Realer than `Real World': `Big Brother' drama begins

Occasionally I come up with wacky scenarios for sitcom scripts in my spare time. Take this one: A television network would spring for a three-bedroom apartment with modern amenities such as a dishwasher, microwave, washer and dryer, and a big-screen TV. They'd fill it with six average strangers, three men and three women who agree to be on camera 24 hours a day.

Except that when we get down to reviewing the tapes, we realize that the roommates were doing what average roommates usually do, and that is . . . watch a lot of television together.

Thus the directors would manufacture some tomfoolery by, say, sending a band of cranked-up Hell's Angels over for a surprise visit or flooding the place with radon gas. Can't you just hear the laughter from the folks out there in TV land? I'd be set for life.

Leave it to CBS to rip off my scheme with "Big Brother," premiering tonight at 9 p.m. after "Survivor." "Big Brother" follows my idea to a T, except it has 10 people living together in an 1,800 square-foot house with a vegetable garden, exercise area, a pool, 28 cameras and 60 microphones instead of a three-bedroom apartment. The housemates can bring in only the most basic hygiene products, clothing and personal items that aren't battery operated. And the house has no modern conveniences such as televisions and radios, the residents are completely kept out of contact with the real world - meaning, no Hell's Angels dropping by for lunch - and they can't leave without forfeiting a $500,000 prize.

Frequently compared to "The Real World," "Big Brother" seems more akin to PBS' recently aired series "The 1900 House." But unlike any of those shows, which are taped ahead of time and cut into episodes, "Big Brother" happens as we watch it. The drama lasts for three months, starting tonight, and airs practically every day in various segments.

The idea isn't particularly revolutionary. "Big Brother" is the American version of a Dutch TV hit. Millions of people watched as nine Europeans whined together in a two-bedroom house, and voted residents out one by one until a single winner remained.

The same rule applies to "Big Brother": Like "Survivor," the housemates can nominate fellow roomies to be ousted, but the folks at home are the ones to decide who gets their walking papers via telephone. (If only "The Real World" provided that option. Then Seattle would have been spared the pain of Lindsay.)

But "The Real World," itself cribbed from the 1973 documentary about the Louds, "An American Family," keeps picking up more viewers with each season and, in response, MTV continues to up the ante with each cast's living situation. This year, the kids are shacking up in a Big Easy mansion.

Still, "The Real World" hasn't excited the national imagination nearly as much as "Survivor," CBS' current runaway hit. "The Real World," like the rest of MTV, lives in the domain of youth fantasy, relying on the housemates to do idiotic things that only young twen tysomethings can dream up, against a fashionable backdrop. "Survivor" and "Big Brother" group together Americans from different age groups and various 'hoods, 'burbs and boroughs across the country. You're more likely to see a version of yourself on Pulau Tiga than among the "Real World" cast.

Contrast the kids' plush New Orleans situation with "Big Brother's" multi-generational housemates living on beans, grains and frail vegetables from a victory garden. "Big Brother's" charges can't head out to a club, get drunk and strip their troubles away, as one current "Real Worlder" did a few episodes back - well, they can leave, they just can't return. Their challenge will be to get along, and ingratiate themselves to millions of viewers who hold their fate in a balance, all in a privacy-free environment with no trips to the grocery store.

CBS, meanwhile, has to rely on the Sartrean notion that hell is other people, because they have a lot of time to fill. Monday, Tuesday and Friday episodes will be half-hour re-caps of cabin-fever-influenced incidents that went down the past 24 hours. Every Thursday at 8 p.m. (except for tomorrow) an hourlong, live broadcast allows the housemates to complain about their other roomies, then nominate two to be cast out of the place. Of those two, the audience picks one. Yet another hour of "Big Brother" airs Saturdays, this one a summary of the past week's events. With this much coverage, you have to wonder if CBS should worry about over-saturation Regis Philbin style, but Regis doesn't have a camera watching his contestants on the toilet or in the shower.

Besides, if it gets too boring, you can always send in a few crazed motorcycle-gang members to liven up the bunch. They stole the best part of my idea, so why not take the rest?

Until Melanie McFarland sells her first sitcom script for a skillion dollars, she can be reached at 206-464-2256 or by e-mail at