The producers of TBS’s new reality competition King of the Nerds worked really hard to find themselves actual nerds. Out of the 11 contestants, 5 of them are scientists of some variety (including astrophysicists, a neuroscientist, and a theoretical physicist). The remaining 6 blog about gaming, host podcasts about gaming, or simply game too much to hold down a full-time job. The glasses count, if you’re curious, is 7 with to 4 without.
No surprise here: The show is populated by nerd caricatures. Like all reality shows, they went out and found people who fit their mold, then told those people to amp up their personalities to 11.
Why go to such extremes? Because if the show reflected the real state of “nerds” in 2013, we would all be contestants.
Once upon a time, in this very galaxy…
To understand how far nerd culture has come in merging into the mainstream, you really have to go back nearly 20 years to a time it was still distinct from normalcy: the mid-90s. Had King of the Nerds been produced then, your contestant lineup would look something like this:
Two or three of your contestants “code,” which they’re forced to explain means they design software applications for computers. Today, nearly 1 million people are listed as software engineers in the US. To put that in perspective, there are only about 550,000 lawyers.
Another two or three are comic book aficionados. Because in that era, there hadn’t been a financially viable comic book movie since 1989’s Batman and its sequels, you can assume that they mean actual comic books, which experienced sales of roughly 100 million copies in 1997. Comics now only sell between 70 and 80 million copies per year, while their related movies made up 3 of the top 10 highest earning movies of 2012.
One of the guests, Steve, wows the other contestants with his new PalmPilot, or as he described it, “a computer in my pocket.” He can even write e-mail to a friend and it will send when he syncs the PDA back at his computer! He seems to have the inside track on being crowned King.
The remaining contestants are your typical mix of mathematicians, semi-professional Magic: The Gathering players, and amateur fantasy authors who are hoping the exposure from the show will get them a book deal from one of the multitude of book publishers. Of course, the most popular book of 2012 was once self-published Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey.
The producers tried to entice at least one astrophysicist to join the show, but since NASA is launching roughly 10 Space Shuttles per year, none could be spared.
They did land one major coup by signing an actual developer from Nintendo, who brought with him a prototype N64. The video game system serves as the gathering place for our nerds, much like the hot tub does for MTV’s The Real World. The majority of them still frequent the arcade in their local mall, as they do not own a video game system. Now, 56 percent of households have a game console.
How times have changed
We all knew someone like the contestants described above, but somewhere along the line, we became them. Comic-book movies dominate theaters and fan-fic tops best-seller lists. Coding is widely practiced. Almost every person uses a computer on a daily basis, and half of us carry one in our pocket.
The fact that mainstream culture has adopted nerds and their activities as their own is no revelation. The point is not that nerds are cool, as any commentary of The Big Bang Theory seems to end with, but rather that King of the Nerds makes it painfully obvious that we’re all nerds, at least in the traditional sense of the word that anyone of a certain generation grew up with.
So TBS dove deep to find people that could be universally described as nerdy. And what they found were parodies of days gone by. These people don’t seem to be actors playing roles, in the strictest sense of the word. It’s just that their roles no longer exist. They seem as out of place as Gerard Butler’s Spartan warlord or Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation owner.
In 1996, Time covered the tech boom with a cover story entitled “The Golden Geeks” that featured Netscape’s Marc Andreessen. As we now know, a lot of people would follow those geeks’ footsteps and become fabulously wealthy and powerful. But the adoption of geek culture was much more than just a cash grab. It turned out to be a more efficient and pleasant way to live.
King of the Nerds might as well be on the History Channel instead of TBS. At least it would make sense there.