Jan 11 2013 11:00am

Why Geek Reality Show King of the Nerds Incites All Caps Rage

TBS King of the Nerds reality show nerd rage reaction

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.

TBS King of the Nerds reality show addicted to LARP poster

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.”

Look at how they’re making them qualify for “nerd” minimums. With check marks, no less!

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.

1. graverobber06
You know what, I'll take the nerd ridicule if it gets PANZER on the TV!!
Dave West
2. Jhirrad
Often, I have found myself enjoying mainstream productions which discuss our culture. I actually liked Beauty & The Geek, not because I liked the premise that these women were somehow better than the Geeks on the show, but because you got to see them sort of foiled whenever they had to do something using their brains rather than their bodies. I’m also reminded of a great article I read on yesterday:
Their examples are excellent, and in general, they find and I agree that mainstream TV does a horrendous job of representing “nerd culture”. All they do is insult rather than accept.

However, as I have aged and become more introspective, I find myself more disturbed by these things. I've been a fan of The Big Bang Theory for years. Even Wil Wheaton, a bastion of strength within the community, is a part of that show. Surely it can't be that bad. More and more though, watching it makes me cringe, as I see this show insult and belittle things which I am a part of. Last night’s episode of that show actually provides a great example, while seemingly attempting to bridge the gap to a degree. The guys go a comic book convention. En route, they stop to take some pictures in their Star Trek costumes at a location which had been used to shoot several episodes of Star Trek. Their car is subsequently stolen. While trying to get to town and get help, someone throws a drink on Sheldon and calls the group nerds from a moving vehicle. When they get to town, and go to a diner, everyone stops to stare, as they are still in costume. The waitress makes fun of them with a comment about having Scottie "beam you up". The police officer dealing with the stolen vehicle report makes a comment about them calling their mom's to come and pick them up (this is made worse by the fact that they had Howard call his mom to arrange a rental car, which he announces as Leonard is trying to defend the group). Worst of all, Sheldon, the one character that throughout the entire series I have clung to because he is completely unashamed of his passions, seems to turn away from that here, because now it has simply gotten too hard. They've tortured them for 6 years now on the show; he finally broke.

At the same time, they tried to show the opposite, by getting the girls to try and enjoy some comics and see what it's all about. It is a valiant effort which I felt fell sadly short. First, while at the comic book store, instead of choosing something with more substance, as was suggested by the store owner, they go for the one with the "hot guy". This perpetuates the stereotype of guys only wanting comics where the female characters are hyper-sexualized. Does it happen? Of course, we know it does, but that doesn't mean this needs to be carried over and treated as the right course of action. Second, after reading the comic, the reaction of all three was the same - it's stupid, they can't begin to understand how these men they love could possibly get wrapped up in this. This is where they try to then achieve some balance, as they have the girls engage in a heated debate about various points regarding the story, specifically Thor's hammer. They themselves quickly become encapsulated by something which only moments before they have called stupid. It helped mitigate some of the other damage to me, but it still fell short.

When I watched this episode last night, I remember thinking about the trailers I’ve seen for this new TBS show, King of the Nerds. I started considering what exactly it was going to be, and finding myself very worried. It seems to me that the fears of the authors here are quite valid, as the show appears to be nothing more than a mainstream attempt to take something which is different from itself and either force assimilation, or simply mock and ridicule it to the point that those who would live in that manner feel ashamed of themselves and their life choices. A lot of geeks and nerds have had a difficult enough time getting picked on, bullied, insulted, and degraded over the course of their lives. Having a TV show on a major cable network deliberately do the same is disheartening at the very minimum.

