King of the Nerds

TBS makes a clear move towards its ideal demographic with King Of The Nerds, the first unscripted competition series for the network in seven years. In much the same way VH1 gave itself a recent facelift with shows like Basketball Wives and Love & Hip Hop, TBS has been slowly but surely angling itself toward, well, you: intelligent pop culture aficionados like The A.V. Club’s readership. Flattery aside, it’s a fact that those slick suits out (here) in Hollywood have their eyes on a culture they seem to have dubbed “nerd chic.” Even the Hollywood Reporter tried to explain the series being picked up with “the rise of such leading men as Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jesse Eisenberg,” in its coverage of King Of The Nerds.

While lumping together a handful of movie stars under a category as stupidly broad as “nerd culture” is lazy, the show itself is a testament to changing attitudes toward those once perceived as brainy outsiders. A few years ago, there was the Ashton Kutcher-produced Beauty And The Geek, with its embarrassingly heavy-handed message about inner beauty. But King of the Nerds does away with the need to pit a group of “nerds” against leggy/brawny counterparts in order to find some heartwarming message at the end. Instead, the show focuses squarely on true competition based on smarts in a way that feels celebratory and fun.

The 11 contestants represent a wide spectrum of perceived nerdom: sci-fi enthusiasts, professional gamers, a mathematician, a planetary engineer, comic book experts, and so on. Hey, there’s even a self-described hacker! Some seem shy and stereotypically awkward while others (Ivan, Danielle) show off eccentric looks and bubbly personalities. Like normal humans, they run the gamut in style and interests, which is refreshing. It would have been easy to slot the entire show with caricatures of nerds straight out of central casting, pocket protectors and all.

Speaking of pocket protectors, one of the great joys of the show is the fact that it’s hosted (and executive produced) by Robert Carradine (Lewis) and Curtis Armstrong (Booger) from the Revenge Of The Nerds series. The stars of the well-loved franchise manage to hold onto their chemistry as co-stars from back in the day and keep the show moving along nicely. Their excitement is almost palpable as they announce the name of the stately mansion the contestants will be staying in: “Nerdvana.”

Like most competitive reality shows, the first episode focuses mostly around getting to know these no-names and seeing the way they interact with each other and their new surroundings. They’re all delighted by Nerdvana, and for good reason. Instead of the requisite hot tub and “funky” decor usually found in a Real World house or the like, this place has all kinds of fun treats: a full-size Batman replica, an updated version of the Game Of Thrones throne, a project room with whiteboards and electronics, and more.

We also learn that all of these contestants are impressive humans in really interesting ways: There’s Moogega who had her PhD by the age of 24 and is now working at NASA. John has pink hair and loves listening to metal as much as doing math. Cutesy Celeste is a professional gamer capable of intimidating all the men in the house, and Brandon is a PhD student in neuroscience.

The first competitive aspect involves the contestants having to choose two teams—one blue, one orange—a la grade school team picking. That means they stand in a line and pick one another off until a lone person remains. But there’s a nice twist when we learn that Alana, who was dead last in being picked by the others, is actually given immunity in the next challenge because, as Booger explains, “there’s nothing nerdier than not getting picked.”

Next up, the two teams must each pick someone to compete in their first team challenge, knowing that the loser will be sent home. Hendrick, who studies “the mechanical behavior of rocks, ice and the mixtures thereof”, is up for the challenge along with pink-haired John. They’re paired up with a teammate who will act as an “advisor” to help them while they compete in an enormous game of outdoor chess. The pieces are several feet tall and placed on a massive chessboard, to be moved around by a sexy lady dressed as a Harajuku-esque goddess, with a massive, pink wig and colorful tutu—the kind of lady who would make a whole ‘lotta heads turn at Comic Con, the producers assume. The two teams play an intense game of chess, directing their pieces to be moved while Booger and Lewis watch from the sidelines with running commentary.

Given the way most reality plays out, it feels as though some type of trick or turn will come into play during the chess game, but impressively, one doesn’t. The contestants play a game of chess while their teammates compliment their smart tactics and defensive strategies. When a piece is to be moved off the giant board, a hunky Roman warrior comes to smash the top of it off with a mace, exploding red piñata guts everywhere. Honestly, it’s a blast to watch and made me wish for a way to make this recurring challenge.

Hendrick is beat by John after a tough game, and he’s sent on his way, booted out of Nerdvana and back into the real world. But if the first episode is any indication, the show feels like it’s made for and by people who at least someone understand the burgeoning intersections of pop culture, academia, counter-culture, and overall excitement in one’s interests. While it’ll no doubt put its contestants in limiting boxes and shave off all kinds of subtlety about the ways these types of people absorb and express their unique passions, it’s pleasing to see a show that genuinely builds competition around talent and skill, instead of laughing in the faces of people who aren’t Snooki or J-Woww (no offense to either of those reality queens). Also, big points to whoever decided the winner of the $100,000 prize at the series’ end gets to sit in the Game Of Thrones throne. Well played, indeed.