Revisiting the surreal fever dream that was Big Brother season 1

Streaming services are all about the content. And yes, the libraries for streamers like Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon, Disney+ and others are impressive. But let's talk about Paramount + for a second. One of a seemingly infinite number of streamers insistent on using a + sign in its title, Paramount + also has a large selection of films. There are funny movies like Jackass Forever, action moves like Mission: Impossible — Fallout, scary movies like A Quiet Place, kids movies like Sonic The Hedgehog, underrated movies like Annihilation, Jason Statham movies like Wrath of Man, and lots of movies I have never heard of… like something called 2nd Date Sex.

But the true treasure trove of content on Paramount + comes in the form of reality TV. Spanning the vast former Viacom empire, Paramount + has literally hundreds upon hundreds of past seasons of unscripted shows, making it a veritable historical record of the genre. Whether you're looking for MTV hits of yesteryear like Laguna Beach, Teen Mom, Jersey Shore (and its approximately 13 billion spin-offs), CMT curiosities like Party Down South and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, or VH1 jams like Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives — it's all there.

Paramount + also goes deep in the reality competition field. Whether you take your RuPaul's Drag Race tucked or untucked, you can find both here. Same goes for over 40 seasons of Survivor and recent installments of The Amazing Race, Tough as Nails, and The Challenge. The streamer also occasionally offers international editions of some of the most successful CBS reality competition shows. So many elimination ceremonies to choose from!

But when you are looking for your next reality binge, allow me to offer up an unconventional suggestion. Season 1 of the U.S. edition of Big Brother. Now, that may not seem very unconventional. After all, if you've never watched a series, starting at the very beginning would seem to make perfect sense. But absolutely nothing about Big Brother season 1 makes sense.  Before we get into that, a little history…

US first place winner of "Big Brother" reality tel
US first place winner of "Big Brother" reality tel

LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images The cast of 'Big Brother' season 1

Big Brother debuted on CBS on July 5, 2000, just one month after the pop-culture explosion that was the Survivor premiere. With viewers almost immediately obsessed with the game-changing Survivor concept of sticking 16 strangers on an island and having them vote each other out while competing for a million dollars, the appetite for more cutthroat competition was at a fever pitch. And CBS was poised to deliver another massive hit, only this time in a studio-turned-house on the network lot.

It didn't happen. There are many reasons why Big Brother failed spectacularly when it first came on the air that summer. Maybe it was because, as then CBS president Les Moonves himself stated, the "casting sucked." Perhaps it was due to the disastrous decision to allow viewers to "banish" (not evict) players instead of the contestants themselves, leading to the most interesting (read: controversial) people being booted early. It also could have been because audiences were used to the all killer, no filler approach of Survivor, in which three days of activity was whittled down to a single hour, so CBS scheduling Big Brother up to six nights a week (!) came off more like all filler, no killer.

Whatever the reason, both critics and audiences did not like what they saw and were not shy about expressing it. At one point, some viewers even hired a plane to tow a banner over the house to inform the cast that: "Big Brother is worse than you think. Get out now." After 70 episodes — no, that is not a typo — Big Brother season 1 signed off on September 29, 2000, and everyone assumed the failed experiment would never be heard from again. But you know what they say when it comes to this program: expect the unexpected.

Inexplicably, CBS brought Big Brother back, making radical changes to the format (including letting the houseguests themselves do all the nominating and evicting), and it turned out to be one of the best decisions the network ever made. The series has now aired 23 seasons, plus one streaming-only installment (Big Brother: Over the Top), and three celebrity editions. It has become a staple of CBS summers every single year this millennium and given the network thousands of hours of fresh content to air instead of perpetual procedural reruns. (It also almost singlehandedly ruined my marriage with all the time I have wasted watching it.)

Of course, Big Brother today barely resembles the show that first started. Which is what makes revisiting the original (and originally lambasted) season such an odd — and oddly satisfying — treat. Perhaps you don't remember some of the absolutely bizarre exploits that went down. Maybe you never watched that first season and have no idea just how different it truly was. Or it could be that you just can't resist the magnetic pull of watching a show crash and burn… before picking itself off the scrap heap to become a reality TV institution. So without further ado, let's revisit the psychedelic acid trip that was Big Brother season 1.

