she said, momentarily alarmed. As she turned the conversation back to herself, my friends took turns standing behind Brittany, posing for the camera in such a way that it might seem she was posing with us.
For some reason, a photo with Brittany seemed a prize.
The second half, largely a question-and-answer period, was a dud. The highlight was a fax from Jamie, which began, "Due to my busy filming schedule, I can't be with you this evening."
I went to the microphone and tried to get the housemates to dish about their real feelings for Julie Chen, but they were too darned gracious. Even Brittany demurred, saying, "I told the producers I should be hosting the next season. They were like, 'Oh, Brittany.'"
Someone asked, "Do you watch the tapes of the show?"
"No way," said Cassandra. "I wanted to leave the house behind. Once I was out, I was out."
"I watched every video. I asked everyone about it? I was really crazy about it?" countered Brittany. "The main lesson I learned from watching myself was -- "
The room held its breath.
" -- it helped me to like me more."
"New York is named after the Duke of York, who was a slave trader," Mega explained in the final thought of the evening.
I can't remember what, if anything, brought that up.
"And Pennsylvania? William Penn. Same thing."
"I'd like to thank everyone for coming," intoned the moderator.
The pictures turned out great!