(Warning: there are some season 1 finale spoilers ahead)
In the event that TBS has completely abandoned their marketing for “King of the Nerds” (and sometimes it seems like they have), I’ve taken the initiative to come up with a new slogan for the show:
“King of the Nerds – A really great show that kind of screws up its finales!”
About this time last year, the TBS reality competition ended a near-perfect season with one slight hiccup: rather than determining the winner through an epic, final Nerd Off like the seven that preceded it, the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd was decided…by a popular vote. To echo Chris, “I know, right?”
And as evidenced by that bit of self-deprecation via Chris confessional, “King of the Nerds” was very much aware that a majority of the audience (myself included) was not exactly thrilled to see the Season 1 winner determined in that way. It didn’t mean that Celeste, the winner of the first season by a 6-3 vote and clearly the game’s strongest social player, was undeserving of her crown: she was able to avoid being voted in to any Nerd Offs despite Team Blextrophy’s numerous losses, and that’s certainly commendable. But it was rather perplexing to see the show transition from seven weeks of a one-on-one duel elimination format, based solely on a player’s abilities, to essentially a popularity contest. It would be like watching the “Survivor” finale and learning that the game was just going to stop at the final immunity challenge – “That whole voting thing we’ve been doing for the last 12 episodes? Yeah we’re just gonna go home early today instead.” Like what would your reaction have been be if Boston Rob had run through that obstacle course, literally carried his family on his back, solved his puzzle, and Jeff Probst had yelled, “Rob Mariano… wins ‘Survivor’! There’s no jury vote this season– that was it, guys! Everybody go home!”
Most fans seemed fairly relieved to hear that this format would not be used in season two, and that “pure nerd skill” would determine the winner rather than a vote. Maybe I was wrong to assume this, but the idea of a “final” Nerd Off intrigued me based solely on the magnitude of past challenges. “Hey, we’ve seen the nerds roll giant dice down a hill to knock over suits of armor, play soccer with enormous remote-controlled cars, and fly through the air on broomsticks… Man, this final Nerd Off to end all Nerd Offs is really going to be something to see,” I thought to myself.
So imagine my disappointment when the “Nerd-liminator,” the ultimate gauntlet of nerd challenges to decide the winner, turned out to be two Lazy Susans of Death (to borrow a term from @curtisisbooger) so small they were able to fit in the throne room. What should have been a suspenseful and thrilling conclusion to the season instead carried all the drama and excitement of watching two kids take the math portion of their SATs. Everything they were working with was too small for us to play along, and the finalists not being allowed to talk meant we couldn’t even have it verbalized for us. This should have been a large-scale final competition—ideally something elaborate and sprawling out on the lawn—where players were allowed to communicate openly and cheer on their preferred nerd. Instead, our grand finale couldn’t have been made smaller or more claustrophobic.
Curtis and Bobby can make sarcastic sideline commentary all they want about how boring it is to watch Kayla and Jack toil away at the table (“I never knew math could be so compelling to watch,” Curtis quipped at one point), but in doing so they’re only shedding more light on the ineffectiveness of the whole thing. It reminds me of what one of my favorite TV writers, Alan Sepinwall, says when sitcoms try to get away with using decades-old, lame, hacky plots by calling attention to the fact that they’re decades-old, lame, hacky plots: yeah, it’s certainly better to call attention to it, but you’re still doing that lame plot. The fatal mistake of the Nerd-liminator is that when you prevent the players from engaging with each other, you also prevent them from engaging with us, and no amount of the fun editing that is a hallmark of this show was going to be able to hide that (even if we did get these fantastic editing jokes along the way):
In the end, Kayla emerged victorious, defeating Jack by just one point. And man, “King of the Nerds” and TBS probably could not have been less thrilled by their winner. As my esteemed RHAP colleague @taylorcotter pointed out to me, there is virtually no marketability to a champion like Celeste or Kayla. Are they deserving winners? Sure… but fun winners? Not particularly. And they’re certainly no Genevieve or Jack, or even human .GIF machine Xander. The show’s ratings have already been sinking this season and I can’t imagine this was the boost of excitement TBS was looking for when they were considering whether or not to bring the show back next year.
