Outfitted with a fresh, photogenic cast, "Big Brother" is watching again, launching an all-new season of shifting alliances, back-stabbing and outrageous stunts.
"This, I promise you, will be the most twisted season ever," the show's host Julie Chen proclaimed in a recent plug for the Wednesday kickoff of the CBS reality series that isolates 16 participants inside a custom-made house for an entire summer.
Absent in the promotion of the new season however has been any mention of the elephant in the "Big Brother" living room — the racist and homophobic comments that clouded last season, but did bolster ratings.
Though the network and the show's executive producers maintained that they were caught off guard by last season's offensive remarks, they've declined to say whether this season's contestants were vetted any differently or if any additional thought was given to having a more diverse cast. Last year, the show featured a fairly typical cast: 13 whites, two African Americans and an Asian American contestant.
But already a similar controversy is heating up. Fan websites discovered this week homophobic and racially inflammatory comments on social media from new cast member Caleb Reynolds, an "adventure hunting guide" who lives in Hopkinsville, Ky. In commentary on his Instagram account, Reynolds referred to President Obama as a "Muslim monkey" and used an anti-gay slur.
CBS declined to comment on Reynolds, his casting or whether the network knew about the post.
Though "Big Brother" is essentially an unscripted game show, last year's friction overshadowed the usual stunts and high jinks. One white contestant, Aaryn Gries, made derogatory remarks about African Americans, Asian Americans and gay members of the house. GinaMarie Zimmerman, who is also white, also made a number of racist comments, including using the N-word in describing welfare as insurance for black people.
In the show's most infamous moment, Gries provoked an African American contestant, Candice Stewart, by flipping over her mattress and taunting her with a stereotypical accent. When the confrontation escalated, Zimmerman jumped in, getting in Stewart's face and saying in a challenging tone, "You want the black to come out?"
The behavior was denounced by Chen, who is Asian American, and her husband, CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves. Both women were fired from their respective jobs while still inside the "Big Brother" house. But since the pair were sequestered from the outside world, the contestants did not know about the reaction by viewers.
The controversy was a double-edged sword for CBS. While "Big Brother" pulled in solid ratings, the racial conflict prompted extensive media coverage that was uncomfortable for producers.
"We would have rather not had those headlines," said executive producer Allison Grodner last September during the buildup to the show's finale, adding that the show is "a daring social experiment" that is "real and raw, and it's not always pretty."
It's not the first time racial conflict has fueled the drama on the unscripted series. On the first season of "Big Brother," William "Mega" Collins, an outspoken African American houseguest, was the first evicted from the show after he angrily confronted his predominantly white fellow participants about race.
The basic premise of "Big Brother" remains the same: The houseguests will be vying to linger the longest in the house. Each week, one contestant will be evicted. The last remaining houseguest will win the grand prize of $500,000.The contestants will be under 24-hour scrutiny by a webcam, with their movements monitored by 76 HD cameras and more than 100 microphones.
Zimmerman, who wound up in second place, said this week that she had also moved on from last season's turmoil.
"I didn't realize at the time that my actions had hurt people, and realizing that has made me a better person," Zimmerman said this week in a phone interview. "Nobody's perfect. But what I did was super wrong, and I'm really trying to make up for it."