Get smart is back (no, not Max)

THROW a dart at your television guide and you will probably hit a show about singing, cooking or renovating, glitzy productions such as The Voice, Australia's Got Talent, MasterChef or The Block.

But for those seeking ''a haven from the sequinned spotlight'', as one reviewer put it, there is a growing number of clever, ''geek TV'' alternatives: Andrew Denton's new ABC quiz show Randling, Shaun Micallef's coming ABC comedic news review Mad as Hell, and the sleeper hit Letters and Numbers on SBS, whose ratings have jumped 60 per cent since its 2010 debut.

'Geek TV' alternatives include Andrew Denton's 'Randling'.
'Geek TV' alternatives include Andrew Denton's 'Randling'. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

''Suddenly, it occurred to people that we can have just as much fun with our brains,'' said Letters and Numbers host Richard Morecroft. ''Watching minds in action can be entertaining, too.'' Not that the former ABC newsreader is knocking talent shows - he and his partner are addicted to The Voice - but he is gratified by his program's loyal following.

''In my 30 years of broadcasting, I've never had such a diverse audience, from teenagers to retirees,'' he said. ''And my co-host, Lily Serna, has broken that stereotype of mathematicians and attracted lots of younger viewers.''

Lily Serna from SBS's Letters and Numbers.
Lily Serna from SBS's Letters and Numbers. 

That stereotype, of course, is ''geek'', once a pejorative term that is now worn with pride. Even TV dramas and sitcoms have elevated nerds from perennial wedgie victims to quirky heroes. In Channel Ten's NCIS, for instance, the kooky forensic scientist Abby is the star. Ten also screens Touch, about an autistic boy who uses complex maths to predict the future, and Numb3ers, in which a maths whiz solves crimes. In Nine's The Big Bang Theory and ABC1's recent comedy Outland, nearly all the characters are geeks. And documentary series that make complex ideas accessible are also on the rise. .

TV Tonight editor David Knox said that crime shows became geekier after the DNA code was cracked. ''Before, we had traditional, Agatha Christie-style whodunits,'' he says. ''Now, we have CSI, Silent Witness and Wire in the Blood that explain how complex science solves the crime.''

Denton's Randling, which he describes as a ''Frankenstein's monster of other game shows from Sale of the Century to QI, as well as being its own beast'', is undeniably clever. ''More than anything, though, we wanted it to be fun,'' he says. ''There is a market for smart on TV, as long as it's entertaining. But if you're not entertaining, smart means nothing.''

A blend of arcane trivia and accessible games, Randling's appeal hinges on the riffing of its guests. To keep things fun, Denton and co-creator Jon Casimir - both of whom help write the questions - have a ''cravat alert'' system. ''We don't ask people to name the kings of England in order,'' he says. ''If it sounds like something you should have learned at school, then it's out.'' Instead, the show celebrates delightful foreign words such as ''Backpfeifengesicht'', a German term that means ''a face badly in need of a punch''.

Shaun Micallef, meanwhile, said his Mad as Hell, which begins on May 25, would mix scripted segments with off-the-cuff humour.

''With the current crop of reality shows, it's often about novices stumbling into the light, blinking and not know what they're doing and occasionally having a nervous breakdown,'' said Micallef, known for his sharp intellect and absurdist flourishes.

''I'm not suggesting that reality or talent shows can't be part of a television diet,'' he said. ''There are some very good hamburgers out there, but occasionally you want a breadstick, an entree or a bit of dessert.''