While some argue that no publicity is bad publicity, I fear that a show like this is an effort to “put nerds in their place” after a year in which so many of the major Hollywood blockbusters are “nerd” films. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Hunger Games, and The Hobbit. These are all more traditionally part of nerd culture. It seems like maybe mainstream America is afraid that they are becoming too nerdy, and needed something to put us back down. It sickens me.
D. Bell
3. SchuylerH
While I can only agree that the portrayal of the geek/nerd community in mainstream media tends to range from the merely ham-fisted to the monumentally stupid (in particular, the delusional belief that Star Trek and Isaac Asimov are still "where it's at") but two things have come to mind:

1: As frankly terrible as this show looks, I hadn't heard of the TBS network before now, let alone its reality schedule. Are they particularly prominent?

2: Having read the io9 post, I'm now having difficulty thinking of any mainstream British television series that featured an equivalent "geek episode". (I'm not counting anything where SF gets conflated with the UFO subculture, astrology etc) Can anyone help?
4. SallyTerp
While I agree with this really well done critique of the show (AND I have NOT seen it), isn't the entire format of a reality show to mock everyone on it? Toddlers & Tiaras, Kardaq0283n123o5nans, Drawn Together (ha!), even, I would say, The Apprentice and The Real World.

The basis of the genre is to mock other people so that viewers can feel better about themselves and feel superior to "those crazies." Right?
Jenny Thrash
5. Sihaya
Most critiques of shows involving geeks just show me that the critic hasn't watched any *other* show in the same genre. Big Bang Theory often gets criticized for not being overly gentle to its protagonists. Like the watchers have never seen a sitcom in their lives, and think that Raymond, Cliff and Lucy were all the heroes of their programs. If this show picks on geeks, then it pretty much follows the program of every other realsploitation program out there. It says two things - all reality "aren't they weird?" themed programs pretty much stink (which we knew already), and geeks are so deep into the culture that they've hit most of the mainstream touchstones of modern media. They are the butt of the same jokes that are being leveled at everyone else. I can't work up the umbrage. Sorry.

*Edited for punctuation and spelling*
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
Aw, what, I was hoping this would just be like, a fun nerd trivia show or sommat.
7. Jayms
I think it's probably fine. It's just like you (us) geeks to overthink things and get offended.

Trash TV, where contestants are poked and made fun of, is one of if not the most popular kind of show on TV. Smart people laugh and poke fun at housewives and jocks and those that are more popularity-bound make fun of geeks with few friends that are less likely to follow social norms. What goes around comes around!

Each method of living is equally as successful, but if we don't make fun of the other then we'll have no way of defining ourselves. We're not merely the ideas and opinions we possess, but also what we reject in life. Rejection defines a personality as strongly as acceptance.
8. Gerry__Quinn
It's a reality show. Participants embarrass themselves (or maybe they just lack the ability to be embarassed) for money, or fame, or something. Viewers get to point and laugh at the participants. Non-viewers get to point and laugh at the viewers. The network gets cheap TV. Everybody wins. For some value of win, anyway.
sparrow hawk
9. sprrwhwk
It's an interesting parallel y'all draw to other sitcoms and reality shows. I think it's less about overthinking things and more that we (geeks and nerds) don't like sitcoms or reality TV either. At least personally, I find the humor actively painful to sit through, no matter how little I identify with the participants, and my friends have made similar comments -- we have enough awkwardness our my lives already, we don't need to watch more on TV. If you look at "geek/nerd shows," it's Firefly and Doctor Who, not Seinfeld and Frasier.

What's the history of minority cultures appearing on sitcoms? What was the effect of The Jeffersons on acceptance of Black culture, Seinfeld on Jewish culture, Everybody Loves Raymond on Italian culture? (I remember just enough of my television studies class in college to have the vague sense that the former was positive. I have no idea if the latter two are even valid comparisons.) Were those minority cultures approached in the same way?

I'm legitimately curious -- it seems like there's some worthwhile research to be done here.

