Over the next few days, the incident got into the papers, and was talked about extensively on internet message boards. It was learned rather quickly that Justin had an arrest record (though no convictions) in his home city of Bayonne, New Jersey, and that he had a history of violence. (Indeed, six months later, he would be arrested again for assaulting his estranged girlfriend.) The gist of the commentary was, how did he slip through? How did they not know of his proclivity to violence? Shouldn't the producers do a better job of the psychological screening and the background checks?
And meanwhile, the voice-in-the-wilderness of the Infidel In The Temple thought they were missing the point, all the way down the line, about what Justin represented and where he fit in with the whole "Big Brother" picture. I found that they were missing the point on three counts. Number one, "Big Brother" was a dangerous enough concept from the get-go, with or without the likes of Justin. Number two, Justin was bad enough with or without the knife incident, and in fact the knife incident wasn't even the most significant part of his menacing nature. Number three, with number two still fresh in mind: Justin was exactly the kind of contestant whom executive producer Arnold Shapiro and CBS network president Les Moonves wanted on that show.
Let's start with the basic shell of the concept. Put ten or twelve people in a house under constant camera and mike exposure, broadcasting their doings to millions of viewers. (I won't say "voyeurs" this time.) Right away, I observe two things. Number one, it's obvious why it's going to be inviting to prospective applicants. People want thrills. They want adventure. They want risks. To quote a term from Psych 101, they want "novel stimulation." After all, why do people water-ski, sky-dive, and ride amusement-park cyclones? Number two, it's a a danger. It's very difficult for some people to gauge how well they can cope with the pressures of the reality-TV environment--how well they can cope with being under scrutiny, having their personalities, private lives, and even their physical features commented on mercilessly on message boards (of which this is generally one of the milder ones); how well they can handle the weekly vote in which somebody has to be told, in effect, "go away, we don't want you" while millions watch; how well they can handle the bizarre behavior that either comes out of them or gets directed at them by others in this psychological crucible. It's a danger, and yet, I say again, it's a danger that has an appeal. There's a good reason why people want to go on. In tort law, it might be termed "an attractive nuisance."
I think probably the best illustration, even before we look at the Shapiro factor (but have no fear, gentle reader, Shapiro will be dealt with at length later on in this post), of what makes reality TV a psychological crucible and an emotional blood sport comes from the famed Kelly-Sue saga on "Survivor 1." Viewers watched as these two women found that they had common bonds between them and became the closest of friends. Then, through actions in the playing of the game, their friendship turned sour. I don't even know all the details, but in essence, Kelly made a move in the strategic playing of the game that caused Sue to feel betrayed. This is exactly what you can expect on such a show, and in fact a key part of the drama that viewers probably want to see: the element of "Yes I know we're competing in a game, but I thought you were my friend." Where contestants are surrounded by each other and have to live and work together to make a home, with some combinations of them most likely forming bonds, and at the same time have to participate in banishment votes, and where there is no rulebook on how they should choose whom to vote out, they are forced, in effect, to write their own rulebooks when it comes to personal relationships and voting choices.
As many who have read my past writings are aware, when I first found out about such shows, I deeply felt the need to respond to this unfortunate phenomenon in the way that I exorcise my demons most frequently, by writing a play on the subject. I wrote a play titled "Jocelyn," and had it done last year as a staged reading in the theatre group where I'm a member. (For some strange reason, I can't get anybody to produce it any further than that, but I'll let you read it and judge.) Because I found that reality TV exploited most of all the contradiction between being friends and being high-stakes competitors, and because I had the knowledge of the famous Kelly-Sue saga from "Survivor 1" fresh in my head, I created a character who has both a strong need for friends and being loved, and a strong need to play every game to win in order to feel legitimate and worthy. Thus, my tragic heroine, Jocelyn, is both a sensitive, needy person who loves her friends deeply, and a crafty, scheming competitor. She organizes an alliance with Marcy and Renee, the two young woman who, like her, are always the first up in the morning, hence their title "the kitchen caucus."
