Before you enter the elaborate studio space CBS has converted into a sprawling home for its competition series Big Brother, the producers drop their joke nickname for the joint: The Human Zoo.
But the multilevel set built to house folks who have renounced TV, the Internet, music, books, pen and paper to live cooped in a space with a bunch of strangers feels more like a giant behavioral experiment no one is analyzing — a look at what happens when 13 super-self-obsessed people are stuck in a space with nothing to do but bounce off each other for an entire summer.
On Saturday, I joined a group of TV critics in a tour of the Big Brother set, carefully managed to ensure that the contestants never knew we were there. And that may have been the creepiest part of a really odd day — looking through the piles of dirty clothes and half-eaten food left lying around the place, while the show's contestants competed in a pinball-themed veto challenge viewers will see tonight, totally unaware we were rooting through their most private stuff.
"You really won't get it, until you live in here," said executive producer Allison Grodner, herself a prisoner of Big Brother in a way, shackled to the show's breakneck pace of cranking out three shows weekly for 2½ months, cobbled together from footage gathered by 52 cameras and 95 microphones.
"(New contestants) always say, 'Why are people crying? Why do they act like they're dying when they leave?' " Grodner said. "But it's intense; I always say its high school times 10,000."
Most of Big Brother's living space is ringed by large lights around the ceiling, which drench the common areas in illumination to make the camera shots better. Contestants rarely see the camera people, who shoot from behind an array of two-way mirrors, gliding along darkened hallways set outside the living spaces and marked with luminescent tape. (There's even a camera in the toilet room, mostly to keep houseguests from going in there to talk off-camera.)
The Big Brother "house" isn't really a house at all, but a giant set piece, featuring an outdoor area with fake grass, circled by a high wall, and an interior living area with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, "diary" area where contestants can talk alone with producers and a bathroom where even the showers are mostly open to the cameras' view.
Erratic behavior induced
Annie Whittington, the 27-year-old Tampa bartender who had a short-lived reign as the show's first secret saboteur, blamed the debilitating effects of the house's isolation for the erratic behavior that led the houseguests to eject her first, ending the show's biggest new twist before it barely began.
"Watching the show, I can barely recognize myself — a lot of times I was crying and the opposite of who I am, overreacting to everything" said Whittington, who returned to Tampa only last week, sequestered by the producers after her July 15 ejection while they considered bringing ousted players back into the game.
"People kept calling me crazy, but when you have nothing else going on in the house, you try to keep your mind occupied; that's why I kept talking," said Whittington, who would have earned $50,000 if she had survived five weeks as the saboteur. (On Thursday, viewers will pick a new saboteur who can earn $20,000 by staying undiscovered for two weeks.)
Tonight, viewers will see the competition we watched Saturday, featuring the houseguests playing a game based around the song Pinball Wizard (with no music allowed in the house — CBS doesn't want to pay royalties — houseguests jump at any opportunity to hear songs).
"This is the least-manipulated reality show out there (because) we have a 24/7 brigade of armchair producers watching this online," said Grodner, noting the show's camera feeds are available on the Internet anytime. "We can't change things and we don't know what's going to happen. So we just have to expect the unexpected."