Much like summer programming schedules, late-night schedules are no longer seen as just places to dump reruns or old movies. There's still money to be made off syndicated content—goodness knows TBS just rolls around in money from The Big Bang Theory while vainly trying to launch any kind of comedic original programming—but if you don't have a sure thing like Big Bang, the licensing fees may discourage programming executives, especially as would-be syndicated content from the broadcasters is basically available through a range of online streaming options whenever viewers want.
So the answer to the conundrum of what to program is, as it pretty much always is, original programming. Even better is cheap original programming. Enter Syfy's foray into late-night with Geeks Who Drink and Reactor. The former is a game show shaken-not-stirred-with-booze about nerdy pop culture and the other is a weekly recap show in the vein of The Soup or, well, heh, The Wil Wheaton Project, about nerdy pop culture. Both shows have me asking the timeless question of "What the hell does Syfy think its brand is, exactly?" Is it a place for broad science-fiction/fantasy programming, or is it serious about trying to lure back a narrower, but potentially more loyal, niche audience with a more aggressive sci-fi attitude?
Geeks Who Drink feels very much like the former, at least based on the first episode. Its basic premise of doing nerdy pop culture questions in a bar setting so everything has a feel of bar trivia is fine enough because who doesn't enjoy coming up with punny names for their teams, answering questions about superheroes, and drinking? Questions could be a little nerdy—add up the number of antenna on Bender's head with the number of Asimov's laws of robotics—but not too nerdy, given some context clues, like referring to Wonder Woman as a "truth-loving" superhero. The show mixed it up with more physical activities, like figuring out which pop song was written for which movie or throwing cubes of Jell-O into plastic baskets (it's Jell-O shots!).
Former Chuck hero and future Heroes Reborn villain Zachary Levi, unsurprisingly, was a perfectly capable host. He kept things moving, read little factoids off the card, and, in general, seemed to be having a fun time. Which is good because, like the non-question-focused segments, without Levi, Geeks Who Drink would be a real snore. As it stands, it's just mostly a snore. Basically, the contestants were not nearly drunk enough to be entertaining. Everyone seemed completely sober, and it sort of defeated the purpose of bar trivia, let alone rules like: "Tie game! Drink!" or "Commercial break! Drink!" Better off would be: "You answered a question! Drink!" or everyone does a couple of shots before recording happens. Why? Take the abovementioned math question about Bender and Asimov. It should've been difficult not just because you can't recall the numbers because you're a little drunk, but because, while drunk, basic math may be a bit trickier.
I know, I know. I'm basically complaining that these people aren't drinking enough. But it's a pub trivia show! "Drink" is in the title! I want some drunk geeks, dammit! This point became pretty stark to me when the contestants were asked to pair a pop song with the film it was featured in. I thought of Hollywood Game Night (they have a similar sorting game), and how everyone seemed to be pretty damn tipsy on that show. That's pretty much most of the appeal of Hollywood Game Night: half-drunk celebrities playing party games while two regular people just reveled in the antics around them; the non-celebs on Geeks Who Drink were pretty much just bookends for the celebs. Speaking of celebrities, Geeks Who Drink could probably stand to have a few better ones, too. Starting the show off with Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter and NCIS: Los Angeles' Eric Christian Olsen didn't exactly bring a huge amount of star wattage, though they were also both having a lot of fun, and they were quick to establish Porter's "geek cred" with his rundown of his Destiny characters. Maybe just an entire panel of drunk celebrities answering geek trivia would be the way to go!
One last thing, returning to that notion of "geek cred." I wasn't crazy about the toss-away bit as Levi interviewed the contestants, and contestant were asked to discuss a geeky thing about themselves. Levi would follow it up with, "You deserve to be here." I imagine that anyone would certainly qualify to be there if the final challenge was "List Will Ferrell movies!" But when some sub-sections nerd/geek culture are obsessed with policing who's a real geek and who isn't—a la the whole fake geek girl thing—I'm pretty sure making that qualification isn't really useful or even necessary. After all, when superhero movies rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, we're all geeks.
