If you think America doesn’t do the cool stuff anymore — or that half of it is always outsourced overseas — you’ll rethink that after watching Discovery Channel’s new competitive reality series “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” premiering Wednesday, May 1.
Not only does it feature 10 supersmart contestants competing in high-tech and high-explosives challenges under the watchful eye of host Kal Penn (“House,” “Harold & Kumar”), but viewers also get to visit the venue where it was shot — WET in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
“It was quickly on the heels of Steve Jobs passing away,” Nancy Daniels, Discovery’s executive vice president of development and production, tells Zap2it of the inception of the idea for the show. “There were a lot of questions out there: ‘What does this mean for American innovation; is it going to go elsewhere?’
“We were looking at [the show] as being a celebration of American ingenuity and innovation, really showing off what we have here in this country.”
To achieve that, there’s hardly a better place to start than WET.
Stretching over several blocks in a sun-baked light-industrial area of a desert city, WET, true to its name, specializes in water. Actually it specializes in dribbling, flowing, spraying, cascading and shooting water into the air in a dizzying variety of ways, blending it with light, music and even fire.
Among its most famous projects is the Fountains of Bellagio, a Las Vegas landmark that offers a dazzling dance of illuminated jets. And if the 200 designers, architects, engineers, scientists and cinematographers at WET can’t find a part or piece of equipment to suit their needs, they just design and make it themselves — and that includes scale models of the company and projects, right down to miniature furniture, welding robots and people.
“The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” is the result of a months-long collaborative process between WET founder Mark Fuller — who’s also one of the judges on the show — and Craig Piligian of Pilgrim Films (“The Ultimate Fighter,” “Wicked Tuna”).
After giving a tour of the facility – which also features a grass-covered “parking lot,” classrooms, small brainstorming rooms furnished only with beanbag chairs, high-tech labs reminiscent of “CSI,” and some of the most fabulous climbing bougainvillea in the Los Angeles area — Fuller sits down over lunch with Piligian to explain how it all came to be.
“For Mark and I,” says Piligian, “we had a long development period because we had to pick the right thing, especially as his brand was at stake.”
“When we heard ‘competition show,'” Fuller says, “I thought, ‘Oh, no, we thought it would be some high-end thing.’ And Craig and his colleague said, ‘There’s no high-end, smart challenge shows on TV.’ I said, ‘I know, that’s my point.’ They said, ‘Let’s make one.'”
Coming up with the challenges was a challenge in itself. They had to be tough enough to strain bright minds while still visual enough to read on camera for the folks at home.
“My guys started with these brainiac things,” says Fuller, “but they wouldn’t make good television. Then you were doing stuff that was just all about blowing stuff up. There was no science in that. It took a while to do the mix.”
Then there were the competitors, who lived in one of the WET buildings that was converted into a dorm.
“We had to get people who were engineers and smart people,” says Piligian, “but we also had to hire reality show talent with personalities.”
The final cast features eight men and two women – mostly in their 20s and 30s, with one 41-year-old and one 50-year-old – with some serious brain wattage, boasting IQs ranging from 120 to 146.
People that smart are often loners, but to win the prize of $50,000 and a one-year contract to work at WET, they had to learn to operate as a team. And since you need five people to complete every challenge, the ousted competitors didn’t go far.
“So the loser came back,” says Fuller, “and had to work for the guy who beat him on his team. That really was an interesting dynamic.”
“Not only that,” says Piligian, “he already knew what everybody thought of him.”
Talking to the contestants afterward, Fuller got an interesting insight from one of the women.
“She said, ‘For the first time in my life, I learned how to fail and how important that is. I’ve been terrified of failure, and here you made me do it, over and over and over again. If nothing else from this show, it’s a win.’ “
And having had a few years of real-world experience crammed into a few weeks, the losers also might wind up winners at WET.
Says Fuller, “I would hire any of these guys.”