King of the Nerds: great casting, surprisingly great show

In promos, TBS’ King of the Nerds looked like the kind of cable series that makes Spike’s Joe Schmo Show possible: more ridiculous than real. So I was surprised to find out that, even though there’s nothing entirely new about this nerd competition series, it works very well. It’s the biggest reality TV surprise of 2013 so far: smart, watchable, and extremely well-cast.

Here are the primary reasons why it works:

  • Strong production design: it looks expensive, and not just for TBS.
  • Strong hosts: usually stunt casting like this (let’s get cast members from Revenge of the Nerds!) fails, but the hosts are just as much fun as the cast.
  • Strong contestants: there’s great diversity and personality in this collection of nerds.

It’s the last two that are the most significant, I think, and that comes down to one word: casting.

First, hosts Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong are fantastic, probably because they’re good actors, but also because they throw themselves head-first into the challenge of hosting a ridiculous show like this. Armstrong in particular is all in, and that’s so much better than the kind of hosts we usually see on cable competition series, bland faces who have to deliver most of their lines in post because they were terrible during production.

The contestants are very smart people with strong personalities. The combination of arrogance, self-awareness, and intelligence is a fantastic one. That turns out to be a winning combination. Survivor, Big Brother, and other shows should take note: an attractive brain is so much better than an attractive body.

For sure, we’ve seen this type in other reality show cast members over the years, but the casting here works because they are all nerds and/or geeks, but they aren’t just carbon copies of one another. And having that diversity in one competition is pure joy to watch, whether they’re strategizing or just having casual conversations. I could literally listen to Virgil talk all episode (“I’m the hero of the day. Sorry, on my team, I’m the hero of the day.”).

The rest of the show works, too, though there’s room for improvement, particularly with the challenges. They have been hit or miss, and sometimes look amazing (chess, with pieces being decapitated) and sometimes look cheap (piloting golf carts via remote control was fun, but the production design didn’t live up to the rest of the series).

Perhaps its biggest misstep so far was not using guest judge George Takei well, which is tragic and a nerd sin.

But overall, King of the Nerds is just a lot of fun—the Throne of Games!—that embraces its awesome cast without mocking them or their obsessions and passions. If producers can up their challenge game and continue to find amazing cast members, this could be a strong, long-term franchise for TBS.

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