Top Shot, Big Brain Theory both take reality TV competitions to fascinating new places

Two competition series have evolved the very, very standard, formulaic, talent-driven competition format in interesting ways: History’s Top Shot has become 100 percent about talent, while Discovery’s The Big Brain Theory has kept its eliminated contestants around to continue to participate and compete for a wild card spot.

Both shows are produced by Pilgrim Studios, as is Animal Planet’s new Top Hooker, which looks promising after one episode. All together, they represent the next step forward in competition series, and makes Pilgrim a clear leader in the competition space, the new Magical Elves.

Top Shot‘s all-star season has familiar contestants and is re-using challenges, so it feels very familiar and, to be honest, has been a little boring, even though there is a lot of talent on display, and Colby Donaldson is great as always. At the very least, I think History screwed up by taking a year-long break and coming back with this season, rather than one that was more innovative with new people and new challenges.

That said, there is a major and fascinating change to the format: At long last, reality TV has a competition that is based on skill and nothing else. There are no judges, no votes, nothing except challenges. It’s pure competition. Basically, the show dumped teams and replaced its version of Tribal Council with a skill-based challenge, eliminating the drama of having a team vote someone into the elimination challenge.

The contestants generally resisted that, and as such, there wasn’t much Survivor-level drama coming out of those voting ceremonies, although sometimes it certainly got contentious. And while the human drama was something that drew me as a non-gun person to the show, I like this change, because the producers saw that something wasn’t working and changed it to make the competition more authentic, even if that comes at the expense of drama.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of drama on The Big Brain Theory, which is far more personality driven, perhaps because the actual work is so technical and complex. The challenges are incredible–building a robot that can do Olympic events, automate food production, shoot a projectile out of the sky–but the people have driven the series.

We’ve seen potential villains who’ve redeemed themselves (Gui) and a villain who turns into a bigger asshole every episode (Dan, who is great casting and absurdly frustrating).

Dan’s villainy made last night’s episode one of those that would have caused the Internet collective uproar, but apparently this show is under-watched, as Discovery bumped it to 7 p.m. ET (!) on Wednesdays from the prime-time slot it debuted in. If you haven’t watched, the last three episodes are online.

The judges made the impossibly absurd decision to let Dan back into the competition, and like most of the judging, their decision didn’t make much sense. They faulted Gui for not being able to lead his teams, but Dan is so inept socially that he drags his teams down. I can’t decide if the judges are bad or if the judging is just not well-explained or edited to be accessible/dumbed-down. (Perhaps surprisingly, the hosting is the opposite: actor Kal Penn is great in his role.)

But what makes Big Brain Theory so interesting and progressive is that it kept its eliminated contestants around. They work on the challenges each week, even though they’re out of the running to become America’s next top innovator. At first they were competing to re-enter the competition in the wild card spot Dan took; now, they’re competing for a second-place prize, essentially. But their talents are still necessary for the challenges to work, and they clearly love the challenge.

Like turning Top Shot into a talent-only competition, this represents a big leap forward in competitions. Discovery, History, and Pilgrim should be congratulated for not just producing the same old, same old, but taking the genre into new places.

Top Shot All-Stars: B+
The Big Brain Theory: A-

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.