Reality TV has never been a favorite genre of mine, but it remains a popular one in the eyes of most Americans. Shows like The Real World and Survivor helped to kick-start the current trend, although they certainly weren't the first pioneers. Television history offers classic examples like Candid Camera (which premiered in 1948, believe it or not!) and 1955's Wanted (which influenced later shows such as America's Most Wanted and Cops). Although these earlier shows didn't follow the same patterns as our current crop of reality TV, the effect is largely the same.
It's true that this phenomenon of programming is only the retelling of an age-old fact: by and large, most people are inherently nosy. Plain and simple, they like to compare themselves to others, even if they're complete strangers. From instinctively turning your head at the scene of a car accident to witnessing a constant barrage of media coverage, it seems like privacy is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Now that TV has caught on to this again, almost every network has tried to grab a piece of the pie: from Joe Millionaire to Temptation Island, that sound you hear is the beating of a dead horse.
Of course, most viewers are smart enough to realize that even the most "genuine" reality TV shows are anything but. When you get right down to it, sticking a camera in most anyone's face and telling them to "act naturally" is the equivalent of teaching a pig to sing. Whether the people onscreen are acting naturally or not is entirely inconsequential, as we don't know them in real life anyway. They are merely objects that perform for our entertainment, and nothing more.
In 2000, the CBS network launched Big Brother, which is currently in its fourth season as of 2004. Of course, the show's name is taken from the well-known "entity" in George Orwell's 1984, where televisions act as receivers and transmitters, and everyone is being watched. Likewise, this show features a number of contestants herded into a large house for months at a time, given virtually no communication with the outside world. Naturally, these people are being recorded during every moment of their stay, and the best bits are chosen as food for the hungry public. Alliances are formed, backs are stabbed, and there's more gossip than a thousand high school cafeterias. To be fair, this concept was in a unique position to really create some great TV: if done right, it could have made for a blistering American social satire.
Unfortunately, social satires don't usually perform well in a prime-time slot.
In essence, Big Brother is a glorified game show in the vein of Fear Factor, ElimiDate, and even America's Funniest Home Videos. Here's the basic plot, as it were: these fine contestants battle it out to be proclaimed "head of the household". One by one, they vote each other out of the house until the winner is left standing (the first season actually had viewers call in to vote, but this was quickly dropped). Of course, there's fabulous cash and prizes up for grabs, because people don't usually agree to exploitation unless they can get something out of it.
This fourth season added a new twist to the plot: five of these contestants were also greeted with an unwelcome surprise: their ex-boyfriends/girlfriends would be joining the party as contestants for the remainder of their stay. Dubbed "The X-Factor", this twist of adding an old flame certainly made things more interesting on paper, but only proves to be another gimmick in a genre already full of them. In reality, it's just an excuse for these pretty people to air out their dirty laundry on national TV.
Hosted by Julie Chen (seen above), Big Brother is about as exploitive as reality TV gets, and even more so in this fourth season. The more diverse groups of contestants are now ancient history, as we're now given a cookie-cutter mass of 20-somethings that wouldn't look out of place in a Calvin Klein ad (with the exception of a retired former FBI agent, who looks really out of place). Of course, this new batch of magazine-cover contestants were put there for obvious reasons, and this DVD release milks these reasons for all they're worth. The cover image greets us with promises of "UNCENSORED & UNRELEASED SCENES!!" (yes, with two exclamation marks!!) and a Parental Advisory sticker for "explicit material". Even the back description reminds us that these discs include "scenes that couldn't be shown on Network TV". On a basic level, it delivers on its promise: this DVD contains strong doses of profanity and the occasional helping of nudity, so at least it's not guilty of false advertising.
While some may pass Big Brother off as a guilty pleasure, I couldn't find many redeeming qualities during this four-part, four-hour compilation of shows. In my opinion, it barely qualifies as entertainment---even on the most basic level of a "guilty pleasure"---and only serves as further proof that we aren't at the end of the reality TV tunnel...not by a long shot. In short, this fourth season of Big Brother can be most easily compared to a vacuum: empty, meaningless, and devoid of substance (and to think, this is a "Best Of" compilation!). While it certainly isn't the worst example of reality TV I've ever seen, Big Brother is everything George Orwell warned us about.
This 2-disc set comes to us from WinMedia, and presents nearly four hours of the "best moments" from this fourth season of Big Brother (two hours of which were previously unseen, which is really saying something). Unfortunately, the DVD treatment isn't much better than the show itself, featuring a very questionable technical presentation. In any case, let's see how this one stacks up:
Quality Control Department
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the video quality for The Best of Big Brother 4 is largely hit-or-miss. The good news: colors and black levels are perfectly fine, and shouldn't disappoint anyone who caught this on TV. The bad news: this DVD falls victim to a number of common problems, including a wealth of jagged lines and pixellation. In some cases, quick movements and extended periods of speaking resulted in more drastic problems, almost making the image appear to "vibrate" with jagged lines. Although these problems could simply be the result of bad DVD authoring, it's probably because nearly four hours of content are squeezed into the first disc alone. I don't know what possessed WinMedia to make such a bad decision, but it doesn't make for a great presentation by any means.
Thankfully, the audio presentation is free from major defects. Dialogue and music come through perfectly clear, and the overall 2.0 Stereo mix remains in tune with most traditional television broadcasts. It's not a terribly exciting mix, mind you…but it gets the job done, and that's the best we can hope for in this case.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The poor organization of the episodes was already covered in the video section above, although the overall presentation fares slightly better. Each of these four parts is divided into a dozen or so chapters (each with a running time of approximately 55 minutes), and no layer change was detected. The menu designs were quite plain and hard to navigate (thanks to a highlight cursor that looks almost identical to the non-highlighted options), but the overall layout was simple enough. The DVD packaging is also fairly straightforward, and features plenty of notice about the "uncensored content". Also included is a $10.00 rebate for owners of the Big Brother: Season Three boxed set, and a coupon for Bally Total Fitness (to keep you looking as good as the contestants, I guess).
The bonus features (presented on disc 2) are kicked off with a few rounds of juicy gossip, including Boy's Talk and Girl's Sex Talk (I guess boys never talk about sex). These run for about 6 and 10 minutes respectively, and are really nothing more than additional footage. Also here is a Drinking Game (more bonus footage, about 20 minutes), as well as a New York Tour with Jun (one of the contestants), who provides us with a brief glimpse of her hometown. In a way, this tour of the Big Apple was the most interesting extra, despite its fluffiness: it's almost our only time seeing someone outside of the house, and it makes for a nice change of scenery. Lastly, we're given a series of Cast Auditions, featuring a few minutes of audition footage from each of the Season Four contestants. Overall, it's a decent mix of extras that should please fans of the show. While I can't really say I enjoyed these extras immensely, I can appreciate their inclusion for followers of Big Brother.
Plain and simple, fans of reality TV can do much better than Big Brother, especially after the producers' attempts to "sex up" this fourth season. The characters were mostly obnoxious and unlikable, and the overall theme of the show just isn't one that I particularly enjoy. Additionally, the questionable presentation of this 2-disc set (especially in the video department) should also raise a few red flags. While I'm sure that there's an audience out there that enjoyed this fourth season, this release just didn't have enough going for it to consider this 2-disc set a worthwile purchase. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor and gallery assistant based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.