Who will be America’s Next Top Junior Brainiac? Lifetime’s Child Genius tries to find the answer.
Not to advocate for more reality shows featuring children in high-pressure situations and the horrible parenting decisions leading to those circumstances, but Lifetime’s latest entry into the genre Child Genius misses the point of the subject it is trying to document.
On this series, 20 kids compete over eight weeks in a knowledge competition sponsored by MENSA.1 At stake is $100,000 and the title of America’s Next Top Junior Brainiac. However, none of those aspects appear to be central to the show. As we meet the participants, the show focuses on their areas of interest, where the kids fall IQ-wise, and Festivus-level feats of mental strength. The show could explore the question of “what is intelligence?” but instead highlights the memorization of factoids about hurricanes and recitations of pi to 70+ digits. No offense, but knowing how to cross a street without getting hit by a truck is probably more useful than going into a trance about the conditions of a hurricane from 45 years ago.
Much like Friday Night Tykes, which I suspect Child Genius is trying to emulate, the adults tend to hold more of the spotlight than the kids actually doing the work. However, with so many kids as named characters in this story, many of the parents are reduced to caricatures, such as spelling bee aficionado Vanya Shivashankar’s dad’s obsession with hydration or Ryan’s “I’m not a tiger mommy” tiger mom. As a result of not keeping its attention on the kids, this show misses the opportunity of striving for the same charm as Spellbound.
Where Child Genius is weakest is in the actual competition. The editing bounces all over the place and there is no sense of space. There are three panelists, though two seem to be there for table ballast rather than serving any sort of function. Each week features two subject rounds, each two minutes. I’m not suggesting that we go through all 80 minutes of quizzes, but more of a game show structure would create a sense of stakes. Instead, we are treated to montages of kids saying “pass” repeatedly when they hit a subject area out of their comfort zone.
At its core, Child Genius wants to be a documentary about the competitive academic circuit, but too many of the tropes of reality television interfere with the story that could be told.