'Child Genius': TV Review

Emily Shur/Lifetime
Predictably entertaining

Mensa trials, Tiger Mommies and hovercraft parents — oh my!

Forget the average 5th grader; are you smarter than a child genius? Probably not. As one pint-sized competitor states matter-of-factly, "my daddy is not as smart as I am, because he has a 135 IQ, and I have a 146." The dad in question gives a nod and a shrug of acquiescence.

Lifetime's new hourlong competition series, Child Genius, based on a popular U.K. format, will run for eight weeks. In each episode, a group of 20 American, Mensa-approved children, ages 8-12, will be put through 16 rigorous tests in front of their anxious parents. The rounds include math, geography, memorization and more, delivered as rapid-fire questions by former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin. (The other two panelists — Matt Stern from Mensa and former Jeopardy! College Champion Pam Mueller — don't even say one word in the first episode; their roles are unclear.) Ultimately, one winner will be crowned the 2014 Child Genius and receive a $100,000 college fund. 

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As of its premiere episode, Child Genius never breaks out of a predictable setup. The 20 racially diverse kids come from all across the country, and a few are chosen to be highlighted with personal stories. There is no sob to those stories, except when the kids themselves are actually sobbing (because they didn't feel they performed well enough). And sometimes, the parents agree.

"I'm not a Tiger Mommy, but just to keep in mind … practice, practice, practice, practice," one mother says to her gifted son, who gets tense and angry with her later when she won't let him relax (his brother calmly solves a Rubik's Cube during the drama). "We just don't want you to look like an idiot," another parent says earnestly to her child, after the (very tired) child continues to mix up Iraq and Iran on her flash cards. Move over, momagers and Toddlers and Tiaras' pageant parents. "These parents can be like hovercrafts — forget 'helicopter parents,' " a Mensa expert explains to viewers.

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Though Lifetime casts a wide net with its programming — particularly the variety of its unscripted series — Child Genius still feels like an odd fit for the network, which tends to hone in on more female-focused shows. Child Genius is in most ways just a generic competition show, with no particular angle except to expose some Tiger parents and the kids they smother. Also, the rapid editing cuts out too much of the competition for viewers to play along (as they can with Jeopardy! or the Scripps National Spelling Bee).

What makes Child Genius entertaining, though, is the same thing that drives the very good kid-focused competition series MasterChef Junior. They are talented, likable and can make viewers as anxious as their parents. More fascinating, though, is seeing the child geniuses away from the competition. Families return home in between rounds, attempting to reclaim some sense of normalcy. For some of the competitors, this isn't hard; they've competed in Scripps or have been interviewed on national news programs for graduating high school at the age of 10. For others, the spotlight is a pressure cooker. But despite all of their talent and achievements, most of the competitors just want to be kids. The genius will be in figuring out how to be both.