Big Brother is back. Again. It's always back, isn't it? It's only two years since I was a housemate, and there have already been six series in that time: four celebrity and two summer runs, including the current 17th series which began last week. Refreshingly, the programme is being billed under it's original moniker of 'Big Brother'. Not Big Brother: Avalanche, Big Brother: Monster Trucks, or Big Brother: Beyond Thunderdome. And though I personally quite like the subtitles of previous years (it doesn't hurt to identify seasons) this year it's a fairly small adjustment, because "the game is changing" as the trailer teased. Which I suppose means it's not really back at all?
I adore Big Brother. No pretender comes close. It's the perfect platform for real life fly-on-the-wall intrigue and social experiment. So, any criticisms I make over the coming weeks should be prefaced with the understanding that I am someone who sincerely wants Big Brother to exist, moreover to thrive for years to come. I'm very conscious of the image of ex housemates stalking the shadows like little Norma Desmonds - "We are big! It's the show that got small" - but it's hard watching someone you love take a bad path, or fall in with the wrong crowd. That crowd, in this instance, is MTV.
Tuesday night, along with a fresh stage and house we were introduced to twelve new contestants (approximately twelve in the eye for the Brexit campaign) plus six non-housemates known as 'The Others' who entered an adjoining, secret house with a mission to disrupt the main house and earn a place in it. This can, and probably will mean whatever the producers decide as the viewing figures come in. This second house is only a secret, of course, to those who didn't notice the two separate doorways and staircases leading in, and who hadn't previously been aware of the months of speculation and building designs which appeared online. The housemates themselves will undoubtedly have seen these things. They only go into hiding a week before the show, and even those that live under a rock, or head first in the sand will still have had access to wifi, not to mention an invested curiosity. Anyway, I digress; your dead granny will be totally in the dark about the secret house.
So, how has the game changed? In the past year or so it has become a trend of the showrunners to panic if there isn't some kind of inciting incident within the first 48 hours. This has led them to some pretty dubious tactics of intervention that somewhat fly in the face of... well, reality. Who goes? They decide. And the audience has got wise to it. So, it seems to me in order to counteract that, the device this year is to have a bench of reserve show ponies, smuggled into the game in plain view. I'm not without some sympathy. Underestimating the role of normal housemates has been a creeping trait over the years, led by a tragicomic desire to keep ratings high. And it must be hard when Big Brother is sort of the over achieving child, and Channel Five rely on it to bring home the bread. But you have to worry for a show that is scared of the fundamental element on which it was built and succeeded. Even given the saturation of competing content, it doesn't stop it from feeling completely over medicated.
With regard to housemates, the Polaroid is still developing. It's more about getting a feel of each personality, and dampening the quiet dread that they are all in fact just one singular concoction of Botox and bumper profundities. And this series more than earns this cynicism straight out of the gate. Bar one or two, every housemate has been on TV, or a reality show, or somewhere in the public sphere in recent years, each spinning the same egocentric trash talk that now passes as 'banter'. MTV bought the show back in September 2014, and it's no coincidence they also own Geordie Shore, Ex on the Beach, Judge Geordie, The Valleys and the hotly anticipated Geordie Corpses (2080). I have no problem with this in the sense of inclusivity - every house should be a melting pot - but right across the board? Saddest buffet ever. Some of these newbies are more famous than participants on the celeb series. And since when was a funny hat and sunglasses considered a substitute for character? Ever decreasing circles.
A notable thumbs up goes to Andy West. The former reporter who left his job with BBC Northern Ireland after Tyson Fury was nominated for a Sports Personality of the Year award (Fury had made comparisons between homosexuality and the end of the world, bless). The integrity and courage of West is commendable, and he promises to be a thoughtful contestant, which will probably make him come off as a kind of leprous hunchback in a space where everyone's moral belly sports an innie.
I'm afraid the rest are broadly as indistinguishable as frogspawn. Off the top of my head, there is a weird man-mannequin by the name of Chelsea, who appears to have washed ashore during an oil slick, a celebrity offspring, a posh-but-not-posh country girl, a tough guy, and of course the token twins. I've never really seen the benefit of including twins as if this were a distinction unto itself, and with few exceptions (namely 2013's Jack and Joe) twins seems to be an exercise in diminishing returns in Big Brother history. There's barely a guff of personality between them, but they do wear their hearts on their ass. Then there's Sam Giffen, a model, who resembles a mascot from a Pirate ride, but has something of a personality. Oh, and his ex, Ryan, who is one of the 'others'. In his case an 'other' Mark Byron. A tremendously crap one. But thwarting first impressions is the modus operandi of BB, and it's easy to get it wrong in the first week or two. I fully expect to be swayed by some of them in due course, provided that they don't 'underdeliver' and get replaced.