The Genius

The best South Korean television show you’ve never heard of!

The slogan for the South Korean reality game show The Genius superbly sums up the spirit of the competition: “Beautiful defeats and ugly victories.”

Over the course of 12 weeks, 13 contestants are encouraged to do whatever it takes to outmaneuver one another as they face-off against a backdrop of ever-changing mathematical, logical, social and strategic contests.

The structure of each episode orbits around a Main Match and a Death Match. The Main Match takes up the majority of each episode, and features all of the contestants aligning with or battling against one another to gain the safety that follows a win, and avoid the potential elimination that accompanies dead last. Following the Main Match, the last-place finisher is relegated to the Death Match. There they are then given the opportunity to call out anyone who hasn’t achieved immunity through that week’s Main Match, and the two then play a loser-goes-home mini-game. This procedure is observed each week until there are only two people remaining, at which point the pair face off in a winner-take-all best of three Death Match series.

Besides simply surviving the week, the other reward for performing well is earning garnets. Garnets serve as in-game currency that can be used to buy advantages and negotiate with other players, but they also represent the final cash prize, and are exchanged in the finale for money which is then awarded solely to the champion.

Arguably the most appealing aspect of the show is that the Main Match games are always brand-new, which encourages high levels of emergent gameplay from the competitors as they each attempt to come up with their personal best strategy on the fly. As an interesting counterbalance, roughly half of the Death Match competitions are played more than once, so those who go home and study a game’s strategy after the fact can be rewarded later on.

Another element of the show that feeds into emergent gameplay is that players are emboldened to find ways to bend the rules or expose loopholes which might give them an edge over their competition. This allowance by the show favors a unique strategy winning the day, which tends to produce excellent television.

As far as behind the camera is concerned, The Genius once again distinguishes itself from other reality game shows through its editing. Instead of presenting to the audience the events of an episode as they unfolded chronologically, the show will oftentimes only tell half of a story, saving crucial details for a well-timed flashback in order to create a big reveal. An example of this would be that an episode might follow a certain person or alliance’s strategy in solving a Main Match game, only for that side to be foiled in the end by an opponent’s strategy that had previously not been shown. The edit would then include clips (oftentimes and appropriately scored with the music from the heist reveal in Ocean’s 11) of certain moments that occurred earlier in the day, showing the hidden gameplay being forged by the counter alliance. Once again, this tends to make for excellent television.

While the contestants on The Genius do include a fair number of people with high IQs and ties to Mensa, the show uses the term “genius” more broadly, encompassing people with high-aptitudes in various other forms, such as leadership or social behavior. In particular, one type of personality that can really excel is someone who is good at reading people and following their gut, because they can lead with their charisma and get others to do their bidding.

Though the game of the Main Match will make or break the entertainment level of a given episode, any reality competition show is only as compelling as its contestants, and to its credit, The Genius has found many gems in the way of characters who are fun to cheer for, or root against.

A final note about the contestants themselves is that the overall show is made more enjoyable to watch because, by-and-large, the competitors treat each other with immense consideration, and both winning and losing is done with humility and grace. It’s evident from watching the show how deeply ingrained the concept of respect is within the Korean culture, and from an anthropological standpoint it’s hard not to appreciate.

For those interested in watching The Genius, despite it running only four seasons in total, through creative continuity the show builds on top of itself wonderfully, ultimately using returning characters and gameplay elements to tell an overarching story. For this reason, it’s worth watching the show in the correct order instead of jumping around. Speaking from first-hand experience, it doesn’t take much effort to find high quality English-subtitled versions of the show floating around on the Internet, and in an effort to keep it that way, there will not be any links attached here.

In summary, The Genius emphasizes games that are novel, editing that is unpredictable, and characters that are captivating. Any fan of social-strategy competitions would do well to give this one a shot, and I’m around in the comments for anyone who wants to talk about it afterward. Enjoy.

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