Last summer, among the rather few people who could get interested enough to argue about CBS's reality show "Big Brother," there was controversy about the one-legged New Jersey jock Eddie, and whether he had gone beyond the pale by telling a mildly racist joke or two.
In this year's cast of "Big Brother 2" houseguests, Eddie would look like a choirboy.
"Big Brother" -- for those who don't live in Europe, where all incarnations of the show have been smash hits -- is the reality show in which 10 or 12 strangers are put in a furnished house whose most important furnishings are the cameras and microphones that follow them everywhere, 24 hours a day. They are sealed off from the outside world entirely, save for intermittent contact from the producers and private on-camera briefings in the "diary room."
The results are edited down for three hourly weekly shows and also shown live, 24 hours a day, over the Internet (except when the producers cut the feed away). The results are meant to be a real-life soap opera.
"Big Brother" the first was not exactly a ratings flop, but it did become something of a punch line for televised boredom. Columnist after columnist said the show was dull, the contestants were boring, very little that happened was sexy and the audience voted out the only sexual provocateur in the second round. Everyone tried too hard to get along.
CBS and the show's producers took the criticisms of their summer reality filler to heart. So this year, we've been given a slate of 12 people apparently chosen for their willingness to fight, take their clothes off and get funky. (And in a key logistical change, the housemates themselves vote themselves off the show; the viewing public, the network discovered last year, targeted the houseguests who caused conflict and strife.)
And the new volatile mix has paid off in unanticipated ways: Less than a week into the series, the network has actually expelled a player for being a physical threat to the others.
The ejectee was Justin, a 26-year-old bartender from New Jersey who rarely covered his pectorals with a shirt and had treated the housemates to more than a week of disturbing comments and actions.
The players entered the house on Sunday, July 1, and the show began broadcasting that Thursday. The first shows are full of Justin's antics: He had laughingly expressed violent sexual fantasies about at least two of the women in the house: One, he told two of his new friends, he would trick into performing oral sex on him in the house, so he could ejaculate, and then spit, in her face and walk out. The other, he fancied raping after the show and throwing to the gators. At another point, he smashed the house's chess pieces; he denied another accusation, that he had smashed some candy on his chest and put it back in the dish, saying it was a joke, but it was widely believed.
And several of his roommates saw Justin pissing on one of the house's windows.
CBS settled for broadcasting an incident in which Justin angered 46-year-old mortgage banker Kent by taking Kent's pillow. When Kent loudly objected, Justin sneeringly took a couch pillow to use in his own bed instead. It wasn't much of a skirmish, but it did show the younger man's attitude.
Even the housemates who didn't find any of this funny told each other, afterwards, that he was just joking and doing a tough-guy act.
The producers moved on Justin after a scene shown on the Internet feed late Tuesday night, a night that had featured a lot of beer and even more disruption. Krista, a 28-year-old waitress and divorced mother from Louisiana, was bantering with the bartender in the kitchen, lying on a countertop as he complained about how she's been flirting with him but hadn't been putting out.
She laughed as he said, "You're leaving me hanging for ten days! Not for nothing." She kept laughing when, after they'd kissed, he asked if she'd get upset if he broke something over her head.
And she still was smiling when he pulled out a large kitchen knife and said, "Would you get upset if I killed you?" Holding the knife an inch from her throat, he said, "Would you get upset? Tell me. Would you get upset?"
"No. Go ahead. Do it," Krista said, grinning.
It was a couple of minutes later when the "Big Brother" called Justin to the diary room. "We're in trouble. What do you think?" Justin asked Krista laughingly before he left. "[You think they're upset about] me holding a knife on you?"
And, ultimately, he came back only (Krista told the others later) to kiss her briefly goodbye, before he was whisked away.
This was all on the Internet feeds; CBS will presumably show some edited version of the events on the next edition of the show, to be broadcast Thursday night. (In another dubious innovation, CBS is charging $20 to watch the RealPlayer Internet feeds this year, though anyone who already subscribes to a RealPlayer Gold Pass can access them.)
Justin's friends Will, Shannon and Mike have complained about his being removed without a chance to say goodbye to them, and Krista -- who apparently has told no one in the house about the knife play, leaving them to speculate that it was public urination or the chess-piece smashing that got Justin the boot -- dismisses any threat to her person.
"He's my bud," she said fondly. "I'm still going to visit him in Jersey."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Justin's untimely back-door departure was not, however, the most pyrotechnic event of the night, nor the one that will have the longest impact on the remaining houseguests. Instead, it was a blowup involving shambly Mike, single mom Autumn and a salacious remark about a banana.
This crew is taking its cue more from "Survivor" than from the first "Big Brother," forming alliances, deliberately misleading each other and building enmities from the first day in the house. More and more, the divisions seem to be hardening among class lines.
The four most gym-toned younger people in the house -- 30-year-old L.A. bar owner Mike, 28-year-old doctor Will, 29-year-old boat captain/realtor Shannon and the departed Justin -- had formed a tight group resented by some of the people outside it. (Meanwhile, Dr. Will has been guaranteeing himself plenty of television screen time by both romancing Shannon, and telling the diary room that he is a manipulator and "puppet master.")
On the other side are a slightly more down-home working group, embodied by Autumn, Nicole and Kent.
The protagonists of the blowout were Mike, representing the gym-toned in-crowd, and Autumn, a pretty but not-gym-toned 28-year-old single mom and aspiring singer from Texas, who'd been heard (by everyone) to bemoan that there were no black men in the house who would find her (size 6, but, somehow, "thick") looks attractive.
Various people, including Justin, had told Autumn Tuesday morning that Mike planned to seduce her as part of a Machiavellian scheme to get her to vote with his alliance. Autumn, after a night of hot-tubbing and beer, decided it would be a good idea to put Mike to the test. (She believed, she insisted later to anyone who would listen, that she had no choice but to prove he would go so low as to try to seduce her for an alliance vote.) Autumn invited Mike back to his room, a salacious remark about bananas was made, she told him off and stormed out, and both parties spent the next several hours agitatedly making their case as the aggrieved one in the situation.
The next day, the two's relationship devolved down into a shouting match. A house meeting was called and, at least on the surface, things were calmed down. Since then, civility has held; the net result seems, though, to be a solidified, deepened resentment toward the "silver spoons" -- Mike, Will, and Shannon -- by at least some of the down-home folk, and by muscular account-exec Hardy and Kent. (Kent, the middle-aged Tennessee banker, is pitched as the house bigot on the commercials. Sorry, gang, he's getting along swimmingly with gay housemate Bunky.) Those two behave more protectively toward the women, whom they see as more vulnerable.
Or, as Kent charmingly calls them, "the needy bitches." But this language is utterly unremarkable in this cast of housemates, and the women he's talking about take no offense. His tone, at least, is sympathetic.
And there's little enough sympathy to go around in the new, improved, unintriguing and unpalatable "Big Brother 2."