Here is the first thing you learn while watching The Genius: you would be extremely bad at this sort of thing, and, if you were somehow chosen to play this game, you would definitely lose.
Here is the second thing you learn while watching The Genius, if you’re not lucky enough to be warned by someone first: do not ever, ever, ever, Google or search on Wikipedia or read Youtube or Reddit or forum comments about whichever season of The Genius you are watching, until you have finished the season and you are safe from spoilers. Even then, in some cases, you are not completely safe—some seasons have recurring cast members, and season four of the show is an ‘All-Stars’ edition made up of contestants from the previous seasons, so reading about contestants from older seasons can sometimes lead you to accidentally see spoilers for that season. When watching the first few minutes of any season, it is highly, highly recommended you make an actual note of who all the players are, so that you don’t risk ever forgetting who someone is and having to Google them. (After two or three episodes, this will become unnecessary, since not only will you know all the players, but you will feel more invested in their success or failure than you do with your own friends).
Here is the third thing you learn while watching The Genius: holy fucking shit this is a good show.
The Genius is a gameshow-slash-reality show from South Korea, which had four seasons and aired from 2013 to 2015. Although it has a cult following outside Korea—thanks to one or two unsung heroes who subtitle and put out all the episodes online—it’s still a much smaller following than that of other shows often described as ‘cult favorites’, yet everyone I know of who has watched this show has become obsessed with it. The term ‘cult’ feels a lot more apt than it does with, say, The Wire, as while that type of show has obvious stakes, atmosphere and characters whose appeal can be easily ascertained by people who don’t watch it, it is difficult to describe The Genius without sounding like the most inexplicable type of nerd. If you were to stick a random five-minute clip in front of a friend or family member, they would shake their head and ask why you can’t watch something normal like Real Housewives of Orange County. Who are these people? A Korean news anchor and an ex-musician, playing incomprehensible card games against each other? How could this possibly be keeping your attention? And the answer is: because this show is one of the most brilliant displays of tension-building, character development and natural human drama you will see in any gameshow.
The premise is as follows: twelve people go into a house, and each episode one person is eliminated, until finally one person—the true ‘genius’—is left standing. All the players are well-known Korean figures who are reputed to be highly intelligent. Some of them come from the more explicitly smartypants-type careers such as politics, law, newsmedia or tech, though just as many are popstars, actors or athletes. (One of the more satisfying aspects of the game is watching the Korean equivalents of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande effortlessly outsmart hackers, MENSA members, and congressmen.) Each week, the contestants play a game that requires some level of strategic thinking. For example, they might be asked to bet on an imaginary horse race, where all the players are given one hint as to who the winner is, or they may be required to play some type of card game. However, not only do the players have to assess the best way of playing the game itself, but they also need to figure out their long-term plan for survival—picking out potential allies, ganging up on possible threats, and disguising their own level of competence. Along the way, they win ‘garnets’, which equate to real-life prize money if the player wins the entire show, but which they are highly incentivized to use along the way, in exchange for in-game advantages that might help them survive a round.
What results is a show where players are forced to strategize more carefully and fiendishly than in any other show I’ve seen. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if the players are even aware of their own strategies, or if they’re just making it up as they go along, carried along by the brilliant power of their own subconscious mental workings. Whatever it is, it makes for great TV: unassuming mediocrities gradually reveal themselves to be born survivors, endlessly dealing and grifting in order to make it to the next round, headstrong loudmouths plant targets on their own backs, those who try to win by being nice walk the tightrope of keeping everyone on their side without being marked as naive, and therefore easy prey. Most of the games require some mix of game-sense, out-of-the-box thinking, mathematics and luck, but they also require social skills, since most games are easier to win if you co-operate, or at least pretend to co-operate, with some of the other players. (Lying is also a social skill.) Just as every MMA fighter has their preferred style or blend of styles, you gradually, over the course of a season, get to know the way each player fights; whether they are more offensive or defensive, whether they play dirty. You don’t get this on Family Feud.
Each individual episode is, in itself, a kind of miniature drama, thanks in part to the well-crafted structure editing. The average Western reality show has a predictable rhythm: last week, this Thing happened, here’s a montage explaining how the Thing happened. Here’s some of the participants talking to the camera about how crazy it is that the Thing happened. Then some Stuff happens. A commercial’s coming up, but please don’t leave, more Stuff will happen! Cut to commercial. Welcome to Part 2. We assume you’ve forgotten the Stuff that happened, but we assure you that Stuff did happen, here’s more montages and interviews, and remember, more Stuff will happen. Here’s the Stuff. Tune in next week where we’ll montage and recap the Thing and the Stuff again. On the plus side, it’s easy to tune into these types of shows at random, and quickly understand what’s going on. On the minus side, it’s extremely grating if you actually want to, you know, watch the damn thing.
The Genius is not going to coddle you, preferring to act in the manner of a teacher who you initially dislike for being too strict, but eventually come to like and respect far more than the teachers who try too hard to be ‘cool.’ The rules of the games are explained once, and then perhaps briefly recapped later on in the episode. You will probably not understand a hundred percent of the rules of every game, or the exact calculations behind the various players’ strategies, and that is totally okay. What is more important than the minutiae of the games is the character development and tension which drives you to watch episode after episode, dying to see whether your least favorite player will finally get their comeuppance, or whether that player you’d written off as an airhead four episodes ago who is somehow still in the game is a fluke, or a modern Machiavelli in disguise. When watching American TV, one can sometimes get the feeling that the producers think you are stupid. The Genius doesn’t think you are stupid. The Genius simply thinks that you have to pay attention. And you will pay attention—a benefit of watching a show that’s not in English is that, unless you happen to speak the language, you can’t really start looking at other things or mess around with your phone while you’re watching it or you’ll miss the subtitles. If you sometimes resent that tabbed browsing and push notifications have robbed you of your ability to concentrate, a show like The Genius is a great little remedy.