Unlike Survivor, which ditched its opening theme song years ago (remember: all killer, no filler) Big Brother still has an opening theme. But it's not the one that first introduced the show back in season 1. Let's all sit back, relax, and enjoy the smooth Kenny G-esque sounds of the original BB theme song…

Julie Chen. The Chenbot. She's hosted the show from the very beginning, and we love her for it. But originally, she wasn't alone. Let's give it up for season 1 "Big Brother reporter" Ian O'Malley! You may have never heard of the guy. Or, if you watched season 1, you may have forgotten him. That's because he was only around for a few weeks giving awkward house tours and interviewing family members before producers got rid of him. One day, he was there. The next, he wasn't. "I was relieved when I left," he told Reality Blurred in an interview. "There's no doubt about that." Here's O'Malley hanging out in the BB kitchen…

As previously mentioned, BB1 had a terrible game mechanic where the viewers, not the players, decided whom to evict… excuse me, "banish"… from the house (a key change in the Big Brother lexicon). That meant there was no need to lobby and strategize once the nominations were in place. So what did they do instead? We'll get to that, but here's Julie explaining how it all works using that old school BB terminology…

Question: Do you like the Diary Room on Big Brother? Well, there was no Diary Room in season 1! Instead, it was the "Red Room." And Ian O'Malley seems to have taken it over…

By the way, lots of things about the Red Room/Diary Room were different back in season 1, including the fact that in this season… THE ROOM TALKED BACK!

These days on Big Brother, the contestants start the season just standing on a studio stage outside the house impatiently waiting for Julie to tell them to go in. BORRRRRRING! But back in season 1, the 10 test subjects were part of a police-led motorcade! Again, a police-led motorcade. For Chicken George!

So, we've introduced you to reporter Ian O'Malley. But there were a lot of other random personalities that popped up on a regular basis. My personal choice for most useless segment — and that's saying a lot for a show that aired 6 times a week — was when AOL Online Advisor Regina Lewis would periodically show up to tell us how absolutely obsessed everyone on AOL was with the show. Obsessed, I say!

Human dignity vacuum Dr. Drew never met a camera he didn't like, and apparently heard about the series, stole somebody's ID card, and snuck onto Julie's set once a week to talk about complete nonsense.

But the weirdest visitor of all may have been Art Manteris. The director of Superbook operations at the Las Vegas Hilton, Manteris provided gambling odds as to who would win the season… as if anyone in Vegas would turn away from the slot machines for a single second to see how Will Mega would do in this week's Big Brother trivia competition. (By the way, Art nailed both the first one out and the winner of the show. The house always wins!)

I know what you're thinking at this point: Holy moly, this is the most incredible show in the history of shows! Why did nobody watch this?!? But guess what? It's about to get even more incredible. Because we are about to meet Karen's husband Tom. Tom had to watch his contestant wife say on national television that she was no longer in love with him. (Tough, but fair.) He naturally decided to put his face to the name for everybody and show up on an episode to respond, in what can only be described as reporter Ian O'Malley's finest hour.

Oh my God, that was spectacular. How did CBS not immediately give Tom his own spin-off show? What I would give to have more Tom footage to show you all from this A++++ hour of reality television right now. Only I don't have to give a thing, because we already have it! More Tom! Coming in hot!

In this next clip, Tom reads a letter he wrote to express his feelings about Karen telling millions of people she no longer loves him. The best part about all of this is that CBS only aired what they described as a "portion" of the letter. Why a TV show airing 718 times a week could not air the entire letter is beyond me, but enjoy this riveting peek into a soul on fire.

So what the hell did the contestants do in the house if they weren't even voting each other out? I'm so glad you asked! They players were given a wild assortment of ridiculous tasks that served no real purpose except to trick viewers into thinking that their TV dinners had been laced with some sort of powerful hallucinogen. There was the time the cast was told to put on a Jerry Springer-like talk show…

Or, in an exercise that I am sure would go absolutely splendidly in 2022, the players were also told to hold a mock flag burning trial. Another piece of riveting TV.

