The cancellation of TBS’ King of the Nerds is one of the low points in reality TV this year, but December has brought an unexpected gift: truTV’s joyous competition Santas in the Barn. It rekindles the spirit of King of the Nerds, and shares some of the same producers and all of the frivolity and attention to detail.
The details! Oh, the details. They are what truly set this show apart, and they’re both clever and rich. The santas vote each other off the show by recording their vote in frosting on a giant sugar cookie. The twists are holiday themed, such as the naughty list.
The contestants open wrapped presents to reveal advantages or other rewards, and wear color-coded Santa hats for team challenges. Segments of the show are labeled on a wooden cuckoo clock, which points to what’s next, such as the Santa showdown (the immunity challenge) or Christmas dinner (at which they vote each other out of the competition, which should be a component of some actual family holiday dinners).
Filmed in Whitefish, Montana, last March, the series mostly takes place in and around a large mountain chalet that’s not quite a barn (I’m still not sure why that’s the title of the show). The space has been decked out, and the budget is on the screen. This isn’t a tree and some garland thrown over a headboard, it’s everything Christmas, everywhere.
Eight episodes of Santas in the Barn are airing twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, this month, concluding on Christmas Eve. Both episodes that have aired so far are online and on demand, and I highly recommend catching up.
It comes from Half Yard Productions, which produced one of my favorite series from this year, The Last Alaskans. That Animal Planet series is quiet, serene, reflective, and gorgeous, and while this show has far more energy and ridiculousness, it’s similarly nice to settle into.
Two of Santas executive producers, Charles Wachter and Anthony Carbone, both have King of the Nerds to their credit, though I didn’t realize that at first. Watching the first episode, however, I thought immediately of KOTN, as I felt the same connection: to the cast, the world, and to the wonderful wit and humor that emerges in so many different places.
These Santas in the Barn play more than reindeer games
Instead of selecting a cast of traditional Santas, known on the show was “white beards,” the show smartly cast for Santa diversity. It’s a little discordant at first—why is there a firefighter? What is that terrifying Elf on the Shelf come to life doing here? But what quickly becomes apparent is that they all share a similar sensibility, from Amber, who became Santa when her husband was deployed overseas; to pub-crawling Santa-costumed Brandon; to Dee, who’s known as The Real Black Santa.
There’s a love of holidays and Christmas traditions, and a kind of camraderie and warmth that’s all too rare on reality television competitions. They can play the game but also enjoy themselves, too.
Beyond the Christmas decorations and the accepting Santa vibe, however, there’s actually a serious competition for $100,000. In episode one, several of the Santas received twists, from immunity to the ability to switch teams, to the ability to nullify someone else’s immunity (aka the Christmas pudding), all of which are powerful tools in the game. Producers also threw all of those possible game-changers into the game on day one, rather than trickling them out over time.
When, at the end of the very first episode, one of those was played, I was completely surprised—usually people are too timid to play right away, never mind on a friendly competition like this—and also totally hooked. The outcome was thrilling, and evidence that the Santas in the Barn has strategy to offer, too.
There are challenges, both for immunity and for an advantage in the immunity challenge, and they usually have both physical and mental components. So far, those have included piling presents on a sled and race it down a course; recreating small, detailed gingerbread houses into life-sized ones, with directions shouted by a team member; and climbing in and out of a house. Sure, it’s serious competition, but there’s also a level of fun injected into each one.
Fun is just what’s been missing from so many reality shows, and King of the Nerds brought an annual reminder that a well-produced competition series can have humor and joy alongside strategy and drama. The jolly and merry Santas in the Barn carries on that tradition, and I hope it becomes one.