It’s also just an enormously fun show. First of all, the opening credit sequences are kind of dorky, like a cut-price Bond sequence—a silhouette of a man getting trapped in a puzzle! Fighting knights on a chess board!—but they’re also awesome, and I love them.
Second of all, the show knows how to present an episode with a slow burn, without boring the audience. If the show were a little more bare-bones, it would be at risk of dragging a little during some of the less engaging games (one of the games in particular, ‘Tactical Yutnori’, is essentially Parcheesi with throwing sticks and goes on for far too long; fortunately the producers figure out which games are the most fun as the seasons go on). Nonetheless, even these relatively low points are brightened up with heist music, judicious editing, and highly fashionable outfits (the contestants are all really attractive and well-dressed). Occasionally, there will be a flashback or even a flash-forward that reveals something new to the audience: that there has been a betrayal, or a twist of some sort, which keeps the pacing tight and energetic. But unlike with many American shows, it never feels like the editors are trying to overwhelm you with over-the-top montages and effects and reaction shots of how completely shocking and insane everything is, preferring to keep the audience focused on the characters and the way the games naturally unfold.
The Genius has drama in spades, but it’s not drama in the Real Housewives sense, where everyone’s screaming and throwing wine glasses all the time. That doesn’t necessarily happen in real life, and while it may give us some very entertaining moments, the fact that it happens multiple times per episode makes Western reality TV all feel rather unreal. In contrast, The Genius shows people politely trying to get on with each other, their conflict mostly reduced to a fraction of a second of pursed lips or a passive-aggressive half-joking remark (after all, these are celebrities, and the world of Korean media is pretty small, and after the season is wrapped up, who knows when they might up on a talk show together?). In this way, the show asks us to pay closer attention to the details of each of the contestants, and when someone does explicitly show their dislike or distrust, the tension is much more powerful, and the competition much more subtle in its brutality. Weirdly, the thing it most reminds me of is not another game show or reality show, but the BBC miniseries I, Claudius from the seventies, where you are slowly and inevitably dragged into the quiet and violent drama of a Roman royal family over the course of several generations. The final episodes of I, Claudius and any given season of The Genius give me the same distinct feeling, as though I have been in a military unit with these characters and I am watching the last few survivors emerge bruised and battered from the rubble in the last days before peace is declared.
If you want to watch The Genius purely as a game show with some excellent tension and character development, you can do that. But another interesting aspect is watching different worldviews and desires come into conflict. Right from the get-go there is a tangible conflict in the air between the urge to win and the desire—present in the cast in, uh, varying levels—to be nice and get along with everyone. Some contestants make it clear from the beginning that they want to be more co-operative, whilst others, such as Season 1’s bullish TV presenter Kim Gura, blithely assert that The Genius is a zero-sum game, and that the only way to win is to play ruthlessly and without sentimentality.
One might assume that the latter style is depressingly successful, and at first this may seem to be the case. Those players who insist that the game should be played a certain way, rather than kowtowing to the styles of others, often end up making their worldview a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, insisting so aggressively to the others that the game should be played by their rules that they actually make it true by sheer force of personality. It is also true that some more unpleasant social and economic dynamics start hoving into view as the show goes on. (“Isn’t it only right for the rich to win in a capitalist society?” muses babyfaced popstar Sunggyu in one nerve-wracking season 1 episode.) In particular, contestants who are women are often subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—ignored or dismissed by the men, many of whom automatically choose to make advantageous alliances solely or mostly with men in a way that is blatant and infuriating, especially to those of us who have experienced workplaces and organizations where all the good opportunities “just happened” to go to men. Sometimes, it is enough to make the viewer silently beg the more placid players to get a little nastier, to try and show the assholes once and for all that they won’t win, not just for the pleasure of watching them lose but to hope that a more utopian worldview can be vindicated. But then, of course, that is how the assholes win: by creating a system where everyone has to be devious all the time, where everyone is at each other’s throats, making it harder for everyone in the long run just so you can survive until next week and maybe one day make a little money. (You might think that, since the players are all celebrities, the prize money wouldn’t really matter to them, but don’t be so sure—the Korean pop industry, to take just one example, is notoriously exploitative of its stars, many of whom see little-to-no money after giving up the best years of their lives to an exhausting regime of nonstop diets, training and performing.)
Yet there are times where the show can make you hopeful, and suggest that there are other ways of doing things. The assholes do not always win, and there are community bonds that overpower single-minded venality. Some of the bonds on display are culturally specific—some of the contestants feel affinity for each other because they are sunbae and hoobae, roughly translating to senior and junior in the same industry, and therefore seem more inclined to trust each other. But other times, people just do nice things for each other because they genuinely seem to want to do nice things for the sake of being nice. Contestants sometimes make sacrifices for each other, or tip each other off to some of the various goings-on, or simply feel obligated to be good and loyal to one another. These strategies do often pay off, which is thrilling not only because we have sadly been trained not to expect it, but because it shines a light on another way of thinking that can be just as successful as hard-nosed skepticism, if not more.
But then again, perhaps it’s best not to think of the show as a one-to-one representation of the real world. As Kim Gura, the season 1 Machiavellian-in-chief himself once states, “This skill is useless in real life.” You don’t have to see the show as a grand clash of life philosophies to enjoy people screwing each other over and solving highly intricate puzzles. That’s just the icing on the cake.