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In general, true nerds make for awful reality television. First of all, you aren’t going to get Jersey Shore-esque drunken one-liners out of a group of neuroscientists. Secondly, someone whose only interest is in an obscure, non-mainstream topic is going to get pretty dull over the course of a season if you, the viewer, aren’t into that topic. TBS’s King of the Nerds is trying break both of those rules by capitalizing on the rise of personality-driven reality contests (see The Bachelor) and nerd-flavored humor (see The Big Bang Theory). Is it successful? Well, that depends on how you like your reality TV — and how you like your nerds.
In the first episode, two contestants are declared captains and told they’ll need to pick teams. The group is then sent into “Nerdvana” (the group house) to get to know each other. There is the usual array of gamers, engineers and comic geeks, but everyone has either the gaming savvy or social savvy to maneuver into a good position from the get-go. There’s only one exception, an insecure woman named Alana who spends much of her screen time freaking out that she’s “outclassed” by the other nerds. She’s picked last, but then (!) the show’s hosts announce there’s “nothing nerdier” than being picked last, and that Alana will have the power to choose which team will go to the elimination round.
King of the Nerds bears some resemblance to The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, but this time there are no “beauties” in bikinis to take away from the wall-to-wall geek references, and the nerds seem a lot smarter than the guys on the other show. Certainly, their skills are put to better use: It’s nice to watch smart people compete at chess instead of desperately memorizing celebrity baby names. But as a reality contest, King of the Nerds falls flat. Hosts Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong have so little chemistry together that it’s almost painful to watch them. Even Alana’s “redemptive” moment felt weak. While she gained the power to send one team to the elimination round, she had no real reason to pick one team over another. The show has an actual RPG developer as a contestant; couldn’t they ask him for some advice on game design?
In Episode 2, the nerds are presented with a team cosplay challenge. It’s painfully obvious TBS hasn’t cleared the rights to any anime, movie or comic characters (even Alana’s tattoo is blurred out). The teams have to make up their own characters to play and come up with their own staged lines. This leads the contestants to engage in what I wouldn’t call cosplay so much as “bad acting.” Even guest judge George Takei looks lost.
The funny thing about nerds is that they’re usually nerdy about something – comics, board games, The Simpsons, horseback riding (I lived with a horse nerd for two years). Without the object of his or her affection, the nerd is … just another person on the street. That is, kind of boring. It’s as though you took Top Chef contestants and told them their challenge was to write about food instead of actually cooking it. I don’t care if gaming champ Celeste can make up a cosplay character — I want to see her do all the combos on SoulCalibur that my puny fingers can’t figure out.
Of course, those of us who call ourselves nerds might wonder if we should feel offended by a show that trades on the most shallow stereotypes about who we are. My answer? Nope, not one bit. Looking around at the current cable-television lineup, there are reality shows that exploit fat people, people from the South, addicts … it hardly seems worth it to get excited over a show that can’t even afford decent props (during last week’s Nerd-Off, the contestants rolled giant D20’s at department-store mannequins). Alas, I won’t be returning to Nerdvana any time soon.
King of the Nerds airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TBS.