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‘Survivor’ Shows Us Who We Want to Be, but ‘Big Brother’ Shows Us Who We Are

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Big Brother

Ever since they both premiered on CBS in the summer of 2000, Survivor and Big Brother have been intertwined in the history of reality television. And right from the beginning, their fates were determined: Survivor was the breakaway success, while Big Brother was the struggling stepchild that nobody liked all that much and had to be significantly re-tooled before it came back for season 2. Survivor had been the venerable bedrock of the reality genre, earning industry respect and keeping a base of loyal fans and viewers, while Big Brother made news for contestants holding knives to other contestants’ throats and a season full of racists.

This is the dichotomy that has persisted for 17 years now. Survivor got Emmy nominations; Big Brother had a winner who was arrested for using his winnings to finance a meth-dealing ring. This all seems only too appropriate, considering that Survivor and Big Brother represent America in two very different ways. Survivor presents Americans as who we want to be; Big Brother presents Americans as who we are.

Survivor represents us as we would like to be: capable enough to live by our wits on a deserted island; clever enough to pull off complicated strategy maneuvers; an elemental archetype like a Hero or a Villain or a Game-Changer. In the hands of Jeff Probst — who, for all his faults, really knows how to set up narrative — Survivor has become a battle of strength and skill and cunning. People from all walks of life (white-collars! blue-collars! some strange new breed of people we’ll call no-collars!) come together and agree to play a game. But through that game, they show their best qualities. Even when they’re underhanded, they’re underhanded with panache. Even when they lie, they lie big.

Big Brother, on the other hand? That’s the us we really are. Vain. Stupid. Mean. While Survior casts lawyers and doctors and professional athletes, Big Brother casts the kind of people who have nothing going on for an entire summer. Big Brother contestants are told to scream during their confessionals, because in America, that’s the only way we know how to talk to each other anymore. On Big Brother, contestants are punished by having to eat oatmeal and rewarded with booze. Sound familiar, America?

The reasons for this divide may come down to casting. Surely those who could spare 39 days for Survivor are a different set than those who could drop out of their lives for 99 days to summer on Big Brother. But a lot of it comes down to the way the shows are filmed and produced. Survivor airs once weekly for 13 weeks. Factor in the two-hour finale, and that’s 14 hours of programming. Less when you factor in commercials. Under 14 hours of tightly-edited footage designed to show every contestant at their most interesting. Big Brother, meanwhile, airs three times a week, plus streams 24 hours a day for the entire season. During that time, we see everything, and even if we’re not glued to CBS All-Access to see it, we end up hearing about it. Clips from the BB live feeds are all over the internet; Twitter has multiple BB spoiler accounts; all to make sure that if something gets said or done in the Big Brother house, we hear about it. As a result of all that extra coverage, we see Big Brother contestants in all their completeness. And it is not pretty. Left to their own devices, the Big Brother contestants lay about the house all day (just as we all waste our lives away on Twitter and television), never clean up their dishes (similar to the way we treat the environment), and never seem to stop saying stupid shit.

Current Big Brother 19 contestant Cody Nickson, a construction sales rep and former Marine from Plano, TX, wasted little time exposing himself on the show. (Not literally, though that happens on the show quite a bit as well.) In the first week of live feeds, Cody was captured making derisive remarks about transgender people, unapolgetically and repeatedly using the slur “tranny” while his housemates tell him to stop (while nervously giggling).

Cody is far from the first Big Brother contestant to be blatantly offensive, and he won’t be the last. Live-feed reports are full of contestants being offensive to women, minorities, making ignorant political statements, et cetera. You don’t see this on Survivor, ever. Is it because Survivor contestants all have good opinions and non-problematic politics? Absolutely not! But Survivor is molded to be a show about putting aside our ugly opinions and coming together to play a game. Which isn’t to say that people’s ugly sides don’t bleed out into the foreground on Survivor. It does. Alpha males become bullies; mean girls get meaner. We’re free to make any sort of inferences about why, say, white ex-football player Brad Culpepper called rival tribe member Michaela a “diva” on the most recent season, but the last time we saw politics or bigotry overtly enter a Survivor narrative was Frank’s anti-liberal rants on Survivor: Africa, which was season THREE. Sixteen years ago.

In fact, contrast Big Brother Cody’s “tranny” speak with the most high-profile story from Survivor last season: when contestant Jeff Varner outed tribemate Zeke Smith as transgender, and action that was shocking in its casual cruelty. Here’s what Survivor did with it, though: Zeke’s tribemates immediately came to his defense, and Jeff Probst steered the conversation around to a place where Zeke could take control of his narrative. While Varner’s actions were horrible, the moment as a whole felt positive and affirming; Survivor reflecting what we would all hope our best selves would have done in the moment.

Big Brother contestants are America at its most basic and mundane, puttering around a big, dirty house, wondering how it can maintain and exploit its fellow contestants. Survivor is the America it mythologizes for itself: strong, brave, cunning. Not afraid to get its hands dirty, but always with a plan. Survivor has villains, yes, but they almost always end up thwarted in the end (hello, Russell Hantz). Jeff Probst is presiding over the Greatest Generation of reality contestants as they brave the elements. Julie Chen is watching hers sleep til noon. Survivor is the best of us. Big Brother is the rest of us.

Where to stream Big Brother

Where to stream Survivor

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