`Brother,' can you spare me?

Review: TV's latest gawkathon offers up-close-and-personal glimpses into the lives and self-love of character types who, we can promise you, you have seen before.

July 06, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One day, and it can't be soon enough for me, we're going to all wake up and wonder what kind of madness it was that gripped us in the summer of 2000 to get us watching "reality" TV series like "Big Brother," which debuted last night on the shirttails of the CBS hit "Survivor."

The premise is to put 10 strangers in a back-to-the-basics house and cut them off from contact with the outside world. We get to watch and hear them via 28 cameras and 60 microphones. One by one, unpopular participants are voted out of the house. The last one left standing wins $500,000.

Last night, we got to meet each of them in up-close-and-personal, Olympics-style mini-profiles as they traveled in SUV's to the "Big Brother" house built at CBS' Studio City in Los Angeles. Anchorwoman Julie Chen, who reeks infomercial phoniness, introduced the 10 mini-profiles promising us they were "real people just like you."

Right.

In all but one or two cases, if I were seated with one of these people on a plane, I'd ask to be moved next to a crying baby or a drunk.

What CBS has done here is cast this house with people who resemble the stock types we have come to know from prime-time sitcoms and dramas for 50 years.

Jamie, the self-absorbed beauty queen with the 4.0 grade point average, is straight out of an Aaron Spelling prime-time soap opera. She actually had a guest appearance on "Baywatch."

"I don't know," she told us with false modesty in a moment of fake TV-confidence, "I guess if I had to describe myself, I'd say I'm a loving person."

Aren't we all, Jamie?

"The fact that I appeared on `Baywatch' showed a different side of me," she assured us as the screen filled with images of her in cap and gown.

Even George, the roofer from Rockford, Ill., is a type. I didn't get it at first. But then his wife said that initially she thought his applying to be on the show was "just another one of his crazy ideas." Then he said, "If America can get a thrill from looking at an overweight guy who's hairy walking around in his underwear, go for it."

Then I understood: George was Kevin James from the CBS sitcom, "The King of Queens." This sitcom type - the paunchy, aging, working-class guy who dreams and schemes - is one that goes all the way back to Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners."

Also included in a the group: a mom from Indiana, a young woman from New York who "loves to shop," a hunky attorney who sings in a choir, and, how could we almost forget, Jordan who's "an entertainer in a gentleman's club." But she considers herself a writer, because she's writing about it.

The only question with most of them is whether they are full blown narcissists or merely self-absorbed. Two of the guys began sentences with the phrase, "I've been told by people ..." In the case Josh, he's been told he "has a Peter Pan syndrome." In the case of William, he's been told, he's "a ladies man."

The oldest is in his 40s, but most of the 10 seem to be in their 20s and very into their bodies, based on the clips Chen and her reporter-sidekick, Ian O'Malley, showed us. Hard as it is to believe, O'Malley is even more TV-smarmy and unctious than Chen. Together they are too much bear.

The evening began with O'Malley taking us on a tour of the house while Chen watched from the "Big Brother" control room. The segment was peppered with exchanges like this: "I'm going to show you a bedroom, my friends, I can promise you, you've never ever seen," O'Malley told us.

"Wow, that was wild, Ian," Chen said after the visit. "That was so intense."

My favorite Chen moment came when she interviewed the girl friend of one of the people in the house, a good-looking college student named Eddie, who has only one leg. This is another staple of the network made-for-TV movie genre, the good-looking, athlete who overcomes a handicap. Think "The Far Side of the Mountain."

"Do you think he'll remain faithful?" Chen asked Eddie's girl friend.

By the time the caravan of SUV's, for which "all America has been waiting," in Chen's words, actually arrived at the "Big Brother" house near the end of the hour, I thought Chen was going to hyperventilate or levitate.

"You can't imagine the level of excitement," she said. "In the next three months, they will laugh, they will cry, they will come to love and some will come to hate each other as all friends and families do."

So that's it. "Big Brother" a cheap "reality" version of NBC sitcom hit "Friends." Only in this one instead of paying each of six stars $750,000 a week, you just build a cheap pre-fab house, rent a lot of cameras, put up $500,000 and let 10 egotists perform.

And, until we in the audience awaken from this summer madness, it will be called hit TV.

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