(Full disclosure: I know one of the contestants on King of the Nerds.)
10. Robby C
I am looking forward to checking it out. Don't judge a show by its trailer alone. Seems like some really smart people are on the show.
11. Alfonse
TBS is trying to play on the success of the Big Bang Theory to what they think their audience likes and to find some way to jump on the reality bandwagon. However what makes BBT entertaining and less offensive is several things:
1. It pays more homage to the geek culture, e.g. characters playing Settlers (which has become pretty mainstream), Penny getting sucked into WoW after trying it.
2. It provides an ubergeek stereo type (Sheldon) that even the other geeks laugh at
3. In the end, it isn't about ridiculing loser protagonists. They *get* the girls!
4. Most people can associate with a certain amount of social awkwardness and BBT tries to present it from several standpoints, including heavy emphasis on the "endearing" nature of it.

As pointed out, this show is being promoted as: “let’s point and laugh at all these socially awkward weirdos.” Geeks won't want to watch it, and non-geeks will be too cool to watch it. This show will crash and burn so hard the network won't know who to point fingers at first.
Natalie Zutter
12. nataliezutter
So glad this article prompted such a passionate response!

@Jhirrad - The notion of "putting the nerds in their place" after the success of The Avengers, et al, is truly creepy. But I wouldn't be surprised if that were the basis of this blowback.

@SchuylerH - For a second there I wasn't sure if you were being sarcastic. TBS has definitely been around for a while, but originally it was for syndication of Friends and other sitcoms. They've been slow to add on original programming a la other networks like TNT and FX.

@SallyTerp - You're very right! Reality TV -is- about mocking others. But deciding that geeks/nerds -deserve- to be mocked is a disturbing notion, same with Honey Boo Boo and her self-described redneck family. Kim Kardashian and her famewhore relatives are people I -am- willing to go after, however. They bring it on themselves.

@mordicai - LET'S MAKE THIS HAPPEN. reality show, boom.

@Jayms - So you're basically saying that we're always gonna be stuck in high school?

@sprrwhwk - Good point about RL awkwardness versus what we see on reality TV! Though I will say that I loved Breaking Amish when it was on TLC this year, because it was so balls-crazy. (Also, can you tell us which person you know on KotN?! Or did you have to sign some sort of agreement?)

@Robby C - We definitely didn't want to come across as absolutely condemning the show after just the trailer. We'll certainly be watching come Thursday...
D. Bell
13. SchuylerH
@12: I live in Britain, I honestly don't know the first thing about US syndication.
15. Patrick_from_1up
I watched some of the previews myself, and wasn't impressed by what I saw. I can't say I'm really surprised by it, though. I wrote a preview for it over at 1Up, and mentioned your article in it. Check it out, if you'd like!
16. NickM
I'm struggling to think of anything in the 'reality' genre that TBS has done before, except for the "House Rules" game show 8 or 9 years ago.

(Which my then-gf & I thought was a pretty cool concept, but it's not exactly Tor-topic, so I'll avoid reminiscing about it now.. :) )

I found out about this show from the TV ads and some bags from a local comic shop at the end of last year. I had thought it was going to be a limited-run quiz show, perhaps in a tournament format, simply dealing with topic questions. If this is really going to be a 'Big Brother'esque production, tonight may be the first and last time I end up watching it.
sparrow hawk
17. sprrwhwk
nataliezutter @12: I know Brandon Moore from college.
18. Alfonse
@NickM, TBS did a couple of seasons of a Gilligan's Island reality show several years ago (no, seriously, google it!) and they recently did some sort of Escape/Race reality show in the last year that is off the air already. They may have had a dating show or two in there as well.
Jenny Thrash
19. Sihaya
Oh is it TBS that did The Real Gilligan's Island? I think that basically came to an end when one of the two competing Gingers sliced her hand really badly while trying to use a big honking knife on a coconut. I mean, the series/season ran all the way to the end, but the cost of liability for models who sever the tendons in their hands can't be small, and it had to have been a consideration when the show was cancelled quickly after. No wonder TBS tends to shy away form the genre.
20. NickM
@18 Alfonse- As soon as I read your first sentence, I remembered ads for that 'real Gilligan's Island' show. Didn't watch it when it happened, but I remember the publicity for it now.

