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Exploitation or celebration? Sophie and Ben watch King of the Nerds

Exploitation or celebration? Sophie and Ben watch King of the Nerds

King of the Nerds is a just-launched reality show on TBS that “will take the glory of geekdom to a whole new level as the eleven competitors live together in ‘Nerdvana.’ Each week, they must face challenges that will test their intellect, ingenuity, skills and pop culture prowess.” Or so says the official site. The first commercials suggested a train wreck, so Sophie and Ben decided to watch, and compare notes. The results weren’t exactly what we expected.

Ben’s Thoughts

I think both Sophie and I went into this show expecting to hate it, and the plan was to have a snarky post ready for the holiday. Easy, right? The problem is that, well, I actually really enjoyed the show.

Check out the words the hosts, both culled from the Revenge of the Nerds films (but seemingly not playing their characters), use to describe the contestants in the first scene: inventive, imaginative, devious and intelligent. They highlight all the good parts of being a so-called nerd, and the contestants are an interesting group of people. They actually seemed like individuals to me, or at least the closest you’re going to get to real people in reality television.

The house is also a point in the show’s favor. Radio Shack brings product placement, but there is also the groan-worthy “Throne of Games” for the winner, comfortable places to play video games, and dragon heads on the wall. Remove the house from the context and I bet you’d want to spend time there as well.

There was a surprising lack of pandering. The contestants try to make themselves look desirable for team selection while fondling Nerf swords. Everyone seemed surprisingly comfortable with the situation, with little forced drama.

Watch the scene where the two team leaders pick their team mates by pouring orange or blue paint over their head, which may have been a stealth Portal joke. Everyone seemed worried about the person who was picked last, until it was revealed that the last person picked would get to select who they considered to be the “strongest” team, and therefore give that team immunity in the first challenge. This reversal was due to the fact there is “nothing more nerdy” than being picked last for teams.

Let’s put this through the Big Bang Theory Test: Are we supposed to be laughing with these people, or at them? Everyone seemed to be having too much fun, with the editing and staging set up to hold them up as clever people, for me to get upset.

Also, Virgil being annoyed and incredulous at the poor decisions of those around him was hilarious. I already have favorites on the cast, and people I’m cheering for. Sophie, am I insane?

Sophie’s thoughts

“From time immemorial, nerds have been harassed, teased, and left out,” co-host Curtis Armstrong says at the beginning of the show. “But, in a stunning reversal, the rise of technology has brought with it… the rise of the nerd.” It’s true, but also strange; I’m not that old, but even I remember a time when being called a nerd, or dork, or dweeb, or geek was hurtful.

Today, people of all ages self-identify as nerds, and do so with pride. Go read and watch the cast biographies; do these seem like people are ashamed to be on the show or feel like their interests are being exploited? I don’t think so.

Even the hosts seem more genuine than I was expecting. Ben mentioned the moment of the show when someone gets picked last; everyone is dreading it, and in the confessional videos, some are on the verge of tears. Given the subject matter and contestants’ history though, that’s almost expected. What I didn’t see coming was Armstrong also sounding emotional. It was a dramatic moment.

In fact, we can even glimpse the dark side - nerd joke unintentional - of modern nerd culture from the first episode of the show: the culling of the non-nerd. As contestants are trying to make themselves look like good potential teammates, many also put down their fellow nerds as being not good enough, not smart enough, not nerdy enough.

It’s the “fake geek gamer girl” crap all over again, but unrestricted by gender. Oh, Virgil is a hacker named in the New York Times? Guess he’s not a good enough hacker if people know his name. But lest you feel sorry for him, when another contestant chooses someone over him as an advisor, he gives a disgusted scoff.

I realize this is a competitive show, but it makes me sad to see a group that has been historically outcast - as the intro even explicitly states - start to turn on each other. Can’t we all just nerd along?

Back to Ben

Well, this may become less interesting if we both agree the show’s heart is in the right place. The term “nerd,” which I normally despise, is used as a catch-all to mean so many things, but it all kind of makes sense. Of course NASA employees and Pro Gamers will both be included. But who doesn’t want to work for NASA or be known for their gaming skill?

Look at the first big challenge: Chess. There was no twist. The teams had three hours to prepare and talk strategy. The best chess player won the game and got to stay. How great is that? There was no bullshit meta-game: They just played chess.

Look at how they prepared. They both began to study chess and strategies, either with other people on their team or against a computer program. Both contestants more or less hit the books before the event; how often do you see that in reality television? 

They even brought out male and female eye candy to move the large pieces, just to make things interesting visually. Well, the female moved the large pieces while shaking her barely-clothed butt and the man smashed the pieces with what looked like a large mace.

I won’t say who won, but the person I thought could win it all was knocked out. Watch the other contestants and even the hosts wince during the game when they see a trap the losing player does not. The game of chess may have had what looked, to my eyes, as basic strategy, but it was tense. I only hope the rest of the challenges are this cerebral and fair. Sophie, quick question before you get started again: is Moogega the best person in the world, or merely the best person on TV right now? Discuss.

Sophie’s final thoughts

Yeah, unfortunately, I can’t hate the show. I can dislike certain aspects - the aforementioned female sticking her butt out as she moved chess pieces, for example - but overall I enjoyed it. I wasn’t laughing at any of these people, I was cheering them on, and wishing the jerks would be cut loose. You know, almost like they’re - gasp! - regular people.

When I see the mass-marketed nerd entertainments, I try to think about them from an outsider’s perspective. Self-proclaimed “legitimate” nerds hate The Big Bang Theory, while the general public adores it.

Ben and I can appreciate the fact that the contestants aren’t being dragged through the usual, ridiculous hoops and flashy games, but even with the visual punch that comes from watching a muscled man smash open a chess piece, it’s still just a game of chess. That’s not something you run to tell your friends so that they’ll tune in to watch with you next week. “Did you see that game of chess? He totally took that bishop like a champ!”

In a culture of “be bigger, be showier, be crazier,” I wonder if a show more grounded in reality that purposefully avoids tropes will bring in the crowd. There are no obvious trouble-makers, no seductresses, no stereotypes of any kind to quickly identify and watch. That’s a good thing, but I fear that it won’t turn out to be a popular thing. I think people will come in expecting walking jokes and a bunch of snorting, wheezing basement-dwellers. When they see that’s not what King of the Nerds is, I hope audiences will grow attached to the contestants and see them as the people they are.

As for Moogega - she’s cute, her name is awesome, and she works for the Planetary Protection division of NASA. She’s pretty awesome. But... Danielle has pink hair. You just can’t beat the pink hair.

One last thought from Ben

I don’t know why, but I really despise Danielle. Virgil is only one who could be a villain, and again I was dismayed at the first person to leave. I would have put money on that particular person.

What I like about the show is that while some of contestants are definitely playing it up for the camera, most of the people we’re watching seem like the smart people I know in real life, and the people I hang out with who play games and enjoy talking about Dungeons & Dragons. They may be a little awkward at times, but they’re people.

The stereotype is far from reality, as I’ve argued before, and I’m a little surprised it took a reality show on TBS to really have fun with that idea in a major way.