But the pièce de résistance has to be when the contestants were tasked with writing lyrics and performing a vocal version of the original Big Brother theme song. It was turned into a music video for "Into Our Lives", and this clip is about to make you either the happiest or most confused person on the planet. Possibly both. (Note: I have legit watched this hundreds of times over the past two decades.)

In addition to all these group tasks and challenges, occasionally a player would get an individual perk, like when wannabe celebrity Jamie (nicknamed "Hollywood") got to be Julie's cohost for the night. Here's her spellbinding interview with Chicken George…

That wasn't Jamie's only big break. In what sounds like a recipe for a sexual harassment lawsuit, Jamie "won" two minutes in a private room with a casting director. Making matters even more awkward, Jamie chose the two minutes with the casting director over the other option of spending time with her mother.

At one point, with everyone in the house getting along too well and little actual drama happening, the show actually attempted to PAY someone to leave, hoping to replace him or her with someone much more likely to stir things up. Meet Beth Thieme, the Big Brother contestant who never was.

When the show offered the contestants $20,000 for one of them to leave and they all refused, the amount was raised to $50K. Watch in this next clip how hard Julie Chen tries to convince someone to self-evict. Alas, they remained unswayed and Beth never made it out of the studio. (And if you're confused by the dog running around in the clip, that's the house pug, Chiquita. They also had a chicken coop in the backyard, but one of the chickens got injured and had to be nursed back to health. Look, I just report this stuff.)

Of course, one thing about Big Brother has never changed, with houseguests leaving until only two are left and one declared the winner. Let's check out the first eviction… sorry, banishment… in U.S. Big Brother history, as Will Mega was shown the door, and he seems really, really upset about it.

Unlike these days where the evicted player walks straight out to Julie, players in BB1 had a long, lonely walk out to a studio parking lot where they would be met by family members and then just kind of hang out awkwardly for a minute until someone they did not recognize finally came in to interrupt.

There was also the time Chicken George wanted to make absolutely sure everything was "okay" after being eliminated…

But my favorite banishment by far of season 1… and honestly, my favorite banishment/eviction in 27 seasons of all Big Brother shows has to be the day 58 elimination of Brittany Petros. And I would argue right here and right now that there has been no better use of live television in the history of the medium than watching Brittany struggle down the stairs with her ridiculously oversized suitcase.

I am proud to say I watched every single second of BB1 when it first aired. Well… maybe "proud" is the wrong word. But my BB1 obsession and insistence on sitting through every damn minute of that ultramarathon was nothing compared to some dude named Tony who took his love of the show to the extreme.

One legitimately cool thing about season 1 of Big Brother is that they really did show you a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff (again, a lot of time to kill), like during the finale when Julie walked into the house to surprise the final 2… who seemed decidedly unsurprised.

If you're still reading at this point, that tells me two things. 1. There is something seriously wrong with you. 2. Welcome to the club.

Look, I understand season 1 of Big Brother is not the best season of the show. It's not even the 22nd best season of the show. But it is, 22 years later, super entertaining in its own bizarre did-this-really-happen-or-did-I-take-too-much-Nyquil kind of way. It also serves as a fascinating historical document of a time when the networks were still figuring it all out and struggling to set a template for how all future installments would work. And it's far from the only show to massively evolve from its (in this case, humble) roots. (Remember when Jeff Probst used to provide narration and there was a big trunk of cash sitting on the Tribal Council set on season 1 of Survivor?)

Sooooooo, next time you're looking for a big-time binge and want to travel back to a kinder, gentler, weirder time when nobody really had any idea what the hell they were doing, consider taking season 1 of Big Brother out for a (verrrrrrry long) spin. There is a certain charm in its hapless innocence. And trust me, these little tastes I provided here barely scratch the surface. There is still a whole world out there of Big Brother season 1 to discover… a delightfully demented world just waiting for your disbelieving eyes. And to sum it all up, I think Julie Chen famously said it best herself at the very end of the first ever Big Brother episode…

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