There’s a mistaken belief out there that reality television is a cheap substitute for scripted programming: you don’t have to write anything, the cast is generally replaceable after fifteen minutes or a season (whichever comes first), and product placement is even easier here than on, say, a game show because contestants pull double-duty as “celebrity” endorsers. This is perhaps true for follow-cam shows: you know, the ones in which a camera crew follows around a larger-than-life personality and then a bunch of lawyers and a sweatshop of tortured editors cobble together footage that demonstrates what life is “really” like . . . at least, for those of us who spend their lives with cameras following them around. But as with most stigmatized cultures, there’s an entire hierarchy of such programming, and while the sleaziest may be the voyeuristic shows that are so obviously (or obliviously) fake that they need to put the word “Real” in their names, you’ve also got a wide variety of competition-based shows, some of which actually require skills and others which avoid pandering to demographic stereotypes by taking voting decisions out of America’s hands. At the bottom of this food chain, you’ve got your gimmick-packed, celebrity judged “talent” shows that are about as jingoistic as it gets; higher up the ladder, you’ve got specialized and more refined programming that focuses on food, dancing, dragging. And then, at the top, there’s King of the Nerds, which I don’t think anybody’s actually watching, but which is subversively entertaining.
A few disclaimers, first. My favorite reality competition is another little-seen gem, Solitary, and I’m a long-time watcher of Survivor. These two shows are reality competitions, but they’re also heavily scripted: writers have to come up with clever challenges, casting directors have to find charismatic characters, and hosts need enough information fed to them to actually carry on an intelligent conversation with the cast — one that might change the outcome of the program itself. It’s also worth noting that I think sticking similar people in a house is ultimately far more interesting than putting disparate professions together, especially when they have to later face off, ala Last Comic Standing or The Ultimate Fighter, two shows that are far more similar than they seem at first title. (Similar personalities works, too, though only if you’re looking for a train-wreck, as in the ego-clashing glory of The Celebrity Apprentice, which could just as easily be called So Meatloaf, Dennis Rodman, and Gary Busey Walk Into A Bar and Search For Relevance And God In the Presence of Donald Trump.) I think So You Think You Can Dance is probably the most positive and polished of the performance-based shows, but I’m generally in awe of physically impressive feats. (Emphasis here is on impressive, so humiliation-based competitions, like Wipeout, are no good and in their episodic format are closer to game shows than reality television.)
So for those of you who have been watching, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy King of the Nerds, and not just because the references are entirely at my level. (Dance Central 3 makes a pivotal appearance, but there’s no Rock Band, and I’m disappointed that Chess is the go-to board game and not Settlers of Catan or a more complex all-day euro-game like Twilight Struggle.) After all, the casting is impeccable, with people all over the emotional/social spectrum, to say nothing of varying degrees of mental capacity, from Alana Smith-Brown’s leper-like claim to fame as “a comic-book fan” (who will later be eliminated in a comic-book challenge) to Hendrik’s over-compensatory intellect as a geophysics engineer at MIT who, thinking he had something to prove, wound up voting himself into a one-on-one elimination round. You might complain that some cast members, like game designer Ivan Van Norman or NASA engineer Moogega Cooper, aren’t nerdy enough — but that’s sort of the point. These people may have been picked on, or picked last, but they’re all comfortable in their own skin — at least, comfortable enough to be exploited on a show that “forces” them to live in a mansion called Nerdvania, a place filled with giant twenty-sided dice and Batman statues, to say nothing of the Radio Shack gadget room. They’ve got to be in on the joke, especially a hacker like Virgil Griffith, who doesn’t mind being caricaturized as the scheming villain of the show . . . because he’s straightforward and logical enough to know that his actions, no matter how malicious they may seem, are the right moves. Even the pink-haired game vlogger Danielle Mackey ultimately embraces the way she’s being edited, shifting from a whiny brat to being, well . . . a whiny brat who owns it. Confessionals are often repetitive and cocky bits, spliced together after the fact to make a character seem less intelligent than they are; here, they take on a meta-level, for everyone’s smart enough to self-edit and analyze exactly what’s going on around them, and to offer up clever commentary on that.
As Virgil confides, however, nobody on the show is Spock. They’re intelligent, but they’re also young — all of them in their mid-twenties — and often filled with emotional quirks or insecurities, as with the creative and gangly Genevieve Pearson or the anxious professional gamer Celeste Anderson, who most likely got hooked on video games so that she wouldn’t have to compete in real-world activities. And here’s where the writing comes in: challenges need to push and prod to get these self-defining nerds to compete in identifiably nerdy activities while at the same time pushing them outside of their comfort zones. It has to teach the viewing audience about nerd culture, pandering to broad and accessible stereotypes, but at the same time be intelligent enough to actually have the contestants compete. For instance: solving a sudoku puzzle is too simplistic, but what if they first have to take on a physical challenge like assemble the pieces of a giant Rubik’s Cube to get the initial orientation of numbers on the grid? Cosplay — dressing up as a character — or LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) are niche activities, and therefore easy to gawk at, especially since they’re being taken so seriously. (Consider that Kevin Smith was brought on a guest judge for a Comic Book Debate, or that the musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates helped to critique each team’s “Nerd Anthem.” These are serious credentials, though it’s a shame that Jonathan Coulton wasn’t available.)
If there’s any real complaint with King of the Nerds, it’s that it’s not nearly challenging enough. Why hasn’t a team had to build a robot and teach it to break dance? Why hasn’t there been a mini puzzle hunt (of the MIT difficulty) in which the teams race to finish first? Then again, if the show were a true competition of nerd knowledge (remember Beat the Geeks?) or technical ability, it’d be a lot harder to laugh at. The joke is on the producers, though; whereas the similarly styled Who Wants To Be A Superhero? could only mock its (game) cast, the crew on King of the Nerds is smart enough to play this game for what it is — entertaining television. Much as you may want to simply dismiss and laugh at each participant, they’re actually forging friendships and feeling bad at having to send someone home each week, which is more than you can say of the soulless denizens of Big Brother or the occasionally offensive (and/or racist) specimens that show up on The Amazing Race, for laughs. It’s hard to imagine that the writers aren’t in on it, especially since they’ve gone through the trouble of dressing up the hosts (Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds) as the truly ridiculous ones, though some points have to be deducted for forcing the cast to eat Little Caesars week after week.
But hey, the acknowledged artificiality of King of the Nerds, much like the campy special effects of early yet beloved science fiction programming, is part of what makes it all so shamelessly addictive. Besides, the prize is a Throne of Games, and who can resist wordplay like that? Not this nerd.