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Review: The Genius

Dominic Ellis discovers a little-known Korean TV gem.

A scene from The Genius.
A scene from The Genius.
A scene from The Genius.

Late last year I was added to a Facebook group of TV buffs who shared their insights on the industry and all its charms and vices. Discussions revolved around Game of Thrones, Community, or some HBO period piece, but occasionally would extend to an undiscovered gem hidden among SBS’s late night line-up or, on one particular occasion, a South Korean variety show. A little while ago, someone posted about one such show,The Genius, which they’d seen on a Korean cable network, and over the next week and a half, having trailed through a labyrinth of torrents and fan subtitling, I raced through the first season of what was the most original, entertaining piece of reality television I’ve seen.

The premise of the show is relatively simple. It pits 12 purported ‘geniuses’ — Harvard grads, professional poker players, MENSA members, Starcraft pros and so on — against one another in challenges resembling complex board games or some sort of twisted team building exercise. Each player has a share of ‘garnets’, an in-game currency that can be converted into cash at the end of the show. Alternatively, they can be used during the game to benefit the player in particular challenges or help persuade others to join their alliance. It isn’t immediately obvious how each challenge will be won — will players manipulate the rules or simply dish out garnets — but the size of one’s alliance usually proves to be a decisive factor. If the player ends up at the bottom of the pack, they will be forced to compete in a death match dual with another player of their choosing, excluding the winner.

While alliance-based games aren’t unusual on Western television, the sheer desperation of the contestants in The Genius is compelling itself, as they frantically try to charm others to save their own skin. Given the time-based nature of the challenges, these interactions make for seriously engaging television. I confess: I am a long-time fan of Survivor in all its camp glory and am no stranger to the world of reality TV, but what makes The Genius distinct from anything else is recognition of its form. It never takes itself too seriously, but at the same time, it doesn’t assume the worst of its audience. It really is a benchmark for the capacity of the medium: it’s intellectually challenging and presents likable characters and scenarios.

The brilliance of The Genius also lies in the challenges themselves, which leave other game shows for dead in their sheer complexity. Some tasks make for interesting social experiments, while others require superb lateral thinking. In the second episode a challenge entitled ‘The Election Game’ requires players to participate as either a candidate or a voter. The candidates’ goal is to acquire as many votes as they can, while the voter can attain garnets and try to back a winner. This works well for the most part, with candidates making lifelike pleas for votes when their situations get dire.

In comparison, the show requires more deductive instincts in a later episode. In another task, contestants are each secretly given a single clue to the result of a ‘Rigged Horse Race’ which they then bet on. The players require two things: firstly, to get as many of the others to reveal their clues as possible, and secondly, to compile, deduce and bet on the result of the race. It gradually turns into a chaotic battle of wits to the extent that players are simply just lying to one another. All of this is a bit complex, but that is largely the point, as the producers challenge you to work it all out for yourself. And you do, you go along with it – stopping periodically to jot everything down in hope of working the winner out first.

While the premise of the show makes for fantastic television in and of itself, the execution and production is equally effective. The most immediate point of difference from the Australian roster of oafish reality shows is the host. Rather than a washed-out pseudo-celebrity, we’re greeted by a terrifying bandaged man resembling Watchmen’s Rorschach. The production design is also impressive, with the players sealed and monitored within a creepy Orwellian mansion. Editing is used to great effect keeping the show tense yet relatively fast pace. The music is largely outsourced. Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack occasionally features in the final dramatic moments of an episode. I often found myself close to tears towards the end of the season as Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful reached a crescendo when likable contestants departed the house.

In all, The Genius makes for a pretty geek-ish experience, and by no means is it for everyone. The sheer difficulty of getting a hold of the show makes sure of this, especially if you don’t speak Korean*. But ultimately it sets a pretty high bar for elimination reality shows. It actually tries to get both the contestants and the viewers thinking on a few different levels. If you’re a board game geek who wants to match the thrill of a good game of Catan or Ticket To Ride, The Genius will appeal to those same competitive instincts.

*The Genius is produced by Korean cable company tvN, but the first season, with English subtitles, can be found on Youtube here: