How many reality competition shows end with the host telling a contestant, “Pack your plasma torch and go?”
None that I know of, but that’s what the Discovery Channel is banking on with its new series “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” premiering Wednesday night at 10 p.m.
If the title makes you think of a certain CBS hit sitcom about a bunch of nerds, well, “bazinga” — that’s the point.
The male and female nerds on “Big Brain” theory are real-life Sheldon Coopers and Amy Farrah Fowlers, and some of them are just as odd as their fictional TV counterparts.
Hosted by actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn, “Big Brain Theory” follows the template of other reality competition shows. The contestants pair off in two teams and compete with each other to solve scientific problems.
On Wednesday, the contestants watch two pickup trucks colliding head-on and exploding. They learn that there was a box of explosives bolted to the bed of each pickup and that the explosives will ignite if the trucks travel at a specific speed. The challenge for the teams is to figure out a way to keep the boxes from exploding.
The red and blue teams are given a limited budget and just a few days to come up with a solution to the challenge. Joe Caravella, a California engineer who owns his own company, virtually relinquishes his leadership role in favor of everyone working as a team. Gui Cavalcanti immediately senses weakness on Caravella’s part and stages a coup. His strategy for winning the elimination contest is to pick off one weaker contestant after another for the $50,000 prize.
The other team is led by former NASA robotics specialist Amy Elliott, now pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. Her team operates like a well-oiled machine, but that doesn’t necessary ensure eventual success.
If years of competitive reality shows have taught us anything, it may be that William Golding was on to something when he put all those lost boys together on an island to show what happens when a group of people try to live and work together in a restricted environment. Egos clash, resentment boils over, and everyone behaves like savages. I’m not talking about “Lord of the Flies”: I mean on “Big Brain Theory.”
In the end, one of the contestants is sent packing by the judges — Mark Fuller, CEO of WET, which engineered the synchronized fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas; nanotechnologist Christine Gulbranson; and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.
Challenges like the exploding truck will maintain viewer interest, and we’re grateful Penn is on hand, not just to emcee but to translate the sometimes impenetrable tech-talk from the contestants.
In the end, we come away from “Big Brain Theory” realizing that nerds can be just as insufferable as anyone, and just as interesting. The only thing that seems to separate the competitors on “Big Brain” from those on “Survivor” is that the nerds wear more clothes.