The Power of the Confessional: Strategy and Complaining on Reality TV
“Nobody likes a complainer”–it’s a dictum oft repeated by parents to children, coaches to athletes, bosses to employees. Perhaps in the real world, it’s a worthwhile piece of advice–but whoever said reality TV was the real world?
Why is it that notorious eye-rolling, griping contestants on competitive reality shows–like Britney Haynes of Big Brother and Courtney Yates of Survivor–so often do well? After all, though standard rules of morality don’t necessarily apply to reality shows (just as Richard Hatch, Andy Herren, Sandra Diaz-Twine, or any other person to scheme their way to a show’s grand prize), the rules of sociability still do. Survivor and Big Brother are based, in large part, on getting people to like and trust you–and nobody likes someone who moans about their misery all day or trusts someone known to talk smack behind people’s back.
Well, that is, no one likes someone who does those things in the open. People who do so in private, however, often get along quite well with their fellow contestants.
Confessionals have been a staple of reality television since the genre’s genesis. In theory, these individual sessions between contestant and producer are meant to generate commentary, sometimes humorous, other times insightful, to accompany the story being told in an episode. Over the course of reality television’s development, however, the confessional has evolved into more than just an opportunity for producers to create content to beef up an episode. For some players, like Danni Boatwright on Survivor: Guatemala, confessionals are an opportunity to listen closely to the questions asked by production and glean information about her opponents’ strategies. For others, like the denizens of the Big Brother house in recent seasons, hoping to earn an advantage in the game from a popular vote, it is a chance to sell themselves to the audience to improve their in-game prospects.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated and misunderstood use of confessionals, however, is as an opportunity to bitch. Confessionals are private; whatever trash a contestant talks about their allies or opponents doesn’t leave a session. In a game about maintaining strong relationships, why not vent in a the one moment you have away from the ears of other contestants?
On Big Brother, for instance, a show that lasts over three months, contestants are sure to lose their cool with someone at some point. It’s inevitable. The stakes are high and the people are obnoxious. If a player can learn how to manage their irritation with others, however, the negative consequences of being bothered by someone else can be avoided.
Take, for example, Britney Haynes, of Big Brother 12 and Big Brother 14. Britney is well-known, in and outside of the Big Brother community (she made the Emmys!), for her acerbic wit and side-splitting confessionals. What was the subject of these confessionals during Britney’s two stints on Big Brother? Her fellow houseguests, mainly. Britney could be quite cutting in her Diary Room sessions, poking fun at one contestant’s proclivity towards/reliance on tequila, another’s high-waisted pants, and still another’s resemblance to a circus clown.
And yet, outside of the Diary Room, Britney was mild-mannered. She got along well with her fellow houseguests, and was willing to put on a smile for those she didn’t like. Though she confessed she would “rather hang [herself]” than go up to fellow houseguest Rachel Reilly’s Head of Household room, she gabbed and hung out with Rachel in order to ensure she wasn’t a target for eviction. Not only did Britney get along well with her fellow houseguests, but she actually exerted a great deal of influence over the social temperature of the house. Labelled by Dan Gheesling, winner of Big Brother 10 and runner-up of Big Brother 14, a “flat out scary” player, Britney was able to get the people she talked smack about to “sit down, roll over, and fetch things” for her due to her outstanding social gameplay.
It’s unlikely that social gameplay would have been so outstanding had she’s fellow houseguests heard the things she was saying about them in the Diary Room–but there, precisely, is the point. They couldn’t hear what she was saying. Britney utilized the privacy of the Diary Room to her advantage, to contain her moments of weakness or anger to a the only environment in which they wouldn’t have a negative consequence on her game. Complaining became an asset to her social game, something that offered tangible benefits to both of her Big Brother runs.
Courtney Yates, of Survivor: China and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, cruised to the finals of her first season using much the same approach in confessionals. Courtney complained. A lot. She complained about her tribemates, about the climate, about the host, and about pretty much everything else that Survivor threw at her. She could be downright nasty, taunting another player’s distress upon finding out his sister had had a miscarriage, and openly admitted to disliking every single person she played with.
And yet, Courtney was well-liked and well-trusted among her tribemates; in a challenge during which players had the opportunity to bequeath advantages to one another, Courtney received more support than anyone else. Had Todd Herzog, the winner of Survivor: China, not given the best Final Tribal Council performance in the show’s 17-year run, Courtney very likely would have walked away from her season with a million dollars. Not bad for the self-proclaimed “biggest bitch on the planet.”
If there’s a dark side to being a “confessional warrior,” however, it comes on shows on which players recur frequently, such as MTV’s The Challenge. Zach Nichols, an aggressively shit-talking contestant, was condemned by a number of competitors after his comments comparing his ex-girlfriend to the mentally-handicapped Lenny from Of Mice and Men aired, and he remains in poor standing with many of his castmates. Britni Thornton, whose sweet in-game demeanor masked biting comments made in confessionals, has faced similar scrutiny, which threatens her credibility and social position on the current season of The Challenge. Complaining functions better on shows like Survivor and Big Brother, where contestants are unlikely to appear more than a couple of times.
Confessionals play an undeniably important role for viewers of reality TV–they allow for exposition, provide entertainment, and give us a better idea of who these people are. But they also have their benefits for players themselves, giving them the opportunity to engage in behaviors that might not be acceptable in-game. They’re chambers of suspension for the reality TV contestant, the only place to express grievances and opinions that might work against them were their castmates to listen in. They’re an effective way to maintain and improve one’s position in a competition, and players would do well to take full advantage of them as they look for victory.
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