Geek Love debuts tonight on TLC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
I had my concerns going into Geek Love, not least the worrisome fact of its leading into All-American Muslim, which I’m boycotting—I no longer let them advertise on my person—because I feel TLC misled me about the program’s warm, humanist contents. Fortunately, screeners don’t come with commercials so I didn’t have to endure another second of American Muslims acting like they’re not trying to institute sharia law in our schools. But seriously, the Toddlers & Tiaras/My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding contingent sets an exploitative precedent that is just screaming to be applied to New York Comic Con, I mean, Nerd Dork Comic Con (nailed it!). Surprise of surprises: This show just loves to condescend to the nerds, the better to lift up our spirits when one of these sad sacks finds a potential love connection. Geek Love sure looks like a pretty girl, but it’s just dating us on a bet.
Cringe comedy may be waning, but Geek Love combines what it finds to be the two most awkward things on the planet, nerds and dating, so remember to exercise your wincing muscles in case you get sore. And word to the wise: Please don’t drink every time you hear the phrase “Let your geek flag fly,” or at least have a buddy with you. That is, if you nerds even have any friends. Right? Up top! The gist of Geek Love is that this affable Anakin (I think? In my defense it’s the prequels) dude hosts speed-dating at New York Comic Con, and each episode follows three daters from their memorabilia bedecked bedrooms to the speed-dating event and hopefully into the final act where the perfect matches—those daters that put each other on their lists of favorites—go out on a real date. I wish they explained the logistics better, because Mr. Probably Anakin makes sure in both episodes to confirm the daters in line are straight. Everyone in the first two episodes is, but I wonder if there’s another room for the gay nerds (possibly on a later episode) or if he just gives them a brochure for Grindr.
As I said, the host, Ryan Glitch, is an affable geek guy himself; it’s the show that has the jock side. The introductions of the geeks can be awkward, and TLC sure has no compunction about letting the daters hang out to dry when they say something, um, unusual. There may have even been cricket sound effects; I was too busy doing anything but paying attention to Geek Love. Fortunately the daters are often pretty funny, and you spend most of your time rooting for them. It’s fair to say some of that rooting comes from pity—did I mention the show plays this bumbling guitar music when it cuts to a big, lonely Chewbacca fan and that alien theremin sound as it scare zooms on a helmeted dater?—but sometimes, they’re just so cute together you can’t contain your inner reality show fan.
The problems aren’t entirely moral/thematic, because as you’ve probably discerned this reality show is no Brick City. Geek Love looks exactly like you expect and sounds even worse, what with the daters trying to talk over the crowd murmur and all the Chewbacca noises. Maybe them’s the breaks, this being a reality show and all, but it’s hard to shrug when the production values do a disservice to the show. And being a reality program also presents a narrative problem that Geek Love doesn’t solve. With Toddlers & Tiaras, someone is going to win, and everyone else is going to lose to don false eyelashes another day. You don’t have to find a narrative. But Geek Love is open-ended. Each dater could find a perfect match, or a second choice, or nobody, and they could do it in any combination with each other. The premiere has each of those three outcomes for its Iron Man, Chewbacca, and Harry Potter fan. But it doesn’t know what to do with the one that goes home alone, opting for an unsettling mix of pity and unfounded optimism, saved only by the charms of the dater, who’s apparently totally unaware of this portrayal.
On the plus side, there’s a fun cultural anthropology aspect that should really be the focus (i.e. it should be “Let’s spend some times with these Comicon types and explore their passions and hobbies” as opposed to “Let’s see if any of these lonely nerds can get a date”). The second episode features both Boba Fett and a female Mandalorian who trade delightful war stories about their costuming. It also features a girl who’s so half-jokingly afraid the guys there are serial killers that she asks Glitch if that’s what’s in store. Then the speed-dating opens with the funniest moment of the first two episodes, milked by a couple talking heads and a commercial break Dun Dun Dun, as her first gentleman caller sits down in his Michael Myers mask. That’s the kind of comedy that saves Geek Love, the wacky kinds of occurrences that could only happen at a comic convention (and that don’t look down on people for indulging their enthusiasms, as too much of the rest of the show does).
In Vanity Fair Kurt Andersen argues that American culture has stopped evolving in order to cannibalize the past. I can think of numerous rebuttals—the move away from ironic slackerdom and toward sincere striving, the sheer amount of life now spent looking at screens, skinny jeans—but nothing so thoroughly stops his bullets in midair as the rise of nerd culture. The box office is dominated by wizards and superheroes and aliens and Hobbits. Networks hold panels for all kinds of television at San Diego Comic Con. Starlets in vintage-looking Battlestar Galactica tees are falling over themselves to profess their nerd cred on talk shows. President Obama customizes action figures. Or maybe I read that on Rob Delaney’s Twitter. The point is the geeks of Geek Love in 2011 are light years from the geeks on Saved by the Bell in 1991. Too bad Geek Love doesn’t always act like it.