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You Got Your Childhood Trauma in My Game Show!

The major networks seem to have learned a useful marketing lesson in the last decade or so. In lieu of actual originality, you can take two old but proven ideas and moosh them together so that the resulting conglomeration actually seems new and exciting. Sort of like watermelon and salt. Which I'm told some people actually don't like, but those people are dumb.

For instance, combine America's love of its legal system with the undeniable appeal of a shallow, hallucinating, anorexic bimbo. That's television gold, baby!

Another example: Take poorly-shot footage of guys getting whacked in the 'nads with assorted blunt objects, mix in the zany voice-over stylings of beloved comic Bob Saget, and what have you got? A 30-share Nielsen Cocktail, that's what!

I myself have often fantasized about a show uniting the talents of Vic Tayback and Norman Fell with that venerable sitcom staple, the incompatible roommate scenario. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, apart from that every episode would feature product placement for Fruit of the Loom and a running gag about a low-flow toilet.

Of course, given that both actors are dead, it seems unlikely that my dream will ever come true. Nonetheless, I'm fairly sure that you could put the urn that contains Vic's ashes on an apartment set with Norman's putrefied corpse, and the resulting show would still be funnier than Battery Park (also, thankfully, deceased).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Fox's Tuesday Night offering, "Battle of the Child Geniuses", strove to intermingle two of today's biggest viewer draws: insipid primetime game shows and public humiliation of children. No doubt the show's creators were inspired by other recent ratings bonanzas such as public humiliation of children combined with Denver blue-blood society murder, and public humiliation of children combined with Cuban foreign policy -- although some of the credit for that one has to go to the added presence of time-tested crowd pleaser Janet Reno.

Anyway, here's the basic idea behind "Child Geniuses." Start with a gaggle of weak and sickly youngsters whose only source of self-esteem is their relatively high intelligence quotients. Then, run them through a gauntlet of fairly strenuous academic questions until all but one suffer ignominious defeat. The winner receives a cornucopia of cash, savings bonds, and prizes, along with the honorary title of "Smartest Kid in America". Within a year's time, he probably will also receive the honorary title of "Kid with America's Most Frequently Kicked Ass".

The losers, of course, go home without their only source of self-esteem, but with some lovely parting gifts. Notable among the consolation prizes: the lucky semi-finalists all get to enjoy a weeklong cruise with the over-pressuring family they just disappointed.

Fox's Web site blurb about Child Geniuses proudly proclaims, "Harder than any SAT test, these college-level questions would leave most adults crying for their mommies!" It's a good thing, then, that Fox isn't posing said questions to weak-kneed adults, but to self-confident elementary school students, whose rock-solid psyches will no doubt withstand the scrutiny of millions.

The kids' emotional toughness was in no better evidence than during the final round, in which the two finalists were forced to stand on a bare stage under hot Klieg lights and answer difficult questions with potentially painful consequences. Quite like a criminal interrogation, except that most criminals are fortunate enough not to have to gaze upon the pompous plastic visage of Dick Clark in the process. (Federal law prohibits it.) Nonetheless, one of the young finalists was so totally in control that his conspicuous facial tic, which gradually escalated in severity throughout the final round, was barely noticeable beside his competitor's self-assured grimace of constipation.

So why in god's name would anybody want to watch such a thing? I'm guessing its the same driving force that sucks folks into Regis' twisted little quiz world three to six nights a week. That is, the smug self-satisfaction of knowing some tidbit of information that a journeyman plumber from Duluth does not. Or, in this case, a friendless pre-pubescent math nerd from Reseda. Truth is, most of the enjoyment we get from watching shows like Millionaire comes from the personal validation of seeing others fail. I'm convinced that this is also why UPN stubbornly continues to exist.

If it can be said to have one, the saving grace of "Child Geniuses" was that it seemed determined not to give viewers that satisfaction. Although all contestants were under twelve, the questions, which spanned the fields of math, vocabulary, spelling, and science, were surprisingly complex. More often than not the child geniuses nailed them. Sometimes the child geniuses nailed them, and I didn't. This made me bitter. I began to resent the child geniuses. "Why," I thought, "do the child geniuses not recognize my need to feel superior to them?"

Suddenly I wanted to see the arrogant little brats suffer. No therapy-inducing trauma was too horrible. I began to devise a game show of my own, in which the child geniuses would be doubly humiliated by being presented with a sequence of questions they couldn't possible answer. The categories would include:

  • Social Interaction

  • Games and Other Fun Activities

  • Styling Implements, Not Including Scissors and a Bowl

  • The Great Outdoors

  • and, of course, Television

Actually, I felt kind of bad about it later.

And there's where the beauty of Fox's little mélange shines through. I came for the insipid game show. I stayed for the public humiliation. And the lingering pangs of guilt ensure that, as with all of my guilt-inducing vices, I will return for a future installment.

Now that's genius.


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