By ERIC DEGGANS
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2001
They fixed it.
That much is obvious after watching the hourlong debut Thursday of CBS' sequel to last year's "reality TV" debacle, Big Brother.
What's also obvious, after seeing 12 buff, sexed up "houseguests" test each other in what promises to be a pale, housebound version of Survivor, is a frightening truth about Big Brother 2.
Fixing everything has only made it worse.
At least last year -- watching 10 people isolated for 89 days under constant camera surveillance in a house, struggling through a hopeless setup that ejected the most interesting people first and united participants against the show's clueless European producers -- you had the pleasure of watching a network TV show disintegrate before your eyes.
This year, from the moment the 12 contestants entered the house -- a scene that actually took place Sunday -- the show's new producers kept all action on a tight rein, forcing the group to enter in four-person shifts.
All vying for reality TV fame and a $500,000 grand prize, this crew got the message early. Minutes after winning a new car by sitting in it the longest during a challenge, 46-year-old mortgage broker Kent was talking up the house's other guys about a secret voting alliance (watching him suck up to closeted gay technical writer Bunky about "hooking up" as a team after railing about the perversity of homosexuality was a highlight).
Thirty-one-year-old account executive Hardy's male-model good looks and general vacuousness brought flashes of last year's clueless hunk, Josh Souza; 28-year-old single mom Autumn's emotional fragility and willingness to jump into bed with Hardy recalled last year's bed-hopping virgin, Brittany Petros.
It all signals the start of a sizzling real-life soap opera, which is what Big Brother 2 producers say they were shooting for.
So why does it all feel so empty?
Of course, some changes have helped. With days to edit footage, producers molded events that would have been excruciating last year -- like a spin the bottle game in which one guy mooned a housemate and another stripped to jump in the courtyard pool -- and hit the highlights.
Early Show newsreader and Big Brother 2 host Julie Chen might have benefited the most, shielded from the unpredictable contact with houseguests that made her look so goony last year.
Another surprise: a lack of diversity. Among 12 houseguests, there are just two people of color and closeted gay guy Bunky. Forget last year's pointed arguments on race; this year's Big Brother is mostly a bunch of white folks sitting around talking. And scheming. And talking some more.
You can also forget about the 24-hour Internet video feeds that spawned a cult following for the show and presented a groundbreaking link between TV content and the Web.
Free Web access to the house's cameras (www.cbs.com) ends Monday; fans must pay $19.95 the next three months. Wonder how many Napster jockeys will sign up for that?
By next Thursday, the group will vote to eject one person from the house, but I've lost interest already (episodes air Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays).
Young viewers might like Big Brother 2 -- a sleek, well-produced TV confection with few sharp edges -- but this couch potato probably won't follow along. I like my reality TV a little more real.