‘The Big Brain Theory,’ nerdy good
Discovery competition pits techies against one another
April 26, 2013
Often the skill that is supposedly being tested in a reality competition show isn’t the skill that will lead to success in that field. To take an obvious example, “American Idol” contestants usually sing other people’s hits. If they’re going to make it in pop music, they’ll have to be able to put across songs that no one has heard before.
Discovery’s new competition show “The Big Brain Theory” is supposedly designed to find the next great American innovator in technology, but the competition seems more likely to find the participant with the best combination of people skills and machine-tooling experience.
On the plus side, the techies in the competition are not your usual reality-show attention junkies, and the challenges they face might spark the imagination of future scientists and engineers. Since the type of viewer attracted to this subject matter probably isn’t sick of the reality-competition format, the show could work for them.
Premiering next Wednesday, May 1, at 10 p.m., “The Big Brain Theory” starts off with a bang. In a desert landscape, the host, the actor Kal Penn — who points out that although he’s known for playing goofy characters, most notably as one of the stoners in the “Harold and Kumar” movies, he’s also worked as a youth liaison in the White House — directs the attention of the 10 contestants to two trucks loaded with explosives, which proceed to crash into each other, setting off an impressive blast.
Following the “Top Chef” format closely, the show starts with a quick challenge: The contestants, who are mostly tech workers and grad students, are told to sketch out a way of preventing a cargo of explosives from blowing up in a similar crash. They present their ideas to the two judges, Mark Fuller and Christine Gulbranson, who each run what seem to be forward-looking companies.
The winner and the runner-up in this challenge pick teams for the main challenge, which is to construct an actual mechanism to prevent the explosion. The teams are given $4,000 to purchase materials and can spend the next three days working in a well-equipped shop.
Each week, the judges will eliminate one contestant. The last one standing will win $50,000 and a job at Fuller’s company, Wet.
By the usual standards of this kind of show, the teams work together well. The team led by Joe, the winner of the initial challenge, decides to place the explosives on a rail in the truck’s bed that will allow the package to decelerate in a crash. The other team, led by Amy, have a similar idea but elevate the rail to roof level so that it can be lengthened.
Joe winds up delegating most of the decision making to an alpha nerd named Gui, who can’t seem to get everyone to work together. Amy is more in control of her team, but one team member, Dan, keeps suggesting a design flaw.
Viewers who have seen lots of competitions shows know that the producers are trying to keep us guessing who will win, so we take all of this information with a grain of salt. We spend more time judging whether we’re being misdirected than judging the actual designs.
Oddly, many of the contestants seem to be gifted welders. In fact, the contest turns out to hinge on the manufacture of the designs, not the designs themselves. It’s doubtful that Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ success in life hinged on their talent with an acetylene torch.
Each contestant is identified with a graphic listing their name, job or academic status and IQ; the latter numbers range from 120 to 142. Confirming stereotypes, the most aggressive of the males is a 120; one of the wimpiest and most cerebral is a 142.
On the other hand, the producer seem neither to have sought out outwardly geeky types nor to have encouraged the contestants to play up that side of their personalities. The absence of caricatures is startling.
After the mechanisms are tested, with surprising results, the judges have the team members defend their work. The blaming and backbiting are less rabid than on most competition shows. Refreshingly, two men claim complete responsibility for their team’s failure.
Fans of “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” will find this show disappointingly tame. But gearheads and tech nerds should enjoy watching their soul mates try to work things out. Parents of science-fair devotees might consider recording it for their own future Gateses and Jobses.
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