Why King of the Nerds incredible challenges are better than Survivor’s

King of the Nerds concludes Thursday night, having been even stronger in season two, and a big reason for that is that it upped its challenge game. It has the very best challenges on reality TV right now.

I’m being somewhat incendiary with the headline, but I do think that the show is frequently giving us better challenges than Survivor has recently, mostly because the TBS show is offering something surprising and new. Of course, Survivor still has exceptional challenges, well-crafted and well-produced, from the outstanding builds to the great camera angles. But they’re in somewhat of a rut, which may just be inevitable in season 28. Last fall’s Redemption Island duels were often bad repeats, made interesting only because of the role they played in the social game. Even brand-new challenges re-use elements from previous ones.

King of the Nerds does borrow heavily from pop culture from the past and present, but executes those particularly well. This season started with a faux Harry Potter-ish elimination challenge, but that pales in comparison to the a spectacular Nerd Off challenge based on Battleship.

Equally amazing were the most recent challenges: Recently, there was a laser maze race to free George Takei that contestants had to complete while blindfolded. I mean, just think about that. A laser maze race to free George Takei. Let’s watch some of that awesomeness:

Last week’s penultimate second season episode featured homages to Tron and Angry Birds, both of which translated very well. The “Angry Nerds” challenge required more strategy and thinking, because the Tron challenge was basically just a go-kart race. But it had its own twist–bonus points for hitting targets that appeared on the track–and it was visually stunning, especially for a cable show.

Of course, not every challenge lives up to that; this season also gave us a spelling bee with a tacked-on punishment of electrical shocks. But then and in other episodes, the challenges have received an assist from the cast, whose votes frequently resulted in showdowns between good and evil.

Co-host Curtis Armstrong, who’s also an executive producer and co-creator of the series with Robert Carradine, told me before the season started that challenge creation for the series involves “a constant struggle between the intellect and the visual.” Carradine said that for season two, the made sure they were “keeping it visually stimulating” to create “something that’s very watchable.”

They certainly have done both this season.

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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.