JOCELYN: Renee, Marcy, I'm talking about the exile vote. We've got to start realizing, this is a sport! Listen. You know why the votes have been getting me all depressed? Because they've been about saying "go away, we don't want you," when they should be about "ha-ha, gotcha sucker!" They should be fun.
RENEE: You think getting exiled can be fun?
JOCELYN: No, but playing the game of exile can be fun--like Flashlight Murder!
MARCY: So get to the bottom line.
MARCY: Okay, now, use that in a sentence? Sorry, just the copy-editor in me.
JOCELYN: We need a strategy. Together. Us. The way to play this is to realize that it's a sport, and when you're playing a sport, you need a little stealth, a little craftiness, but all in good, clean fun!
RENEE: Okay, we got the philosophy; the nuts and bolts of it now, please?
JOCELYN: I want the three of us to form a team, a secret alliance, to agree on who our strongest competitors are, and get them out of our way one by one. The beauty of it is, it will be right under their noses that they should get rid of us, starting with me, and it will be a test of who's wise enough to catch on.
Kimm>arie Bowens as Renee, Andrea Clark Li>bin as Jocelyn, and Ellen Sa>land as Marcy in the mini-production we did in June, 2001, at the 42nd Street Wor>kshop in NYC. Photo by Tony Spo>rtiello.
Now, Jocelyn has no intention of taking Marcy or Renee with her to the finals; she has full intention of getting rid of them both later on in the game, but from her point of view, this is no different from the nightly games of ping-pong she plays with Marcy. The game is a game and the friendship is a friendship. In fact, she and Marcy have grown very close. They have confabs late at night on the back lawn.
JOCELYN: You know how, when you're having sex, there's a climax?
MARCY: (with a trace of humor): Yes?
JOCELYN: I've always wanted to feel something like that with a friend, too. Some kind of moment when our whole bodies were just tingling all over from how close we felt.
MARCY: You want to know something? That's what I was feeling just now, when you got to the part about tip-toeing across the floorboards. It makes me wish I'd grown up with you as my baby sister. I'd have been mopping up the floor with you when it was just us, but shit, I'd have protected you like a trooper from mom and dad and things that go bump in the night.
JOCELYN: I'd have loved to have you as my sister. Man, the stuff we could have done together! And yes, Marcy, you're very much my friend. I don't want anything we do in this game to ever change that.
MARCY: Like we keep telling each other--a game is what it is.
JOCELYN: Thanks. Because I still sometimes wake up in the middle of the night sweating with fear, and I just look over at where you're sleeping, and where Renee's sleeping... It helps me make it through the night to know I'll be seeing you at breakfast the next morning. Does that make sense?
MARCY: It sure does, sister.
Well, weeks later, the time comes that Jocelyn is ready to pull a surprise move on Marcy, and things come to a head. The producers are absolutely ecstatic that a catfight is in the works, as Marcy figures out Jocelyn's plans and is furious to the max. Jocelyn, meanwhile, has no idea just how personally Marcy is going to take it. Renee tries to warn her.
RENEE: Jocelyn, I have to tell you something.
RENEE: Marcy's ready for you, and she's not in very good humor.
JOCELYN: Huh? What are you talking about?
RENEE: Don't play dumb, Jocelyn, we don't have time. You know damn well what I'm talking about.
JOCELYN: Is Marcy really pissed off? Is that what you're saying?
RENEE: She's in a whole other dimension from "pissed off." I don't like telling you this, but you're going to be facing this shit on the air tonight.
JOCELYN: Renee, we are playing a game. A game! It's not supposed to be personal.
RENEE: Yes, it's a game, but you know what? It's the kind of game where we each have to write our own rulebook. Your rulebook says it's nothing personal; Marcy's rulebook says it's everything personal.
And, things don't get much better from there.
