A version of the eight week series — featuring 20 young brainiacs answering questions on subjects ranging from geometry to earth science — aired last year in the UK and immediately drew “lots of debate,” producer John Hesling admits.
British media blasted the program, calling it “car crash television at its worst” and noting that “these absurdly bright kids seem so miserable the whole time.”
But that is not the case, says Hesling, SVP of production company, Shed Media.
“It is not an exploitative show,” he tells me.
“Obviously there is drama and excitement. There is tears and laughter. But I think that the key thing here is that all of these kids are very, very bright and they really want to do this.”
“They want to go to university at age 14. They want to be president by 25. None of them were forced into it by their parents or by us. This particular show makes you realize that the future is bright and in fairly safe hands.”
Hesling insists the tone of CHILD GENIUS is “actually very funny” and believes the experience provided an element of social acceptance for some of the children, who suddenly found themselves surrounded by like-minded peers for the first time.
Here’s more of what Hesling had to share when we spoke in late December:
Is this show very similar to the UK version?
It is the same structure — except, obviously, that is set in London and ours is set in Los Angeles.
Are there cultural differences?
I think a smart kid is a smart kid. There are obviously slightly different pools of intelligence based on where you live and where you come from and that sort of thing.
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Can you explain the format?
In each of the eight episodes, there are two rounds of competition. The decider about who goes on and who gets eliminated is based on a cumulative score. So it is very simple. There is one episode in which they had to memorize an entire pack of cards. So the number of cards you recognize is added on to the number you got right from the human body round.
What are some of the other challenges?
There is the counting cards round, there is U.S. presidents, geography, current affairs, mathematics, inventions… There are 16 very different categories and it builds in intensity.
Was it pretty easy to find the participants?
It is always interesting trying to cast children because you have to make sure their parents realize it is not an exploitative show. We worked very closely in cooperation with Mensa, which was very gracious and put us in touch with all of their members. There is a very large youth membership of Mensa. We also went through schools, competitions, memory clubs. We cast a net far and wide across the entire country. It was a great process, really. I think we really did find 20 of the very brightest kids around.
Some of these kids could be seen as a little quirky and socially awkward. Were you careful not to make them the butt of the joke?
Absolutely. I think the tone is actually very funny. These are kids who love Disneyland. But when they go to Disneyland they will be looking at the roller coaster and trying to figure out the physics of it. And as they are riding and screaming, they will be trying to figure out which parts of their body are experiencing this high level of excitement that is leading their vocal cords to elicit these large sounds. So I think it is really funny. The conversations they have in the holding room before they go out to the competition rounds are hilarious as well. They are really special, unique children. Sometimes you listen to them and you think, “Is this kid 45 or is he 9?”
Watching the first episode I felt sorry for some of the kids — especially when they were eliminated.
It is upsetting. It’s upsetting for us doing it. Some of the children are home schooled. Because they are so advanced, they are in classes with people ten years older than them. Are they unusual? Yes. Are they different? For sure. But I think that one of the things that is interesting is that some of them don’t have friends their age but what they got from it, when they came to the competition, is that suddenly they were coming across children who were like them. I think that is one thing that is really, really satisfying. These friendships that blossomed. There were 9-year-olds having incredible games of speed chess or competing over who knows the most decimal points of Pi. So all of a sudden they were surrounded with children of similar interests.
The show makes no bones about the fact that the parents play a very heavy handed role in these children’s lives…
I think these parents are utterly committed to their children. Utterly, utterly committed. The dads don’t go play golf and spend time away on fishing trips. Everything that they do is focused on empowering their children and making their children more knowledgeable. That is an incredible level of focus.
How did the parents get along behind the scenes?
The parents were obviously competitive in certain ways and wanting their children to do well, as we all do. There were moments when there were complaints of concerns from parents that maybe their children had gotten gotten questions that were harder than another child’s. There were arguments with moderators. So there was tension for sure. But I have got to tell you some of these kids don’t necessarily have friends their own age and their parents were very happy for them to do this competition in a sort of interesting kind of way. Even if they got eliminated early on, it was sort of an exercise in humility. Even though they are children, they are usually the brightest person in the family — including the parents. Definitely in their class and definitely in their age group. So I think the parents appreciated that you had this situation where all of a sudden these kids realized they weren’t the brightest thing in the world.
CHILD GENIUS airs Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on Lifetime.
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