“Brainy” and “reality TV” don’t often appear together in the same sentence, but Fox has actually provided at least a taste of the former in “Superhuman,” a competition format originated in Germany that’s receiving a tryout as a two-hour special. Kal Penn turns out to be natural as host of this intriguing display of memory, dexterity and other far-beyond-the-norm skills, which is actually done no favors by the expanded format, making some of the stunts begin to feel a tad repetitive. Nevertheless, one can easily see this returning to plug holes on nights where Fox’s ratings are less than super.
In addition to Penn, the producers flesh out the festivities with Mike Tyson and actress-comic Mary Lynn Rajskub, just because, as well as Dr. Rahul Jandial, who might be the world’s most dashing neurosurgeon. The good doctor helps explain how the brain works, while Rajskub and Tyson essentially function as surrogates for the viewers at home by saying “wow” a lot.
Still, at least there’s a good deal to be wowed by, as the various participants, each introduced with a short film clip, exhibit staggering displays of memory, mathematics and physical acrobatics, as well as harder-to-define talents, like a woman who can identify songs just by watching the pianist’s fingers. In a way, it’s as if somebody harnessed David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks (which might explain why Paul Shaffer is the aforementioned pianist) — only with the players vying for a $100,000 prize.
Fox actually lopped the very ending off its screener, which is silly, because as they used to say on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” who wins doesn’t really matter. It’s more about feeling a sense of awe in watching someone add up numbers that flash by in milliseconds or identify a seemingly imperceptible change made to a mosaic of tiles.
Fox being Fox, the contestants also have seemingly been coached to unattractively boast about their prospects of winning, mixed in with human-interest stories about how much the cash would help them. But those trappings are secondary to the gee-whiz part of the show, whose closest cousin would be something like “Brain Games” on Fox’s corporate sibling National Geographic Channel.
Like a lot of these formats, it’s difficult to tell how well something like “Superhuman” would wear over time, but it certainly has the feel of a concept that could play for six or eight weeks during the spring or summer. And in terms of the likelihood that Fox will find itself needing a utility player in this mold, well, you don’t have to possess inordinate powers of perception — or even be a brain surgeon — to figure that out.