I was pretty confident I could keep up after deciding to take on the National Spelling Bee. Not that I could spell any of the words or anything, but I was in a spelling bee once, so, you know. I can relate. Sure, it was just my third-grade classroom against the one across the hall, and in retrospect, it only happened because our teachers were bored and decided to make us recite our vocab quizzes instead of taking them. But that didn’t stop me from sweating bullets waiting for “extra-terrestrial,” trying to conceal my horror as my best friend forgot to state “picnic” before reciting it, or watching a kid go down because he couldn’t stop spelling “banana.” I felt pressure like my 8-year-old self had only ever felt before when I picked up my lunchbox and realized I had placed it on a pile of red ants. It was horrible.
Scripps would have eaten me alive.
Oh sure, the contestants are straight-up adorable, what with their horn-rimmed glasses and tracing words on their palms and vibrating on the same frequency as that precocious kid on Modern Family, but the Bee is unforgiving. Scripps knows these contestants are trained to power through with blinders on, and so it tries to spice things up in the most conventional ways. In all fairness, this does seem to anticipate the fact that only two contestants have been eliminated after 90 minutes of the finals have passed us by. It’s on the production at that point to eke out some drama.
“Every word is a World Series,” the narration tells us over silhouettes of determined spellers thumbing through dictionaries (kids scrolling down iPhones just isn’t as cinematic). “Most of us can’t spell ‘misspell,’” he continues. “They can, but they can’t.” Every other shot is a split-screen of anxious kids wringing their hands and their parents white-knuckling it in the audience. The contestant’s descriptions look routine until you get past their hometown and hit “2012 Misspelled Word,” like they didn’t have that seared into their brains already. The Bee’s ubiquitous commentators are too bland to be of note until a moment when the guy will go ahead and say something like, “This is why you skipped that dance to devote more time to spelling,” while a child buries her face in her hands. Meanwhile, a correspondent does post-elimination interviews like she’s talking to Adam Levine’s latest castoff, only realizing halfway through that she’s talking to a 13-year-old who just crushed her own dream by not knowing more about migratory tropical ants. The honeycombed set is a neon Tron blue that turns scarlet once the 30 second countdown begins; these kids are as unflappable as they come, but they’d have to be superhuman not to panic at this moment. It’s not immediately clear if there’s a set time limit for the entire spelling process or what, but that scarlet light of doom always seems to happen around the time a contestant gets stuck in a loop reciting a word and the Pronouncer (actual title) doesn’t feel like saying “myelogenous” anymore so stop asking. But Scripps doesn’t commit either way to being a terror or a joy, and so the result is a weird mish-mash of reality tropes and pleasantries. It’s probably the most polite Hunger Games D.C.’s ever had.
There are at least some small moments of relief hidden in the sample sentences. We not only get to learn that a “kaburi” is a “swamp ghost crab,” but that “a kaburi is often known as the swamp ghost crab, but his friends just call him Dave.” And for the twentysomethings ironically drinking every time someone stumbles, there’s context for “catachresis,” or “the misuse of words”: “Tobias had a habit of ill-timed catachresis, which was a constant source of mirth for his family.” First-timer Syamantak Payra didn’t seem to appreciate the Arrested Development reference, but I’ll just go ahead and chalk that up to nerves.
But however quaint spelling bees are in the cultural lexicon, a steady rotation of smart people asking for the definition and etymology of kaburi until the clock cuts them off is only so interesting. Official Pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailey doesn’t help either, seeing as his energy level is less like that of a host and more in line with Toby Flenderson. Also, Scripps airs on ESPN. You can practically see the producers lingering just offstage, ready to throw a baseball bat into the arms of a disappointed speller only to realize that spellers are maybe the most polite humans on the planet next to frozen-yogurt vendors. These kids are the best at what they do, and more often than not, it’s a total drag. But every so often, a contestant like Amber Born will get a word, furrow her brow at the pronunciation, and deadpan, “Well, that’s cause for panic.” And suddenly, it’s just a kid being a kid, chasing a dream, staring “lanscenet” down and walking away in triumph. It might not always be riveting television, but it’s certainly no cause for panic.
- My favorite part of Arvind Mahankali winning with “knaidel” was how he knew what it was the second he heard it, so by the time he actually won he just stood calmly in the metric tons of confetti dumping down on him like he was waiting for the school bus.
- If they’re going to make this a Reality Show Event, they could at least get an elimination sound that sounds more like a buzzer and less like a concierge bell. Or is that too harsh? What are the ethics of eliminating children, exactly? (Not like that. This isn’t The Walking Dead.) (...SVU? Pretty Little Liars? Damn, I had something for this.)
- The word that inspired tonight’s most what-the-fuckery: “melocoton,” or "a peach grafted on a quince roadstock perceived to have qualities of excellence.” Oh, sure. That kind of peach.