TBS recently worked the ratings numbers in such a way as to call themselves “Basic Cable’s #1 Network of 2012 (Among Adults 18-34 in Primetime).” This because its original series Sullivan and Son and Men at Work each drew an average of over 2.5 million viewers an episode. The press announcement de-emphasized that only about 1.5 million of those viewers are in the 18-49 demographic that always interests advertisers, and don’t even mention the numbers for the 18-34-year-olds the network itself is touting.
The press release does mention that the reason for TBS’ success is its endless reruns of The Big Bang Theory. And that leads to King of the Nerds, a reality competition show with a premise that is, essentially, “What if The Big Bang Theory was a reality competition show?” It makes sense that TBS would go after the sitcom’s viewer base, and, based on the first episode, the new show has a good shot at getting them to watch.
The production team has considerable experience on other successful reality competition shows, including Survivor, The Amazing Race, and The Biggest Loser. It’s clear from the first 10 minutes of King of the Nerds that the production values are high, more in line with network level values than those maintained in cable’s low-rent district, where VH1 and TLC reside. These high values provide a framework for the game, in which 11 people from a variety of backgrounds run through a series of nerd-related elimination challenges until the final winner is crowned.
To this end, the first episode goes through motions: two captains are chosen and teams of five are assembled. Each week, winning team retains all of its members, while the losers will have to send two members to an elimination round. It’s a familiar format, with a minor hiccup in this first episode. With 11 contestants, one is not picked for a team, and the show does a solid job of letting that person twist in the wind.
Opposed to such manufactured suspense are the affable hosts, Curtis Armstrong and Robert Carradine, trading on their shared history as cast members of Revenge of the Nerds — and Revenge of the Nerds II, III, and IV. Armstrong is gregarious and talkative and very, very good at his job: he provides explanations that are clear without being overly dramatic. Carradine is quieter, and seems to be working hard to play up his own nerdiness, but the two have an easy camaraderie that comes from decades of working together.
The contestants are a typically mixed bag, the sort of variety a game show seeks out. Most are telegenic in appropriately unconventional ways, and a couple of others fit neatly into existing nerd types (the metal-head, the awkward big girl, the hopeless dork). The more striking differences have to do with nerd credentials, and each team has some of each. On one side, we find hyper-intelligent science nerds, with jobs like NASA engineer and physicist; on the other, there’s a professional gamer, hacker, RPG designer, aspiring novelist, and video game blogger.
All these experts-at-something are assembled in a mansion dubbed “Nerdvana,” where the rooms appear designed to appeal to their interests. Very unlike other contestants-as-housemates shows, this one avoids scenes set in bedrooms or even the kitchen. But that’s one of the only surprises in the first episode. The mix of appealing nerds and lack of truly grating nerds is calculated for viewers’ comfort, but the first episode is decidedly bland, too. Viewers looking for a new take on the reality competition genre won’t find it here.