2020 has given us some quality television like the “Jeopardy!” tournament that pitted its top three players against each other.
The “Big Brother” housemates have always been trapped inside the house, but it’s never been more true than in Season 22.
The new season of CBS’ summer reality series still has a dozen people living in a house together vying for half a million dollars, sure, but it’s the first time the housemates have had to be tested for something like COVID-19 before entering, not to mention wearing a mask while chatting with “Brother” host Julie Chen Moonves.
But when the show must go on during a pandemic, masks, tests and keeping six feet (or more) apart from the people interviewing you on live TV is the only way forward. Most of Hollywood shut down in March as the pandemic gripped the globe, but over the course of the summer select few series and movies have begun filming again, with safety measures in place. “Brother” and the second season of CBS’ reality dating series “Love Island” (ditching the island for a Las Vegas hotel rooftop) are among them.
David Alexander, Memphis Garrett, Cody Calafiore, and Kaysar Ridha on “Big Brother” Season 22. (Photo: CBS)
So can you throw people together in house or sexy singles on a rooftop during a pandemic safely? So far it appears that the CBS series have successfully kept COVID-free bubbles intact. But can you still make good television? Sort of.
The premieres of both “Brother” and “Love” spent time reassuring the audience that everyone was safe, everyone had been tested for the virus and quarantining away from others before they stepped in front of the cameras. Before entering the Big Brother house, housemates donned masks to interact with Chen Moonves, who appeared on the “Brother” set without the usual in-studio audience. The “Love” singles each got a champagne glass with their name on it (although, that particular sanitary protocol was moot after the contestants started, ahem, making out with each other).
But the biggest effect the pandemic had on both shows was the way the contestants interacted with each other. Sure on a dating show like “Love” cuddling and touching are to be expected, but the joy from most of the contestants on both shows when they got to hug someone who wasn’t in their immediate family radiated off the screen. And they were some of the most refreshingly real moments reality TV has delivered in a long time.
Contestants Carrington Rodriguez and Kaitlynn Anderson. (Photo: Adam Torgerson/CBS)
When “Brother,” which aired a live premiere for the first time in its 20-year history, introduced the housemates to each other, they spent so much time hugging and gushing over one another, Chen Moonves had to chastise them for holding up the broadcast. The “Love” dudes talked about how lucky they were to be secluded with such beautiful women, just like last year, but they also remarked that they get to meet strangers and party when no one else can (well, no one else is supposed to, anyway).
I’ve never for a second considered trying to go on a reality show, but seeing the “Love” islanders dance with each other, drink champagne, put on makeup and high heels and just be with other people, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit jealous.
The earnestness with which the contestants discuss months in quarantine makes the switch to gameplay just a bit jarring, and honestly boring. When business as usual returns – whether that’s hooking up or playing socially manipulative games – it feels even more hollow than usual. There was a chance for the pandemic to change the way the “Brother” game was played, for instance, or bring more real love to the “Island,” but instead producers of the series make dull choices to try to move on from the reality outside the reality show as quickly as possible.
Additionally, both shows are hampered by creative choices seemingly unrelated to the pandemic. “Brother” producers chose to populate the quarantined season with all stars (an “All Stars” season hasn’t happened since 2006), but the housemates they were able to convince to come back are just a bit boring. Making the season premiere live might have seemed like a good idea to get ratings, but it made it all too clear how much the reality show relies on skilled editing to create pace and story. (The show’s legendary competitions in real time are suddenly really boring. Who knew?)
“Love” was lackluster in its 2019 first season when they actually made it to an island, and it has the same hangups in Vegas. The CBS version of the series, which is an adaptation of a U.K. format, simply isn’t as steamy as it thinks it is. Like last year, the contestants lack chemistry, the twists aren’t quite daring enough and the jokey narration is more corny than clever.
Even though they didn’t have to film over Zoom or with iPhones around the country, “Brother” and “Love” can’t escape the pandemic any more than the rest of us can. But there was a missed opportunity to push the reality storytelling further. Instead, their quarantines might end up being as dull as our own.
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