Now, this gives you the essence of my feeling about "Big Brother" in general. The basic feature whereby houseguests are both close living companions and high-stakes competitors, having to navigate the rules of right-and-wrong in friendship and competition--this, for me, is disturbing enough, and what I had on my mind when I wrote my play. However, a whole new dimension of danger came in when a certain Mr. Arnold Shapiro took the reigns.
Consider, if you will, the circumstances under which Arnold Shapiro was hired to take over running "Big Brother." The first season had had its dramatic conflicts and romantic intrigues in the beginning, but after the first few banishment votes, the house was left with a pretty sedate bunch. Now sure, Eddie could be obnoxious and Jamie was far from modest about her looks and her aspirations to be the next Sharon Stone, but there was a veil of civility and restraint over everything that was said and done in that house. Tempers flared briefly, but they didn't take long to die down, especially if resident U.N. diplomat Cassandra was present to do her peacekeeping thing. Cassandra, in fact, at times seemed to think she was on an Outward Bound expedition or in a personal-growth seminar: she made the whole thing into an exercise in cohesiveness and cooperation, for herself and anybody who was in the room with her at any given time. If the producers didn't consider the selection of her to be the biggest mistake they'd made that year, she was second only to Curtis.
So, in the latter weeks of season one, the producers were pulling one desperate cheap-trick after another to get the hamsters clawing at each other, and to make individual houseguests controversial. Does anybody here seriously need me to explain why they gave Jamie a choice between a two-minute visit with a big casting director and a two-minute visit with her mother? Why they made the houseguests fill out a questionnaire voting each other "most dishonest" and "longest time in the bathroom"? Or why they made a quiz question out of which houseguest had previously said "I'd sooner do a guy than kiss him"? (Josh, in case anybody's in suspense.) The night they did the game about the questionnaire, Curtis was quoted on the live-cam updates as suggesting that tomorrow night's challenge would probably be "Beat a houseguest to death, billy clubs are in the storage bin." The producers also tried to get one of these houseguests to bail out for 50 grand so they could add that gal Beth into the mix to stir things up with Jamie.
But the strategies to induce fights were to no avail. "Big Brother" was still the laughing stock of the season, with a reputation for being "dull as nails" and "like watching paint dry." The producers assured everybody that the following year would have more tension and sexual chemistry; the network apparently decided that the best way to do this was to clean house and bring in a new production group. Enter Shapiro.
The really amazing thing about the start of the Shapiro reign was how little the press seemed to take notice of what he was saying. Sure, they printed it, but it did not particularly seem to concern or alarm them. When Shapiro announced that there would be sexual politics--that is, when he announced that he was hoping to see perfect strangers, on a television game show on a major and theoretically respectable network, actually have sex with each other as part of the playing of a game, with CBS cameras and microphones recording every caress and gyration and thrust and groan, possibly transmitting it over the live-cam feeds (though in actual practice that was when the camera updates tended to say "fade to black" and "FOTH")--this did not seem to get very many hackles up. Nor were they concerned about the obviously psychologically dangerous situation of putting people together in a closed environment and encouraging their most mean-spirited and uncivil behavior.
A look at the audition/interview videos of the line-up last year makes clear what the producers were after. There's Nicole, boasting about what a master of head-games she has always been. There's Will, promising to be condescending and to see himself as intellectually superior to everybody else. There's Mike, announcing that he'll do anything to win, and expects to sleep with at least one or two of the women of the house. There's Kent, letting it be known that he thinks the gay lifestyle is deviant.
And then there's Justin.
Let's pretend, for the moment, that one of the candidates for the show had said, "Hey, you know, like, the other night me and my redneck buddies were cruising the town, and we saw this black kid walking down the street, so we called out to him, 'Hey, [insert slang term here], why don't you go back to Africa?' " Or, suppose he had said, "There was this 100-year-old lady walking with a cane, and we yelled out, 'Hey, you old bat, when are you gonna croak?' " With those two imaginary epithets in mind, let me ask you to consider: Is it any better for a guy to say to a woman, with whom his brother is socializing, "Hey, you know, you are ugly! Your face is a walking disaster area!" Is this not just another form of bigotry? Is this any better than a racial epithet or than elder abuse? For that matter, is this any better than a physical assault? I ask you this, because that is precisely that Justin did boast of having recently done in his audition video.