I did watch the first episode and I decided afterward that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Missed the second one tonight because I was caught up in a movie, but I'll try to catch it up, and at least stick with it for now.
21. Kowalski
I'd like to chime in I've been a nerd all my life, comics, obliviousness to sports, an aerospace engineering degree and all, and this show not only respects nerds but cherishes them. Yes, it hovers over their various obsessions, but at least in my opinion doesn't try to make anyone look foolish.
22. Mark Rodriguez
Kinda... don't see the nerds in the show being actual nerds. They're all pretty normal and save a few like Alana, are quite attractive looking people that live successful lives and have epic jobs. They just happen to like Batman and WOW. I guess I was expecting real nerds, the overweight forver-alone kind of people, not a bunch of babes in booty shorts. Yeah, I guess it does make for better tv to see attractive people than creepy-looking weirdos, but yeah.... for a real King of the Nerds, we need the types that spend all day playing Second Life in their parents basements.
23. Ogre
James Whitehead
24. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I can't say that the trailers for this new 'reality' show, which I have not seen, drive me to rage any more than any other 'reality' show out there on tv these days. They are all, by their vary nature, simplistic and obviously scripted.

Also I must disagree that this show is a reaction to an American public worried about 'going nerdy.' The show is here as The Big Bang Theory has done very well for TBS; not to mention again the long list of very successful movies reference above by Jhirrad.

Hollwood may be many things but it never shies away from defining & then exploiting the next trend; especially when they see the potential money to be made.

Finally, not sure where all the hate for tBBT has come from. Seems to me just simply to be a show about a bumch of 'nerds/geeks' and how they get through their day to day lives. A lttle too stereotypical? Sure. But so are most sitcoms. Still and all, the show does have a message & our 'heroes' win most of the time and behave like fools some of the time; just as we do.

25. Makonerds
I actually started to like this show... TIL THE TERRIBLE FINALE!!! HOW CAN A GIRL WHO SKATED BY THE ENTIRE SEASON FLYING UNDER THE RADAR AND NEVER GOING INTO A NERD OFF NOT TO MENTION DOING HORRIBLE IN THE DEBATE AMONGST OTHERS CHALLENGES WIN???? Celeste is I am sure a nerd and all but the finale showed that this show is a popularity contest amongst the others in the house reminding me of all the other terrible reality game shows or even the Bachelor or some crap!!!!!!!! I know one thing if they have another season and dont change the finale format I wont be watching it. America could have voted better like on stupid idol!!!! I am not saying that I like genevieve but I being a nerd myself would have chose her strictly because she did a far better job in all the challenges /nerd offs!!! There was a reason they were all afraid to go against her cause she was a far stronger nerd. Unfortuneatly there were emotional tards like danielle who wouldnt vote for genevieve purely since she didnt like her! FINALE SUCKED AND TBS NEEDS TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM!! TOTAL DISSAPPOINTMENT!!!!!
27. Samantha_Cabezas
WORST FINISH EVER.......I'm so glad I wasted my time watching a clear winner lose against some 'grey man' useless loser........LOSER....not nerd......BIG difference.
30. Velouria
This is a ridiculous article. These kids are neuroscientists, gamers, robotics experts and work for NASA. No one is making fun of them AT ALL. In fact the hosts Curtis and Bobby treat them with utmost respect and fondness.

Alana flirts to get what she wants? When? She's the least flirty person I have ever seen. Danielle introduces herself as a chemistry major and then screws her face up like she’s said something extremely unattractive? What? Turns out she didn't complete her degree, so maybe she didn't enjoy BEING a chem major. She's mostly on KotN as a gamer anyway.

Not sure what you guys are talking about, here. Your stereotypes and eye-rolling are the problem, not this show. The show is awesome.

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