For all its fanciful interior décor, the Big Brother house looks like a terrible place to be locked in for two and half months. The entrance to Studio 18 on CBS' Radford lot has the ambiance of a medium security facility, with a guard at a desk at the door checking IDs.
When a dozen or so journalists came to visit as part of the TV Critics press tour, the names were checked and double-checked as if we were visiting beloved jailbirds.
Inside, the place is such a mess, with dishes overflowing in the sink, piles of dirty clothes at the foot of every bed, it's like a summer share from hell.
And lined with lights throughout, it's an uncommonly bright for a place where the windows are all two-way mirrors -- 119 of them. Behind those mirrors, cameramen slide their equipment on well-worn tracks along a track that lines the house -- an unholy corridor of voyeurism called the Camera Cross for the shape it makes.
Reporters, ordered to wear dark clothes (or provided jackets if they forgot), went from the blinding sun in the smaller-than-it-looks backyard with its bad fake grass and teeny pools into the catacombs of the camera halls hugging each room -- blackness cut only by Day-Glo arrows on the floor. Still, cameramen in their hoodies seem to mysteriously appear in the murk; a couple of times the cords trailing them wrapped against the legs of the visitors.
It's dead creepy to peek into the windows of a place where a dozen people live. But that's what millions do three times a week, for a summer broadcast that's doing its best ratings in years.
For the truly obsessed, the nightly three hour live feed on Showtime 2 leads to the 24 hour computer feed taking full advantage of the 52 cameras and 95 microphones.
"It's what we affectionately call the Human Zoo," says producer Allison Grodner, conducting the tour. "It truly is a voyeuristic experience."
And though it doesn't have the celebrity and sleaze of the shorter British version, Big Brother has become a summer tradition on otherwise largely scripted CBS. Now in its 12th year, more than 250 work on the production, but all of them stay strictly out of view of the housemates.
Part of the game is to have them deal exclusively with one another. And cut off from the outside world, they can only deal with one another.
There's little diversion there -- no TV, no music, no books, no paper, no pencil. That's why they always seem to laying around obsessing on alliances, conspiracies and strategy.
Grodner calls it a "heightened sociological and psychological experiment" that's like "High school times 1,000. You regress. And your own personality gets exaggerated under stress."
A few housemates have found a way to kill time and pressure by coupling up (and yet even that activity is under scrutiny of the ultraviolet night vision cameras). But that also led to them being targeted -- the latest to go was the Vegas bombshell Rachel, who the others mocked for her blood red hair extensions (which she left in full view for visitors).
Because producers work ahead on this show, they were already competing in a Power of Veto competition in weird costumes that wouldn't be seen on TV for four days.
It will probably look like a lively competition by then, but playing it out Saturday seemed a dour and dull way to sit in the afternoon sun for the houseguests, who sometimes seemed to glance directly at the secret visitors behind the glass (but were more likely glancing at their own reflections).
The tour climaxed with an opportunity to try some "slop," the concoction that "Have Nots" are forced to eat for a week if they lose competitions. I can report that it's a bland, chalky version of oatmeal with a bad aftertaste, but houseguests can sometimes perk it up with honey.
Big Brother perks up, too, with editing and music added in a 2 ½ day turnaround where most reality show hours take six to nine weeks to edit. The gloss and sometimes even glamour, seems to be added in the TV mix a well. Because walking around the messy frat house, lit like a Costco, didn't seem glamorous at all.
I was tempted to leave a mysterious message for houseguests to discover later, but that might throw the whole competition.
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