A ‘Big Brother’ alliance could make history. Not everyone is thrilled
“Expect the unexpected.”
That warning is often delivered by “Big Brother” host Julie Chen Moonves to contestants on the popular reality show, which isolates participants from the outside world for the summer. Houseguests are continually reminded of the sudden twists and turns dreamed up by the unseen but controlling “Big Brother,” which can turn the game upside down.
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But rarely has Chen Moonves’ warning been more spot-on than the current season, which features the franchise’s most diverse cast ever, including several Black contestants. The casting marks a milestone for the CBS series, which has featured predominantly white casts since its premiere in 2000.
The new, more inclusive “Big Brother” reflects the network’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. CBS Chief Executive George Cheeks ordered that the casts of unscripted shows starting this year must be at least 50% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).
As “Big Brother” enters its Season 21 finale, the reality show’s history of contestants using racist language once again raises questions about CBS’ diversity push.
The mandate also represented an opportunity for the franchise to reverse its troubled past. “Big Brother” has been repeatedly rocked by allegations of racism and bullying among the houseguests, and the producers have been criticized for failing to address the issue adequately.
“It’s hard to imagine a show dealing with race in worse ways than ‘Big Brother’ has done,” said Andy Dehnart, creator of and TV critic for realityblurred.com. “Over its history, it has done a very poor job on every level. So it’s fantastic to see a cast that is truly representative.”
Added Vince Dixon, a digital journalist who has been watching “Big Brother” since its premiere: “It’s been a long time coming. For a lot of fans, we’ve been waiting, and it’s a good thing.”
But not everyone has responded positively to the new season, the series’ 23rd. The culturally mixed cast has provoked emotional reactions from a number of “Big Brother” loyalists upset about how the competition is playing out. And some observers are asking what measures producers took beyond meeting the casting mandate to ensure that the series had a more responsible and sensitive understanding of the complexities of racial issues than it has shown in the past.
At the center of the season is “the Cookout,” a secret alliance of Black houseguests operating under the radar while plotting to evict non-Cookout contestants. The six-member group already broke new ground last week by staying intact long enough to form the majority of a jury that will determine the winner of the $750,000 grand prize.
The alliance has a historic goal: crowning the show’s first Black winner.
The Cookout has earned a stream of laudatory shout-outs on social media, with multiple viewers describing it as one of the most compelling alliances in “Big Brother” history — high praise for a series in which the formation and dissolution of alliances provides the lion’s share of the drama. (One fan specifically singled out the Cookout’s strategy, purpose and “self-sacrificing commitment.”)
Others, though, have lashed out against the Cookout, accusing “Big Brother” of embracing “reverse racism” and the targeting of white houseguests. (“If this were an all-white alliance, CBS would be breaking it up,” one viewer wrote.)
Dehnart said he was not surprised by the outcry against the Cookout.
“There’s certainly a lot of racism expressed by ‘Big Brother’ fans over the years, so to see them respond in this way is not surprising,” he said. “It’s disappointing. Over the course of 23 seasons, this show has had more than its share of all-white alliances.”
Longtime “Big Brother” viewer Thane Montgomery, who works in film post-production, is amused by the anti-Cookout sentiment.
“People are upset, and honestly, I kind of love it,” said Montgomery, who is white. “It’s people who have never had this opportunity before banding together to do what the white houseguests have been doing for years.”
Although the Cookout is the season’s most intriguing storyline and potentially the strongest alliance in the house, critics say that doesn’t necessarily mean the series has resolved its past racial issues.
In an Entertainment Weekly interview before the season premiered last month, Chen Moonves promoted the diverse cast and maintained that the series has always been transparent about race: “We’ve never shied away from addressing any racial issue that comes out.”
But so far, when Chen Moonves has interviewed houseguests — all white — who have been voted out, discussing alliances and strategies they may not have been aware of, she has not mentioned the Cookout.
She also did not push back when the show’s first evictee, sales tech consultant Travis Long, said he was not surprised about his ouster because he was “a white guy with abs” and they’re always the first to get kicked out.
“It speaks to the sloppiness of the producers in terms of handling race,” Dixon said. “It’s a disingenuous approach that seems calculated and controlled. It doesn’t feel honest or transparent at all. Julie not mentioning the Cookout to the people who are out is a reflection of that.”
A spokesperson for the series said Chen Moonves has not mentioned the Cookout to the first group of evictees because “the reveal of the alliance did not play an important part of the evicted Houseguest’s story.” Chen Moonves will also be prohibited from bringing up the Cookout to jury members, who are sequestered in a separate location.
There is no privacy in the “Big Brother” house — players are monitored 24 hours a day by cameras, which broadcast a live feed that is avidly watched by the most devoted fans. In previous seasons, the show has been criticized for not airing or for downplaying racially offensive incidents and behavior caught on the feed but not featured in the heavily edited broadcasts that air on CBS three times a week.
Dehnart added, “It’s important to note that although CBS has improved its casting, I don’t know what the behind-the-scenes situation looks like, and how, if at all, they’ve improved there. That’s the most important thing — to have representation behind the camera. That directly affects how the show is produced, and how a diverse cast is edited, the questions that [are] asked of them, and the challenges that arise. I’m curious if they’ve made changes to train, diversify and really attempt to rethink who makes the show and who they make it for.”
For ‘The Bachelorette’ and ‘Big Brother,’ two series with fraught histories around race, meaningful treatment of the subject has been a challenge.
Producers in a statement insisted that “hiring and growing a diverse crew and staff is a top priority.” The statement added that the series last summer recruited more BIPOC staff at crew at all levels, from entry level to senior management, and that further diversity and inclusion is planned in the future.
Dehnart said the Cookout should be applauded for its savvy and strategy — each member has formed a friendship with a non-Cookout houseguest in order to lower suspicion.
“Generally large alliances are not interesting to watch, but the Cookout is absolutely terrific,” he said. “They’re keeping this layer of protection. If you’re a fan of strategic reality television, this is something you should be celebrating.”
But as the season enters its next phase, the Cookout is showing some signs of shakiness . Derek Frazier, a public safety officer and the son of boxing legend Joe Frazier, threatened to quit last week when he got angry with Tiffany Mitchell, a 40-year-old phlebotomist and the oldest houseguest. He felt that Mitchell was being too pushy in telling him and others what to do, calling her “a dumb-ass bitch.”
Said attorney Xavier Prather, one of the group’s leaders: “Keeping the Cookout together is one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had in my damn life!”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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