In brutal fashion, the TV competition's pits brain power against parental ambition in compelling ways
There was a moment in Tuesday night’s opening episode of Channel 4’s Child Genius, a show where brainy kids from all across Britain parade their eccentricities and make preparations to announce what they’re reading on University Challenge in 2026, that captures the power of the entire show. Christopher, whose father has spent three years training his son to take home the title, watching every episode, mastering Mensa disciplines, even buying them matching monochrome shirts, succumbs to the pressure and buries his face in his hands. The buzzer, a jarring noise punctuating each and every failure, punches holes through what remains of his hole-riddled self confidence. He is 11. This is blood sport. I love it.
A show like this understands exactly what we want to watch when it comes to tormenting children, presenting viewers with a motley crew of nimble-minded moppets, whose parents pop up as pushy tyrants or bemused bystanders. Take Mog, the first episode’s break-out star. The son of a waitress and systems engineer, he sips his Nespresso latte with lip-smacking relish while working his way through the foreign-language phrasebooks he’s mastered. His other interests include animal husbandry and sheep, his bedroom wall adorned with a poster of various British breeds. He is the hero, a lovable dork and tireless self-starter, whose bounces out of the rounds with boyish glee at his performance, telling us all he wants to win to show it can be done without pushy parents.
I give it a week before he’s in tears. And part of me can’t wait for Mog to be made a mug.
There’s an intriguing amount of cruelty taking place on screen. The other featured pint-sized prodigies featured struggled to match Mog’s masterful maths and memory skills. There was Sophia, who allegedly reads Shakespeare for fun and is training to become an ice-skating pro, who struggled with arithmetic, storming through by committing currencies and exchange rates to her memory. But it was the exchange of her mother to the camera crew that struck the most, describing her daughter and son, a Child Genius alumnus himself and the Dean to her Torvill, as a “triple threat.” A threat to what exactly is unclear, but it was clear this mother has big plans for her children.
Perhaps that is Child Genius’s greatest flaw, enabling millions of people sitting on couches or armchairs to decide they’re better parents than the ones on screen. Adjectives like pushy, forceful, obnoxious, and ambitious run rampant through the Twittersphere, with viewers declaring that what we’re watching amounts to bullying or abuse. We all know better what these children want or need from the 10 minutes of screen time they get in the episode than they parents who raise them, who love them, who wipe away the tears.
Beyond parental pressure and how Channel 4 creates an arena to exploit it, there’s also the discomforting thought that some of these children’s colourful quirks and whimsies suggest the autism spectrum. When does celebration of idiosyncrasy veer too close to exploitation? Or if it isn’t even acknowledged, like the more viewer-friendly ADHD was, is the show doing a disservice to the thousands of men, women, and children who live and get on with living with autism?
Quizmaster and host Richard Osman and the class of Child Genius 2016 [Channel 4]
And then there’s what makes Child Genius not so much a guilty pleasure as a shameful one. As much joy as can be found in Maximilien correctly knowing the currency of Mongolia, there is a despicable and delicious satisfaction in seeing him score zero in the previous round. To be presented with children who preciously wear their Mensa membership on their sleeves, lisping upstarts with uncontrollable egos, and see them crumble under the pressure is, and there’s no point denying it, tense and thrilling.
Pity poor Richard Osman, the brainiac quizmaster on the BBC’s daytime hit Pointless, who has to steer the show through these highs and lows, cutting through the tension with gentle scoff and impressed congratulations. He is affable and calm, a fantastic counterpoint to the bloodthirsty viewers at home.
Season four of Child Genius started on Channel 4 on Tuesday night