A year ago, when the reality competition show “Child Genius” had its first season on the Lifetime channel, I considered the show a guilty pleasure that was, in effect, the “revenge of the reality-show producers.”
By that, I meant the producers got to shape the stories around a group of often-pushy parents and not-always-adorable 9- to 12-year-olds. It’s not as if the producers had to go out of their way to come up with what I called “delicious and subversive” moments in which the participants sometimes came across as unsympathetic.
As the season wore on, these moments included the time one contestant’s parents argued with the judges over the fact that their daughter was not given credit for naming “Susan O’Connor” as the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice. The judges patiently explained that if the girl had just provided Sandra Day O’Connor’s last name, her answer would have been correct. But the girl provided an incorrect first name, and that made the answer wrong. The parents walked away still not seeming to accept the outcome.
Another favorite moment from last season was when one mother sought to evade the contractual and practical constraints of opening the family’s lives to a reality-TV crew by talking to her son in Korean. The producers simply provided subtitles of the Tiger Mom’s words berating her son.
In the end, the likable Vanya Vivashankar of Olathe, Kan., whose father was always beseeching her to stay hydrated (“drink some water!”) won the $100,000 first-place scholarship prize.
On Thursday, Jan. 7, “Child Genius” returns to Lifetime at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times for its second season, which will run 10 weeks, instead of last season’s eight.
My advance look at the first episode suggests that viewers are in for more Tiger Moms, helicopter parents, and a dozen 9- to 12-year-olds who may qualify as very smart, but vary greatly in their likability.
Once again, the students are drawn from public schools, private schools, and home schooling. One boy lives in a family that follows a paleo lifestyle, and he offers cricket-based granola to the other contestants. Another boy is a musical prodigy who has played piano at Carnegie Hall. And one 11-year-old girl has already written her first novel.
One 10-year-old boy is taking a high school level-math class, and his teacher says, “His aptitude is extremely high. To be honest, he could have taught part of the class.”
The format of the show remains the same as the first season. The reality cameras follow the children and parents around their homes and in backstage moments at the competition site in Los Angeles. One mom acidly spurns some study advice offered to her son by another contestant’s parent. “We’re not really learning new techniques right now, but thanks for your contribution,” the mom says.
This footage is interspersed with carefully selected segments of the competition, which covers two subjects each week. Those include mathematics, spelling, geography, current events, literature and the arts, Earth science, and astronomy and space. Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin is the questioner during the competition, and the American Mensa Society is a co-sponsor of the competition.
The first episode of season 2, which tested math and memory, seemed to have more of a high-pressure effect on some of the contestants than any episode in the first season. At least a couple appeared to suffer panic attacks, with one hiding under a table rather than take the stage.
So, one does have pause about enjoying the show, on a straightforward or guilty-pleasure level. But hey—school, reality TV, and life are full of high-pressure tests, right? And no one pushed these young people to participate in “Child Genius.”
Except—most likely—their parents.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.