“Genius Junior” and the Genial Throwback Kitsch of the Game-Show Revival


The New Yorker By Troy Patterson March 23, 2018

 

The preteen brainiacs competing on “Genius Junior,” on NBC, give every indication of fine emotional health, God bless them, and knock on wood. The mind teems with potent visions of fictional counterparts who were less adept at handling the quiz-show grind. J. D. Salinger’s Glass siblings, who starred in a fictional radio quiz show titled “It’s a Wise Child,” didn’t fare terribly well. Nor did Donnie Smith, the famed former champion of “What Do Kids Know?,” played with full melancholy by William H. Macy in the film “Magnolia.” But the nature of “Genius Junior” is to sweep away the thought of these and other grim precedents—with an efficiency typical of the most successful contemporary game shows.

The contestants are hugely likable, despite occasional production missteps that depict otherwise. The introduction segment, in which the kids cite their bona fides—their Mensa memberships, their bizarrely capacious memories, their effortless trilingualism—could do without the stage business of having the kids cross their arms while they switch on smug grins, as if coached into smarty-pants cuteness. The images of the kids are aggressively ingratiating, as is the music that punctuates their feats. Instead of the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” model of building suspense with fidgety synths and bludgeoning thumps, “Genius Junior” offers a jangly guitar as its signature sound, its riffs like a fanfare heralding a big-tent sideshow.

Your host is Neil Patrick Harris, who looks, in his fancy waistcoat, like a wonkish ringmaster. Harris is joining a field currently bestrode by titans such as Steve Harvey, of “Celebrity Family Feud,” on ABC, and Ellen DeGeneres, whose geniality tames the flavor of “Ellen’s Game of Games,” also on NBC. Harvey and DeGeneres are in the business of breezy earnestness, in contrast with the ambience of ABC’s reinvigorated “Match Game,” in which Alec Baldwin, wisecracking with celebrity panelists, deploys both the gravity of his voice and the solidity of his ego with irony, thereby lending weight to throwback kitsch. Harris finds a middle path: he seems as sincere as a camp counsellor while wincing his own one-liners, which often partake of the deliberate cheesiness of a dad joke. His presence constitutes stunt casting, insofar as his stardom began, in 1989, with his portrayal of the child prodigy Doogie Howser; in this sense, he arrives at this venue as a nostalgia act unto himself, despite other evidence of a thriving career.

Crucially, you cannot play along at home with “Genius Junior,” the début episode of which introduced us to one three-member team called The Dork Side. A majority of the rounds present proof of the contestants’ faculties of memory: for instance, the kids, having studied an exhaustive list of an airline’s flight routes, were directed to name cities where a plane might stop en route from Boise to Rio de Janeiro. In other instances, they are charged to prove that they’ve memorized the order in which the fifty-two cards of a shuffled deck randomly fell. “Genius Junior” is more an exhibition than a competition—“an education celebration,” Harris says—and this spirit helps it avoid evoking dread. There is none of the empathetic terror that chills the viewer’s soul when he watches the Scripps National Spelling Bee, even when “Genius Junior” tests its players’ orthographic prowess. When this show asks children to spell words, it requires them do so in reverse, a feat of agility that is hardly T-N-A-C-I-F-I-N-G-I-S-N-I, to cite a recent example.

The tension picks up a bit in an episode-concluding segment called the Cortex, which is a kind of rapid-fire cognitive test. The drama is partly a matter of set design: the kids are situated in an hall-like recess, the ominous nature of which suggests that any Cortex failure might result in their being sucked up from a space-station airlock and into the vacuum of eternity. But the cheerfulness of the proceedings again dispels dark fantasies; the brainteasers whiz by refreshingly, and the show hits a sweet spot of wholesome escapism—a stimulating mindlessness. The viewer may be vegging out in front of the television, but he will emerge from “Genius Junior” as one of the very healthiest vegetables. This is beet greens for the soul.

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