Reality check: Discovery's new reality show has its share of local 'Brains'

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From an early age, Joel Ifill was a scientist.

"I used to make these little equations and maps of my paper route to figure out the most effective way to deliver my papers," said Mr. Ifill, 26, a welding engineer at Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corp.'s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin.

In many ways, he's typical of the contestants on Discovery Channel's new reality show, "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius," which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

Three of the 10 men and women on the show have local ties, and that's an exceptionally high percentage, even by local standards.

Besides Mr. Ifill, there's Eric Whitman, 27, who is obtaining his master's degree in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and aeronautics engineer Dan Moyers, who attended University High School in Morgantown, W.Va., and obtained double engineering degrees at West Virginia University.

Mr. Moyers, 34, has a master's in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford and works for NASA in California.

Clearly, "Big Brain Theory" won't be mistaken for "Big Brother." (But last summer's winner, Ian Terry of Shaler, is in fact an engineer. That had to have been a first.)

You know the format: Put people with diverse skills and personalities together to work on teams and watch the sparks fly. Literally. There was a lot of fabrication involved in creating solutions to real-world engineering problems, and Mr. Whitman said it was a relief they were all able to make it out with all their fingers.

This week's premiere episode involved designing a way to prevent packages of explosives from blowing up when two pickup trucks collide. Both teams failed, for different reasons. The judges decided the guiltiest party was Joe Caravella, who was an ineffectual leader. So he is out of the running for the grand prize of $50,000 and a one-year job with Mark Fuller's design firm WET.

"It's just so artificially stressful, being stuck in a room or workshop. I thought it would be hard going in, but I think everyone [underestimated] it. For 14-plus hours a day you're building and on camera pretty much until the time you go to bed," said Mr. Ifill, a Michigan native.

The trick on "Big Brain Theory" was convincing the rest of the team that any one idea was the best, and there simply wasn't time to run through several.

"There are a lot of obvious solutions, and a lot of nonobvious solutions, but working within the constraints, that's where you stood out," Mr. Ifill said. "Anyone could design something that works, with two months and a million dollars. But we didn't have that."

Naturally, egos were bruised and tempers flared. Mr. Moyers has been featured in online clips for a few angry confrontations with teammates.

"I think Dan tends to bark the loudest," Mr. Ifill said, laughing.

"There's also a clip of me breaking up a fight between him and Corey [Fleischer]," Mr. Whitman said. "I don't think he was actually going to hit anyone."

Conflict aside, Discovery and Pilgrim Studios set out to create a show that would celebrate American innovation. Host Kal Penn, a self-described science geek, said he was pleased that complex ideas are made understandable to viewers in a fun way.

"Science should be accessible," said Mr. Fuller, one of the show's judges. "[Viewers] get pulled in, and you have to learn the language a little bit, but that's the same for any country you visit. The richer you become in the language -- and in this case, it's science and math -- the more enjoyable it is."

Big Apple trouble

"Dance Moms" (Lifetime, Tuesdays) concluded another season of good dancing and bad behavior from coach Abby Lee Miller's troupe in Penn Hills. Fear not (or, be very afraid): The customary reunion show is next week.

After an hour of the girls working out in a New York City studio, mom/Abby bickering, an unbelievably staged visit to a skating rink, where Cathy Nesbitt-Stein's Candy Apple kids show up, then it was on to the last competition of the season.

Turns out, the Abby Lee dancers were shown up as well, in the group number. The Candy Apple boys, plus one girl, wowed the judges with a "Day of the Dead" number and edged the Pittsburgh girls for first place.

During the Abby Lee girls' dance, some of the Candy Apple group adults were making snide comments about Paige Hyland, which led to one of the more distasteful episodes of the season.

Ms. Miller summoned Paige and had her confront the adults, which was just mean: "They put a 12-year-old in a horrible situation," said another mom. This led to tears and, understandably, anger from Paige's mom, Kelly.

Even Ms. Nesbitt-Stein couldn't resist getting in a dig, yelling to Ms. Miller afterward, "You're rude, and you're going down."

But there was one last bombshell. In the closing moments, Ms. Miller told her team "I am looking for property in L.A."

Elsewhere in reality TV ...

• Variety reports the upcoming debut of what might be the first social media-only reality show.

"@SummerBreak" will play out on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram. It's a 24/7 project that will follow eight graduating seniors from Los Angeles-area high schools.

The Chernin Group is producing the program, which has AT&T as its sole sponsor. Peter Chernin is on the board of directors for Twitter and is an investor in Tumblr.

"@SummerBreak" will allow viewers to comment in real time as the stories of the teens unfold for eight weeks before they go on to the next phases of their lives. Tweets with photos, videos and online postings will tell their story.

• Talk about your bait-and-switch: Next month, Animal Planet debuts a new show about fishing. The winner gets $30,000 and a new pickup truck.

The title of this show? "Top Hooker."


Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published May 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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