If you've ever wondered why there's so much melodrama on Big Brother — so much screaming, so many tears, such a lot of love (and hate) at first sight — visit the Human Zoo and you'll begin to understand.
Not that you can visit this zoo, where people live behind glass like exotic animals behind bars. It's the insider nickname for the Big Brother house, which some fans have dubbed the Hamster Cage. That works, too.
On screen, the Big Brother house looks comfortable, even luxurious, with stylish décor, and a pool and a hot tub in the back yard. In person, the claustrophobia sets in as soon as you step onto the scruffy artificial turf of that yard, as a group of visiting TV critics got to do this month.
You know how they say the camera adds 10 pounds? Apparently, cameras also add 10 feet. Television shows' sets are always much more compact than you'd expect, but then, the stars of Desperate Housewives don't really live in those cramped homes on Wisteria Lane.
The contestants do live in the Big Brother house, and for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as 72 days, they live pretty much on top of one another. The cramped quarters cause "roommate issues" that create fodder for the always- watching cameras.
On a previous visit to the Big Brother house — a set on a soundstage on CBS's Radford lot — a small group of visitors was escorted from a waiting room into the "camera cross," the darkened maze of tracks from which some of the show's 50-plus cameras spy on the house guests.
This time, we split into two groups of 10, one led by executive producer Allison Grodner and mine by executive producer Rich Meehan.
That hot tub? Many bathtubs are larger. The pool? Kiddie size. The yard? A determined house guest could spit across it. Those cramped confines don't provide much space to get away — and that's the point, after all.
We were glad to escape the prison yard — er, the Big Brother yard — just before the house guests were released into it. In the dark camera tunnel, we peered into the empty house through windows that, from the other side, are mirrors. Then, through the pantry, we popped inside the house.
The pantry smelled of something overripe. In the big kitchen, it became clear that this Big Brother bunch doesn't include a clean freak. Pots on the stove seemed to be growing something. A pan of leftovers — salmon, maybe? — sat half-eaten on the counter.
Elsewhere on the first floor is the living room; the bedrooms, including the "have-not" room where the unfortunate sleep on lawn furniture; and the single bathroom.
Yes, just one bathroom, except for the one upstairs reserved for the week's Head of Household. One toilet. Two showers, separated by a partition. And everywhere, stuff. Wet towels. Beauty products. Hair dryers and flat irons. More wet towels.
No, Big Brother doesn't come in to clean. That's a "roommate issue," Meehan said. The bedrooms suggest more roommate issues, with rumpled beds and clothes bursting out of suitcases on the floor.
Up a spiral staircase is the Head of Household bedroom, not particularly large or luxurious but offering a measure of privacy. Rachel, in the seat of power that week, had let her red hair extensions spring out of her suitcase and left her Spice Girls CD (an HOH perk) lying around.
"We say in casting, you really won't get it until you live here," Grodner said.
I haven't lived there, but I get it now.