When I tell people I watch “Big Brother” every summer, it usually yields one of two responses. First: “That show’s still on?” Or the more common one, coupled with a look of disgust: “Why?”

How to even explain this addiction to CBS’s reality competition series, which premiered Season 17 on Wednesday night? On the surface, “Big Brother” is arguably terrible. The show locks a group of strangers in a camera-filled house together to participate in physical and mental challenges as they vote each other out, week by week; last person standing wins $500,000. It leads to backstabbing, meltdowns and everyone slowly losing their minds, given there’s no contact with the outside world for months. Many cast members are usually not what you would call “reputable” — the show has had problems with contestants making racist and homophobic comments, along with misogyny. In Season 2, one guy was kicked out when he held up a knife to another cast member’s throat.

If it sounds awful to watch, you’re right, it is; but it’s also a fascinating social experiment. After the first few days, the cast members become so used to with the cameras that they tend to forget there are millions of people watching. The series is an often disturbing — yet riveting — look into how people really talk or act when they don’t think (or don’t remember) that everyone can listen. People come from all walks of life: Different locations, incomes, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, life experiences, religions, relationship statuses, education levels, etc. It’s a truly eye-opening look at a culture clash in really close quarters.

CBS seems to be banking on this idea heavily this season, in a positive way — especially after a few contestants made national headlines for horrifying slurs in the past. This year’s cast has the first transgender person to compete on the show, a 25-year-old Georgia media consultant named Audrey. During the premiere, she shared the news with her fellow houseguests, where she was met with cheers and exclamations of “You look great!”

“Most people can’t even accept who they are. For you to actually come out and be like, ‘This is who I am,’ it’s amazing,” said Austin, a 30-year-old professional wrestler from California.

James (a 31-year-old retailer from South Carolina) and Clay (a 23-year-old college football player from Texas), both admitted they never met a transgender person before, and were in awe of Audrey’s bravery. She told everyone that her parents didn’t handle things well during her teen years and shipped her to a camp for troubled youths; though eventually, she was accepted by her family and they’re now very close.

“Listening to … the things she’s been through puts so much in perspective for me,” Clay admitted to the camera.

In addition to the surprisingly rich sociological aspects, “Big Brother” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being a game of strategy. Sure, there are hook-ups (“showmances”) and fights and regular reality show absurdity, though critical thinking is crucial. You have to skillfully endear yourself to your other players and form alliances, and at the same time, know when to turn vicious and vote your ally out. Some people are brilliant; others are disasters. Unlike “Survivor,” you don’t even have beautiful scenery and nature to distract you from the madness. Just the same tacky, brightly-colored house all summer, trapped with people that you desperately need to hang out with to pass the time…but who will also betray you in a second.

And no, watching “Big Brother” won’t raise your IQ — on Wednesday’s episode, the contestants literally got pelted with fake tomatoes to win the first challenge as they competed to win “head of household,” which means they can nominate other house guests for eviction. At this point, though, CBS is in on the joke. Producers always zero in on the most ridiculous elements of a contestant’s personality, and the show is expertly edited to manipulate various images of heroes and villains. One recurring feature is the Zingbot, a costumed robot who arrives to viciously mock all of the contestants for their worst traits.

I’m certainly not alone in my viewing. Approximately 6 million people tuned in to each episode last year, not a very impressive number until you consider: a) it’s the summer when TV viewership decreases and b) the show is on three times per week. That’s not counting the people that shell out money to subscribe to the Internet live feeds, which show the action in the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The obsessive live feed watchers has yielded a pretty impressive online community with Twitter feeds and sites that track every move.

That actually has led to “Big Brother” becoming much more intense in the social media age: Where a cast member’s awful behavior may have only been noticed by the most devoted viewers before, now, it goes viral, which has led to multiple “Big Brother” controversies. During the infamous awful behavior of Season 15, several of the worst offenders lost their jobs during the show, and had no idea until they were voted out of the house.

During the premiere, host Julie Chen called “Big Brother” the “most grueling and outrageous social experiment that exists.” Overstating it a bit? Probably, but once you start watching, it’s hard to look away.

Read more: