Reality Check

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For those Australians who make up what might loosely be termed my generation, the past decade has brought us precious few unifying forces beyond alcohol and racism, so it was with a feeling almost approaching interest that I received the news this week that one of those few unifying forces is about to disappear.

Yes, Big Brother is no more.

Millions of us will be left desperately searching for something new to tell everyone we know that we don’t care about as loudly as possible.

Big Brother was a cultural phenomenon that defined popular culture in the 21st century for many of us. We were left with so many indelible memories. Remember the guy with the thing? And remember what that girl did to the other one? And when they said that thing about the people, I almost died. Also, some of them were gay.

The show was, of course, inspired by George Orwell’s chilling warning of times to come, 1984, in which an ordinary worker attempts to rebel against the all-powerful Party, only to be woken by his roommate’s penis hitting him in the face. And thus he learns to love Big Brother. As did we all.

Very early on the BB producers made the wise decision to move the show away from the terrifying dystopia concept, in order to concentrate more on the theme of young women soaping up their breasts, a theme which proved remarkably successful. Indeed, it’s a shame it is not used more often, particularly on shows like The Einstein Factor, or Sunrise.

Big Brother wasn’t only about shameful voyeurism, much to viewers’ chagrin. It was also about the personalities. Larger-than-life personalities, like Series Three winner Regina Bird, who charmed her way into Australia’s heart with her winning mixture of stupidity and dumbness; or Merlin Luck, who memorably came out of the house with tape over his mouth and a misspelled political message, before vanishing in a puff of smoke and returning to the court of Camelot. And who could ever forget Sara-Marie Fedele, the happy-go-lucky housemate with a heart as big as all outdoors and a personality like a burrowing tick? Sara-Marie took Australia by storm with her classy Bum Dance, before leaving the house and releasing a book, a single and a compilation album, thus fulfilling the final prophecy of the Book of Revelation.

When we look back on those carefree days, before the world was darkened by sub-prime crises and the Veronicas, it’s difficult to understand just how Big Brother went wrong. It is true that the show seemed to lose some of its innocence with 2006’s "turkey-slapping" incident, wherein housemate Camilla Severi was held down while a male housemate rubbed his crotch in her face.

From then on, Big Brother ceased to be a show which allowed us to watch people having showers and scrutinise night-vision footage for any signs of sexual activity in their bedrooms, and became something just a little bit tacky.

There was, of course, the problem of the host. Gretel Killeen, who had hosted the show for the first seven seasons, made way at the end of 2007 for the radio double-team of Kyle "The Poison Koala" Sandilands and Jackie O, a move decried by many critics. There was no doubt that Killeen had a devoted following, but in the end she suffered from that ingrained showbusiness prejudice against any female presenter who causes viewers to develop a fear of being eaten by spiders.

Unfortunately, the Kyle and Jackie O presenting team may not have been the most inspired choice. To be fair though, what the pair lacked in audience connection, they made up for in skin-crawling obnoxiousness.

It’s possible that the executives at Channel Ten failed to fully research their new hosts. If they had, they may have noticed that Jackie O, to put it delicately, is to television programmes as sunlight is to vampires, if you’ll forgive another Killeen reference.

O, who takes her showbiz nickname from the well-known letter, boasts on her resumé such shows as Undercover Angels with Ian Thorpe, Surprise Surprise Gotcha, The Chat Room, Australian Princess, and many others. Her televisual charisma is so powerful that towards the end of the 2008 season of Big Brother, there were numerous reports of television sets committing suicide rather than display an image of her onscreen. Focus groups forced to watch her screen-tests have suffered a 90 per cent hospitalisation rate; most of the audience of Undercover Angels are now in a state of permanent catatonia.

Jackie’s peculiar talent for utterly destroying any programme’s chances of success was not exactly ameliorated by pairing her with Kyle Sandilands, a man who is shortly to be reclassified by the EPA as an effluent discharge. The merry jester of the small screen has at least found the silver lining in his current cloud, saying he is happy that the show has been axed, as he will now have more time to pursue his other interests, like commercial radio and biting small animals.

And yet, no matter how much comfort we take from Kyle’s chipper, fish-eyed optimism, there is a sadness in us that may never be quelled. Former housemate Tim Brunero, who came close to winning in 2005 before being disqualified when his ability to construct a sentence was uncovered, says young people will suffer from the show’s demise.

And he’s right. How will the kids make sense of life without their 24-hour hidden camera friend? What will fill the void? Beauty and the Geek? Battle of the Choirs? Celebrity Singing Bee?

Don’t make me laugh.

I fear for the kids. There are only so many drugs you can take before you start yearning for something more. There are only so many stories about Angelina’s marriage hell, only so many breakfast radio sound effects, only so many Zoo magazine covers featuring Imogen Bailey that you can endure, before you turn towards the one show that you thought would be an eternal spring of cultural inspiration. A spring that just ran dry.

Big Brother may not have been perfect TV, or excellent TV, or bearable TV, but by God it was TV, and in this day and age, when young people are so quick to leap aboard any passing worthy cause or major world religion that happens to pop up, we sorely need more of it.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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