I never watched The Wil Wheaton Project. Yes, I know, I was obviously part of the reason that the show was cancelled. In my defense, my tolerance for Wheaton is only so high and my tolerance of The Soup-esque shows that aren't The Soup is even lower. All that being said, I have to feel a bit sorry for Wil Wheaton. He has to be pretty frustrated that less than a year after Syfy canceled his Project the network basically resurrected it (I watched five episodes on YouTube this week) with Reactor and now featuring comedian David Huntsberger.
Reviewing something like Reactor basically boiled down to a couple of key questions. First question: Was Huntsberger any good? Answer: Maybe, eventually? Huntsberger clearly had a bad case of first episode nerves—it's okay to blink while reading off a teleprompter, or to blink at all!—so it's a bit unfair to lay the boredom I generally experienced during Reactor just at his feet. Hopefully, Huntsberger will loosen up in future episodes. He seemed a bit more natural during the pre-taped bit at Comic Con and in the small promo to encourage people to tweet questions, but when delivering some of the jokes or interviewing Kevin Durand, he was combating jitters and they were sort of getting the best of him.
Second question: Were the jokes any good? Answer: Not particularly. I'm on Twitter all day at work—it's okay, they don't really care—and I sometimes follow people tweeting during shows. As a result, pop-culture commentary and humor are in my eyes for at least 6 to 8 hours a day. So jokes about how Mason Verger on Hannibal sounds like Edward G. Robinson or a Batman v. Superman / The Social Network gag were already super stale by the time Reactor got to them this week. If you're not electronically plugged in, maybe these were fresher, but Reactor had the same issue Saturday Night Live had faced on and off: how do you do something sharp and funny when so much of it has already been done online or through a competitor, like The Daily Show? In Reactor's case, it also had to mock TV episodes when there were entire TV reviewers who do that the very next day! (Hi, Tim! Your jokes about Under the Dome and The Strain were way better than Reactor's! (Editor's note: Noel just got a raise.)) Basically, the jokes have to be really sharp—which they often weren't—or be delivered well—which they often weren't—for there to be a reason to tune in week after week.
So, yes, I was generally pretty bored during Reactor, but I did enjoy a few bits. A clip from Monsters & Mysteries in America yielded a solid enough bit about a guy playing an invisible pan flute and then turning that into one of those compilation music offers. Icing on that bit's cake? The music was offered on cassette tape. Perhaps devoting a bit more time to the less-viewed shows may benefit Reactor a bit more than riffing on Game of Thrones, and it might spur on some more creativity. Take a nod from The Soup from when it was Talk Soup and go deeper into the bizarreness of the sci-fi/horror/fantasy niche.
The saving bit of the night was Kevin Durand, who was on to promote both a new movie and The Strain. Durand was everything Huntsberger was not: Loose, funny—"I could be your Chewbacca!" and "I want to be the height of the other Kevin Durant!" were legit laugh lines—and generally having a nice time. Then it all sort of came to a screeching halt when Huntsberger handed Durand a lifetime pass to visit Reactor whenever. While I totally believe they didn't know if Durand would pick levitation, the whole high school bodyguard comment from Huntsberger was intended to set up the drawing. Like most everything else on Reactor, it was just too stilted to really be all that amusing.
Neither of these show were great, but they're cheap entry points into Syfy producing original content to compete with local news, Comedy Central, Adult Swim, and so on. I'm still not sure how either show fits into Syfy's brand, but I'm not convinced Syfy knows what its brand is at this point, either. The ratings bar for the shows probably isn't that high—Reactor's has to be lower than The Wil Wheaton Project considering the latter was canned due to, according to Wheaton, low ratings and minimal expectation of growth—and it isn't like either of these shows can't be fine-tuned. Reactor tapes weekly, so it will, hopefully, always show growth. Geeks Who Drink may've already filmed a chunk of its episodes, but if it gets a second season, may I recommend that the contestants do a few shots just before the game starts? In fact, that's good advice for David Huntsberger, too.