This is why I say people were missing the point with the knife incident. Who cares whether Shapiro knew that this guy would put a knife up to a woman's throat? It's bad enough, my friends, it's bad enough many times over and then some, that Shapiro knew that Justin would insult a woman's physical appearance for kicks. When you think about what bigotry is in practice--the sense of entitlement to make other people feel like shit for totally illegitimate reasons, whether skin color or religious affiliation, in order to make oneself feel superior and powerful--and when you realize that hurting people verbally for no reason is just another form of violence, then there is no longer any meaningful question of whether Shapiro could have foreseen the knife incident. I don't know if Shapiro could have known about Justin's background of physical violence, but it didn't take a bit of detective work to know Justin's love for verbal violence: all it took was to watch that tape.
With that in mind, what does it say about Mr. Shapiro, that at the time he removed Justing for the knife incident, he told the press that it had to be done "much as we like Justin," and that he recently told Kent in an E-mail interview that his biggest regret of the season was having to lose Justin?
The live-cam updates show that Justin's behavior during his brief stay in that house was one big headgame. He wasn't above insulting or intimidating people; the tension level in the house was incredible--not that it was all that much lower when he was gone, since he certainly wasn't the only person they picked for tendency toward mean-spirited and manipulative behavior.
In fact, truth be told, not only were people missing the point when they focused on the knife incident: They were missing the point when they made a big fuss over Justin. Both the knife incident and Justin's presence in that house at all were symptoms of the bigger problem. The problem was Shapiro. The problem was that all semblance of psychological prudence and caution had been thrown to the wind. (And yes, Shapiro, if you're reading this, I do know that you have a psychologist on staff to counsel the houseguests when things get heated. But, as I was saying...) All semblance of psychological prudence and caution had been thrown to the wind, and the extremes of verbal violence and psychological warfare were now fair game, open season. They could insult. They could intimidate. They could lie. They could inflict psychological pain. They could, and they did. After the knife incident, there was a period of about a week when articles were appearing over the question of whether another houseguest, Autumn, was going to suffer a nervous breakdown. Her vulnerability was wide open on the national cameras. (Ironically, I forgot to mention Autumn when I was listing the winning applicants who had indicated in their audition videos that they expected to have a little nookie on the show for politics. Autumn did her audition video from a bed, with a guy wriggling around under the covers beside her.)
And let's look at the outcome of last year. I predicted in advance that there would be a houseful of extreme personalities, and I was right. I also predicted that the strategy would bomb. I was wrong about that. Shapiro cranked up all the dials, making that house a crucible and making the line-up something bordering on a circus-of-the-narcissists--and he got rewarded. Probably the most salient point that needs to be seen, in gauging what to expect this year, is that Shapiro got rewarded last year. The network executives were happy, even though CBS President Les Moonves did get grilled by reporters about the knife incident (reporters whom I wish I had corresponded with prior to that conference, so they wouldn't miss the point); the show got renewed, and Shapiro got renewed as its producer. So, from Shapiro's point of view, he has a green light to pull the same shenanigans again, maybe even get bolder, all the while telling reporters that he's so proud of the serious documentaries he's done that helped people's lives, telling reporters he thinks "Temptation Island" is sleazy... For the moment, Shapiro is riding high.
