Monday, January 21, 2013

Very Funny: TBS, King of the Nerds, and Nerdsploitation

Hard to believe, but none of them are warriors

Reality television is not my cup of tea. I remember being hooked on successive seasons of Big Brother in my younger years, marveling at how the show's producers had found such unusual personalities among the throng of attention-starved applicants. As my life has progressed and I have found less and less time for television, good and bad, it is safe to say that reality shows have fallen off my radar. What I have caught of recent output in the genre has seemed relatively innocuous fare amounting to nothing much more dangerous than a favorite comfort food: fine in small doses, but possibly not the best foundation for a life perspective.

When I first saw the trailer for TBS' new reality show King of the Nerds, it sounded immediate alarm bells in my head. Despite this reaction, I felt compelled to check it out, especially given that TBS has garnered its fair share of bad press among nerd communities of late, with a wonderful article that compared how The Big Bang Theory uses nerds as its punchlines, while NBC's Community is a more inclusive and generally embracing affair. With King of the Nerds, I considered that perhaps TBS was looking to to make amends. To boldly go where no TBS series had gone before.


No expense spared over at TBS
Would that it were true. The show opens with a proclamation: The rise of technology has brought with it the rise of the nerd. Cue four nerds (all white males): Microsoft's Bill Gates, Apple's Steve Jobs, Scott Pilgrim star Michael Cera, and Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper in TBS's 'Nerds are weird!' sitcom The Big Bang Theory (nice inter-series plug, TBS!). Two of these men did indeed fuel the 'rise of technology', so arguably that of the nerd. The other two of these men are actors who play nerds on the big and small screens respectively. Actors who play nerds is a repeating role too, as the presenters of King of the Nerds are none other than… It seems the budget won't stretch for current figureheads of nerd culture, so we settle for Curtis Armstrong and Robert Carradine! No, it's okay, I didn't know who they were either. These are two of the stars of the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds. Yeah, I've heard of it, too. Yeah, I haven't seen it either.

Next we are introduced to the show's contestants. The hosts are keen to add that there's a difference between a 'nerd' and a 'geek', but they're as-yet unwilling to specify what that difference is for the audience at large. Nevertheless, here are all eleven nerds who would be king:

Brandon - 24, Neuroscientist
Alana - 26, Comic book nerd
Celeste - 22, Pro Gamer
Hendrik - 26, Geophysicist
Danielle - 23, Video game blogger
Ivan - 27, Role-playing game designer
Genevieve - 27, Fantasy writer
Jon - 22, Mathematician
Moogega - 26, NASA engineer
Joshua - 24, Comics & gaming nerd
Virgil - 28, Master hacker

Have you gone to red alert yet? We're barely into the first episode, and it's already sadly apparent that five of the contestants will never be crowned king – they are women. When almost half of the participants are ineligible for the grand prize, might it not make sense to reconsider the show's title? The concerns do not end there. With such a wide range of talents, one can't help but wonder how Alana may be crowned 'King' when Joshua is not merely a 'comic book nerd', but a 'gaming nerd' as well. Not to mention that if we consider real-world value here, both contestants' talents for pop-culture trivia rather pale in comparison to the relative merits of a neuroscientist or a NASA engineer.


So we have a show with a title that alienates half of its contestants, ranking them on dubious grounds. This sounds like a great time to assemble some teams! The show now moves to us watching the nominated team captains, Ivan and Genevieve, mull over their dream teams. But wait, how best could we select our colleagues? By pouring slime over their heads! Of course! What better way to signify that these people are nerds than by humiliating them! Talk about a mixed message. In the asides, geophysicist Hendrik addresses this oddity upon his own selection, deadpanning  '[I had] what must have been a mixture of corn starch, water, and food dye poured on my head… signifying that I was to join the team.' That the producers opt to include this quip is but further evidence that they're more than aware of the underlying message to the audience.

Nothing says 'leadership role model' like ruined clothes.
Standing in a line and waiting to be picked might be a familiar high-school memory for many of you out there. Not content to let that slide, the hosts remind us 'There is nothing nerdier than not getting picked'. Exactly why are viewers being encouraged to identify nerdiness with a failure to match up? Its overt negativity is poison to the concept that a show that claims to be celebrating and embracing the cultures on display. I know that I, personally, have always defined my ultimate nerdy trait as my inability to get picked. Not my knowledge, interests, hobbies or anything of the sort. As a last hurrah, at the end of the selection process, Alana is left on her own, sparking her (and the show's) most disturbing line yet:

"This, right now, is not fun. I've been losing all of my life. That's why I'm a f**king nerd, okay?!"

Remember why you became a nerd? How it wasn't about having outlier inclinations, but because you lose at everything? Remember? Sweet nostalgia, it doth bring a tear to mine eye. At this point, it is clear that TBS have zero interest in celebrating the contestants' backgrounds, but offering them up as a sideshow of freaks. This is starting to remind me of another TBS show…

What ensues for the remainder of the program is a collection of quips and awkward moments that serve to emphasize how hilariously weird and socially-dysfunctional our merry band of nerdlingers really are. The most awkward? Could it be Danielle, who proclaims 'Victory or death!' in Orcish? Or when Jon describes his love of headbanging and hits the interviewer's microphone? Gee, I'm so glad I don't have to hang around with these people. They're so crazy and weird! They remind me of those guys on –oh wait, I already said that, huh?

Which brings me to my final point. None of these people seem 'crazy weird' to me, and yet none of them feel familiar either. I often wonder if the problem is that I'm not quite nerdy enough to move in these circles, because I'm definitely not cool enough to want to laugh at them. Of those that exhibit the more unusual traits, none of them seem like they need nor want to be laughed at. They're just socially awkward people, some of which happen to have pink hair.

OMG Jon said he reads textbooks for fun. WHAT A WEIRD GUY!


The good news is that there are alternatives. For the nerdy reality television fan who doesn't wish to watch a show that champions their faults, I'd like to offer a couple of reality show alternatives that may leave you feeling a little less self-loathing after they finish.

Face Off is a Syfy show that pits prosthetic makeup artists against each other. The last episode I saw had the contestants competing to create a character that would fit into the Star Wars cantina scene. That was literally their mission statement. Not once did they talk about how they lose at everything in life, and that's how they became makeup artists. Instead, the show focuses on how ridiculously talented some of these people can be. It's artistic, it's creative, and a bunch of the contestants are most assuredly nerdy.

My second recommendation is a little off the subject matter, but it addresses an important distinction. While you may recall that King of the Nerds is hosted by two actors who once played nerds, RuPaul's Drag Race is 'a search for America's next drag star' that is hosted by an actual drag queen, and a well-known one at that. This show is just about as campy as modern television can get, and it does a brilliant job of introducing its audience to a lesser-explored subculture without ever portraying its contestants as freaks, or weirdos, or anything of the sort.

If you watched King of the Nerds this week because, let's face it, you're a little (or a lot) nerdy, and you thought it was genuinely amusing and a laugh-riot then I salute you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the season. Just please don't go thinking that's how the world actually sees you. A lot of us actually think that you're a valid human being.

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