You don't have to be a rocket scientist to compete on Discovery's new "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius." But it couldn't hurt.
The 10 "Big Brain" contestants in Wednesday's premiere -- hosted by actor Kal Penn -- are absurdly qualified as some of the best and brightest real-life science geeks. What are these people doing on a reality show?
Besides competing for $50,000 and a job at WET Design (the high-tech water technology firm that created, among other big projects, the nine-acre dancing fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas), they're learning about life.
"Many contestants said to me, toward the end, 'You know, I'm a really smart person and I've never really failed in my life, but I had to fail over and over and over on this show. It's the greatest lesson, and I'm a different person coming away from this because now I know failure is just one of the many steps toward success,' " said judge Mark Fuller, CEO of WET.
"From a personal side, that just made doing the show worthwhile."
Nanotechnologist Christine Gulbranson is the show's other full-time judge.
Three contestants have local ties. Joe Ifill, 25, works in Pittsburgh as a welding engineer and has designed robots. Eric Whitman, 26, is obtaining his master's in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. Morgantown, W.Va., native Dan Moyers, 33, earned degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from West Virginia University as well as master's in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford.
Of the three, it is Mr. Moyers who makes the biggest noise in Wednesday's premiere. Teams of five are challenged to design and build a way to safely transport a package of explosives in the bed of a pickup truck.
That the trucks will collide head-on is a given, but how to keep the package from decelarating at a speed of less than 25 Gs is the trick.
Everyone has his/her own ideas, but the key to "Big Brain Theory" is working together to achieve the goal. In his Discovery Channel bio, Mr. Moyers predicts "my biggest challenge on this show will be keeping myself from becoming too aggressive," and when his team dismisses his concern over a key part of the braking system, he doesn't handle rejection well.
"You know what? That's life," Mr. Fuller said. "You finish a project, you go to maybe another department to work on something else, but that's what you do. You come in to work every day and mix it up and you don't get to quit.
"You don't get to do a little temper tantrum and storm out like you do" on so many other reality TV shows.
The show is from Pilgrim Studios, and the goal is to make high-level science accessible and fun. Judging from the first episode, mission accomplished.
Unlike other reality formats, the contestant voted out by judges each week doesn't disappear. He or she continues working on the projects.
Mr. Penn said he's a big fan of "low-brow television," but "Big Brain Theory" has given him an even greater appreciation of the genre.
"These really are 10 of America's brightest young engineers. They're sequestered for 10 weeks and they're pouring their hearts and souls into this stuff, and [not] because they want to see who dances better or who is dating who -- and I certainly don't want to be disparaging of the shows that I love watching -- but the stakes in this case are so much harder and so incredibly positive.
"On the flip side, [when] you see them yelling at each other or having falling outs, it's always because they just want the team to succeed."
And the winner is?
When is a finale not a finale? For the second consecutive year, "RuPaul's Drag Race" (Logo, Tuesdays) has extended the finish line.
With Pittsburgh queen Alaska (Justin Honard), zaftig Roxxxy Andrews (Michael Feliciano) and Jinkx Monsoon (Jerick Hoffer) in the final three, the question of who's the fiercest of them all won't be answered until May 6.
"This is a photo finish," declared RuPaul Charles, creator, hostess and mentor.
It was also an opportunity to milk a few more episodes around a social media campaign to the Drag Race Facebook page and through Twitter. Next week, we're promised an episode of highlights from the season and on May 6 -- at last -- the queen of queens will be named on a reunion show.
Last week's show was rather revealing. Superlawyer Gloria Allred coached the finalists in making their cases and Alaska -- "I turn the tragic into magic" -- dazzled.
In a photo shoot, Candis Cayne helped the girls perfect "chiffonography," or the art of looking great while waving a gauzy scarf around a wind machine.
Then they helped record a video to RuPaul's song, "The Beginning." For fans of Jinkx and Alaska, the biggest surprise was just how humorless Roxxxy can be.
A pageant queen who asked "Where's the beauty? Where's the creativity?" of her fellow contestants, Roxxxy came across as frustrated and mean. But she later apologized to Jinkx, who bore the brunt of her vitriol.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.