Method acting: how fake is real in Big Brother

So, it’s another first for Big Brother 8 – a professional actress (Thaila Zucchi) has been put in the house for a week under the pretence that she is a visitor from the Australian BB (similar to the housemate cross-pollination with the Big Brother Africa house in BB4).

This revelation marked the start of ‘fake week’, either a fresh, ingenious twist on the format, or a sign that reality TV is spinning off its bobbin.

In truth, it’s a bit of both.
The big sell line of BB, and its great pleasure, is that we can watch real people and their interactions in an incredibly intimate and pressurised environment. The dramas that unfold may only revolve around wet towels and undercooked chicken, but they engage us because the conflict is real, and we can empathise with or judge the characters in the same way we do with the people we encounter in our everyday lives.

Is the introduction of a fake housemate and a fake eviction (the two cornerstones of the format) sacrificing the show’s core appeal at the altar of Novelty?

It helps to think about the challenges that the producers have faced in recent years. They have to constantly think of new directions for the show, firstly because of the demands of audiences, critics, and their own creative careers. However even the heart and soul of the format (the simmering domestic disputes) relies on being able to pile the pressure on housemates by keeping them in a state of stress, fear and paranoia. The housemates can’t be allowed to take comfort in the fact that things will be the same as previous series.

From this second perspective, ‘fake week’ is just another way to draw the same drama out of the housemates – Nikki or Charley will be able to see what everyone in the house has said about them in their fake eviction interview on Friday, and then be able to return to the house, guns blazing. Having an actress in the house might have been hoped to spark a debate about which housemates are the most perceptive, or to have put strain on housemates who thought they had a genuine relationship with Pauline. With the actress it was the execution, rather than the concept, that was flawed.

The producers’ mistake was to use the international exchange artifice – every savvy BB contestant knows that Big Brother doesn’t repeat his gimmicks, and some of the housemates called the hoax straight away. Furthermore ‘Pauline’ wasn’t in the house long enough for any of the housemates to form any meaningful relationship with her.

But despite this rather faltering start, it seems to be a wise prediction that future series of BB will go further down the path of mixing reality and drama. This isn’t just because of the drive for innovation or conflict already mentioned, but also because the audience is becoming more sophisticated. We all know that Big Brother was never ‘Real’. After all, the most ‘Real’ part of it, the streaming, is incredibly dull. We all know the characters are edited, and we can all see that there are ‘story editors’ on the production credits. More than this, we don’t really mind, as long as the entertainment keeps coming.

This indifference to ‘Reality’ was demonstrated with the pioneer of reality/drama, Laguna Beach on MTV, a show that claims to follow the real lives and loves of rich kids living in Orange County. But pretty soon internet gossip revealed that the plots were decided by producers, and the kids were told to have specific conversations with each other. The show only got stronger because, do you know what? Whatever we may say, audiences prefer excitement and glamour to authenticity.

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2 thoughts on “Method acting: how fake is real in Big Brother

  1. I always thought ‘reality’ was the wrong way to brand this ‘new’ kind of TV anyway. After all, what differentialted it from what we’d seen before was not that it was more ‘real’. In fact, it was more artificial than ever before. The very definition of a format (‘a PLAN for the organization and arrangement of a specified production’)contradicts that of ‘reality’ (‘something that is real, as opposed to merely apparent’). Instead, what defines these shows – and I mean everything from docusoaps to the x factor – is that they mark the democritization television. For the first time, anyone (it seemed) could appear on screen, regardless of their appearance, accent, attitudes, upbringing and, most importantly, regardless of whether or not they merited the public’s attention. And that is the legacy of Big Brother, for better or worse.The introduction of an actress to BB8 is merely further confirmation that ‘democritized’ television just isn’t that watchable. The Big Brother casting process has become so rigorous and calculated that its no longer the case that ‘anyone’ can get themselves their 15 minutes. It’s just that the criteria the producers of ‘reality’ use are quite different from other things on television. The casting of an actress onto the show is an extension of this manipulation. What actually differentiated her from her housemates was not that she was ‘fake’ rather than ‘real’, but that her place in the house relied on the traditional (dare I say ‘old fashioned’?) criterion for getting the public’s attention: talent. In what seems a fairly innocuous ‘twist’ to the format, the producers have brought Big Brother to a rather natural conclusion and come full circle.That won’t stop them making Big Brother 9 though…

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  2. Exactly, and the regular casting process (which includes not only open auditions, but researchers seeking out people who haven’t auditioned) is the first filter of reality TV. Is there much difference between sending in an actress with a character and brief, to casting regular people who you’ve psychologically tested, and who’s personality and agenda you know from the start?

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