In fact, it's important that we not forget the Moonves factor. One might think, especially after last summer, that Moonves would consider "Big Brother" to be something of an embarrassment, the stepchild about which the less said the better. Unfortunately, that isn't how he feels at all. "Big Brother" and "Survivor" are his pride and joy. And the accounts of both Kent and Nicole tell us that, when the finalists get interviewed, Moonves is one of the suited honchos interviewing them. For anybody laboring under the illusion, as I once was, that Moonves is tucked away in his office passively, casually allowing "Big Brother" to happen by not paying enough attention, the news is: He's paying loads of attention, and he loves it! So, when I say that Justin's antics are a symptom of what Shapiro wants, perhaps I should also be saying that Shapiro's antics are a symptom of what Moonves wants.
And now, the question--what is going to happen this year?
I can see two different ways in which the show could backfire in Shapiro's face this year. One is if the houseguests just aren't as wild as he expects them to be, and he increasingly has a repeat of season one on his hands, with a bunch of nice people sitting around talking, keeping the eviction votes as impersonal as possible. The reason this is possible is that, after two seasons, especially after last season, there are bound to be some limits to just how seriously any of these houseguests can take this game. I have no statistics, but I can certainly tell you that, here in New York, some of the people who showed up at the open call were aspiring actors thinking (mistakenly) that a summer on "Big Brother" could be their big break. If that's whom he fills the house with, good luck getting any wild surprises at all. Another group that I think tried out this year is viewers, devotees so in love with the show that they want to try the inside. Will they give Shapiro the drama he's looking for? I wouldn't be so sure about that, for this reason: They know all the moves. Nothing is likely to catch them off-guard.
Or, the other adverse scenario is that things get so sleazy and dangerous that the general public reacts adversely. Because last year's experience most likely gave Shapiro the false assurance that he has nothing to worry about here, he may very well crank intensity levels up higher, in the encouragement of mean-spirited behavior and sex-for-votes. Now, I would have thought that the lurid conversations that went on in that house last year were bad enough, and they didn't cause a bit of public outrage, but there are still bound to be limits, and I would not at all be surprised if Shapiro tested those limits this year. Moreover--and I really would not want to see this happen--a suicide or a nervous breakdown would certainly cause some concerns, though I have full confidence that Shapiro and the network have their spin doctors all ready in case of such an occurrence.
The thing to realize about all this is, Shapiro is only in control up to a point. If there's a scale where 5 represents the point where the houseguests are so nice they're boring, and 9 represents the point where a suicide or a nervous breakdown will occur, Shapiro does not have the luxury of setting the dial precisely at 7.8 and making sure it holds there. Or, if he does have a season where it happens to hold steady at 7.8, Shapiro isn't able to turn it up to 8.2 or 8.4 and hold it steady there. But he may very well think he can, and he may very well try. Put another way, producing "Big Brother" is like driving a car with a malfunctioning accelerator pedal. If you handle the pedal normally, the car goes too slowly and isn't worth your while, makes you look foolish, but if you step on the pedal, it's likely to surge forward suddenly and crash into the car ahead of you. And yet last year, Shapiro got away with driving such a car. He was like a teenage kid on the freeway, with this malfunctioning car going 80 miles an hour, he's got the sunglasses on and the stereo blasting, and he's singing along with the music while he cruises recklessly along. And he got away with it. And guess what! Our driver is about to take this car for another spin, and since he had such a good time doing 80, he just might try 90.
I'm no sadist. I don't want the guy to crash. But believe me, I certainly do want him to get a ticket. And likewise, before somebody from this show does come to permanent harm, I want Shapiro and his loathesome show to get their walking papers from the network. Come to think of it, I hope there's some way that some walking papers can be sent Les Moonves's way as well. In any case, may this be the last year that the United States and the CBS Television Network are hosts to a show like "Big Brother," a show that was dangerous enough even before Shapiro came along to work his magic, and that is now even more of an accident waiting to happen.
P.S. I said earlier that I'd be glad to let you read my play "Jocelyn." E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you a script as a file attachment. Let me know if you cannot readily access Microsoft Word. I will ask you not to post it on the web, mass-distribute it, or sell it, and that you'll contact me if you or anybody connected with you wants to perform it, perform scenes from it, or write about it.