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Discovery's 'Big Brain Theory': Not That Kind Of Nerd TV

Alison Wong, a contestant on Discovery's new <em>The Big Brain Theory</em>, does the math.
Jason Elias
Alison Wong, a contestant on Discovery's new The Big Brain Theory, does the math.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Discovery's nifty new science series The Big Brain Theory, hosted by Kal Penn, is how ordinary it is.

Right from the title, Big Brain plays into the same fascination with nerd culture that fuels The Big Bang Theory, and that fueled other reality shows like Beauty And The Geekand this season's King Of The Nerds. But while it does highlight the personalities of engineers and scientists, Big Brainis refreshingly devoid of comments about not dating, living with parents, or being socially awkward in some magnificently conspicuous way.

The structure is simple in Wednesday night's opener: a bunch of science types (most are young enough that it feels like a very grad-school vibe) form two teams, and they're given a challenge. Here, they each get a pickup truck loaded with explosives set to blow up if the g forces are too high, so they have to figure out how to cushion/decelerate/protect the box so that when the trucks run into each other head-on, they don't explode.

If you're nodding and saying "Heh, cool," this is your show.

What The Big Brain Theoryrecalls, more than any other reality tradition, is something like the team challenges on Top Chef or Project Runway. People are given a problem to solve, and they have to figure out how to solve it. When they squabble, it's about leadership and science, not whether any of them know how to get a date. And a certain level of scientific literacy is both developed (through lots of diagramming and animations of what the teams are doing) and assumed. (It's kind of refreshing to hear tension among reality-show teams conveyed through a guy exasperatedly saying, "We could do a limit switch and a solenoid!", like that's the equivalent of one chef yelling at another, "We can make chicken and rice!")

This is how competitive reality shows work: it's mostly nice people who have a pronounced stubbornness and competitiveness (though this crop is more laid back than most collections of clothing designers, for instance), combined with one or two drama-causing jerkfaces. Only here, what you're watching the mostly nice people do is a lot of science and engineering problem-solving.

Oh, and then at the end, they run trucks into each other to see if they blow up. And the climactic moment is so funny that I freely admit I burst out laughing and had to explain to my co-workers what was happening.

It's entertaining, it actually is educational, and it presents a bunch of scientists who are clearly very smart but don't bring up Star Trekexcept when one of them says it's how he became curious about space. All in all, a good hour of television, and one that your local tinkerer might find surprisingly satisfying.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.