Even though it isn’t brand new, we were still appalled to return from the holidays to discover TBS’ new reality show King of the Nerds. The plot: Eleven self-described “nerds” live in a house together a la MTV’s The Real World and compete in a series of challenges until one of them is deemed the ruler of them all.
We can’t actually figure out what the winner’s reward is, or how they’re defining “best nerd,” which reveals an inherent flaw: The show doesn’t seem to be about the competition at all. Instead, the trailer sets the tone of “let’s point and laugh at all these socially awkward weirdos.”
Let’s break down the core issues.
Michele: My friends are trained at this point to bring me LARP news, so when Chandler Moses brought me this poster I naturally had to check it out.
What I found was not a “LARP” show, but a stigmatization of an entire cultural group.
Natalie: Kudos to whoever thought to specifically cater to LARPers with this poster... but it’s an underhanded marketing campaign for what looks like a reprehensible show.
My initial reactions to the trailer were a series of garbled, mostly monosyllabic pleas: “NO WHY WHAT IS THIS ARGH WHYYY?!” I don’t normally have these kinds of visceral responses—I can’t take people’s vitriol seriously if they can’t articulate it—but this show prompts utter rage.
Michele: Here’s why this is a colossal setback. It takes every stereotype of what mainstream thinks nerds are like, and tries to come across as an authority on what it means to be a nerd—therefore cementing these archetypes and stigmas as fact for its audience. The truth is that “nerds” and “geeks” come in all varieties, shapes and sizes, from all walks of life—as I mention in my intro to LARP—white collar, blue collar, engineers, and artists alike.
Natalie: What’s disturbing is how complicit these contestants are in the stereotyping. Alana is married, yet is happy to play the flirty nerd-girl card to get what she wants. Danielle introduces herself as a chemistry major and then screws her face up like she’s said something extremely unattractive.
In many cases, mainstream people identify geeks and nerds by their intense, extremely specific passions. However, as Chandler pointed out, “Having that obsessive quality doesn’t make any of these contestants a better or smarter person. The problem is when they exploit that obsessive quality to make themselves into a caricature. What they seem to be doing is putting on a show—like, ridiculous game-show shit.”
Whereas our knee-jerk responses were negative, some friends looked for the positive. One wrote on Facebook,
While I enjoy the body of work [hosts] Mr. Carradine and Armstrong respectively have done... I feel that this will simply be more light shone upon the “Nerd” community. Much like “Role Models” or other LARPing movie(S) sure some bad publicity but all in all expect new interest.
Natalie: Could geeks/nerds starring on reality TV be progressive? What’s the silver lining?
- Viewers learn about obscure facets of nerdery, from the Orcish language to steampunk cosplay.
- The failed CW makeover show Beauty and the Geek cast the awkward contestants as lower than their more attractive counterparts. These participants don’t have a foil. They’re all nerds.
- One of the nerds, Moogega, isn’t socially awkward at all! I automatically want her to win. Joshua’s pretty self-possessed, too. I’m still rooting for Moo, though.
- George Takei appears in one episode! So it can’t be all bad, right?
- The winner must (scratch that, had better) get a ton of money to go through all this.
Michele: I’m not saying that a show about geeks/nerds has to be serious—I just wish producers would take a more genuine approach. People aren’t one-dimensional. All of these contestants are probably great, interesting, well rounded human beings—and we’ll probably only see extremely exploited, overly edited versions of them. I just already don’t appreciate the mockery and overly hyped tone of this show that I haven’t even seen yet.
Natalie: People ask me how, as a twentysomething woman working in New York City, I can stomach Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls. I respond that I pretend it’s a parody of my generation. You know what I would like to see? Nerds similarly poking fun at what mainstream society thinks of them. King of the Nerds seems to be halfway there. You definitely get the sense that the contestants know they’re playing roles... but the show is still trying to push these roles as “real.” Someday geeks and nerds will have firm enough footing that they can create nuanced parody. We’re just not there yet.
If you think you can stomach it, King of the Nerds premieres Thursday, January 17th at 10 p.m. EST on TBS.
Michele Reznik is a marauder and messer who solemnly swears she’s up to no good! Graphic/web designer, geek culture podcaster & co-host of AFK On Air, Public Relations/Event Production Associate (with Jeff Newelt AKA “JahFurry” for comics, film, tech, lit & music clients), Live Action Role Player, and hobbiest costumer. When she isn’t writing, designing, or LARPing, she’s usually catching up on comics and sci fi — one series at a time. You can find her @DarthReznik on Twitter.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.