By Ken Tucker
Updated July 29, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Sonja Flemming/CBS

Given the choice between reading one of those best-selling ”beach read” paperbacks and watching Big Brother three times a week, I say: Hello, Brother. I’ll take my reading literary and my escapism junky, thank you, and Big Brother 11 is the junkiest, grottiest, most brain-pretzeling summer fare in prime time. Is it clear that I mean that as a compliment?

I advise you to forget the show’s theme this time out — high school cliques, with the house divided among the ”popular,” the ”offbeats,” the ”brains,” and the ”athletes.” It was cutesy the first week and irrelevant after that, because, like summer camp, no one actually stays in his or her assigned group; they gravitate to like-minded schemers. Thus the self-proclaimed dork Ronnie has aligned himself with the super-muscle-bound returnee from last season, Jessie, who may or may not be turning on his athlete-mate Russell, a cocky mixed-martial-arts fighter.

”This house is a nuthouse,” said Jordan, doing her best to live up to a dumb-blonde stereotype with the aid of BB editors, who gave us a full scene of her admitting she can?t tell time (”When someone says it’s a quarter to something…what’s that??). Still, her ”nuthouse” comment contains truth. Witness Russell exploding without warning at Lydia, a tattoo-ridden woman who could find more lucrative employment if old-fashioned carnivals were still popular. And don’t forget recently evicted Laura, a bikini model whose breasts enter any room crucial seconds before the rest of her does, who stated plaintively, ”I didn’t leave my loved ones at home to be railroaded.” Really, dear? What game did you think you were playing, Wheel of Fortune? Railroading, back-dooring, and all sorts of phrases that sound vaguely obscene are the very reasons BB exists. What lifts the show above mere voyeurism is that you get caught up in the houseguests’ constant strategizing, following their logic, which is sometimes brilliant, sometimes deluded. I?m not sure I like the presence of a studio audience for the live-eviction editions, preferring to enjoy the catlike purr of host Julie Chen amid studio silence. The ripe Chen (oh, calm down: She’s a pregnant married woman!) has perfected the postboot exit interview, cutting through the ”karma’s gonna get ’em” bluster of too many losers.

As for who’s going to win, who cares? The pleasure lies in the endurance — theirs and ours. As I sit in a stupor, fanning myself with a vacation paperback of A.R. Ammons’ poetry, I just like to glance up now and then to hear Casey (a fifth-grade teacher, no less) opine that he’s going to kick ”Chima’s melodramatic behind.” Now, that’s poetry. B

See all of this week?s reviews