And in terms of the show’s narrative, I just can’t think back to any point in the season and recognize, “yep, this was the season of Kayla—we were building to her triumphant victory this whole time.” I mentioned that Celeste being on the team that lost more often than it won meant she often had to fight, even if subtly, to stay in the game. Kayla found herself in the exact opposite position: on the Titans of Rigel, who only lost one proper Nerd War, she was almost never in any danger of being eliminated. Combine that with being one of the more reserved nerds this season, and she gets a relatively small amount of screen time, providing us very little opportunity to really get to know her.
One of the things about the first season finale I didn’t like was how hesitant the show seemed to be about revealing Celeste as its winner, really pummeling us over the head with her story of personal growth in the episode’s final minutes to make sure we were on board with her defeating Nerd Off champion Genevieve. But hers was at least something of a cohesive storyline, you know? I can pinpoint moments like Celeste embracing uncharted territory through LARPing or singing “Talk Nerdy to Me” and then acknowledge, “Okay, in the context of this winner, I can see how this is the ultimate story of nerd triumph—someone learning to come out of their shell and succeed.” What’s the comparable “final thought” on Kayla’s game? I supposed it could be “She laid low and didn’t make waves,” which is certainly a viable strategy on reality television. But that seems like such a bummer of a hero’s journey on a show about how nerds (often stereotyped as people who lay low, don’t make waves and are ignored) are far more interesting, complex and remarkable people than they’ve long been depicted as.
I want to make it very clear how much I love this show, how many wooden things in my home I’m knocking on in the hope that TBS will renew it, and how much I appreciate Curtis and the production team for accepting criticism and striving to make an already great show even better. But they clearly did not find the last missing piece of the puzzle on Thursday night. Maybe the third time (if there is a third time) will be the charm for finale greatness, but I actually think reinventing the reality show wheel would be a mistake. Instead, I submit for your approval:
3 Reality Show Endgame Formats “King of the Nerds” Should Rip Off in A Future Season
#1 – Big Brother: After the show ended on Thursday night, I realized that the finale format I had been expecting was something along the lines of how the final Head of Household is determined on “Big Brother”: split into three parts that all represent a different facet of the competition (endurance, physicality, memory, interpersonal relationships, etc.), in which players compete to win spots in the final round. I think in its most ideal format, a “King of the Nerds” finale would be comprised of three regular-sized Nerd Offs that each operate as one round of a three-part final competition. In the first round, the final four nerds all compete in some challenge—whoever finishes first advances to Round 3, and whoever finishes last is eliminated. In Round 2, the second and third place finishers from Round 1 battle for the last spot in Round 3. And from there, one true final Nerd Off decides who gets the crown.
#2 – The Apprentice: Even if it wasn’t confirmed, a lot of viewers speculated that all the eliminated nerds would be back for the finale even if they weren’t coming back to cast votes this time. So I wondered if maybe the final two players were going to draft a team of losers, much like the final two players do on “The Apprentice,” to help them in a final Nerd War. Would it have been judged by a panel or been score-based? I hadn’t really thought it out that far. I know some people don’t like how many Nerd Wars are decided based on a panel’s preference, but that’s not really something I have an issue with. Basically, I just really wanted to see Zack be someone’s Omarosa. Kayla would have fired him on the spot if he said so much as one snide word about Janeway.
#3 – Kid Nation: Everyone’s parents come to Nerdvana to share a picnic lunch. Three nerds are randomly given large cash prizes for their hard work during the season. Then everyone goes home. Sorry, but even that would at least be a more entertaining conclusion than the two we’ve gotten so far.
You know what? Forget everything I just said. Here’s what was really lacking in this “King of the Nerds” finale:
Ah, Chicken Panda. Good night, sweet prince.
Did you like this season finale more than I did? Did Kayla deserve the win, or were you rooting for Jack? What did you think of season 2 as a whole? And now that the season’s over, what’s the final call on Zack as a reality TV villain? For one last time, let’s have nerd words in the comments!