Wil Wheaton’s geek pedigree stretches back to his days as teenaged Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That interest in all things nerdy has continued into an adult career full of unapologetic enthusiasm for genre fare. His new weekly Syfy clip show, The Wil Wheaton Project, has no trouble establishing its nerd cred, but it struggles to find a unique aesthetic in which to celebrate it.
The Wil Wheaton Project borrows heavily from clip shows like The Soup and Tosh.0. Wheaton delivers jokes in front of a green-screen set accompanied by a smattering of funny images and videos. Around the middle portion of the episode a guest-star pops in to banter with Wheaton and throw to a clip. The twist here is that the content is exclusively geeky. Tonight Wheaton sticks to more mainstream series like X-Men, Game Of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, but this an insular show interested in speaking to those with existing nerdy passions rather than introducing anyone to geekdom.
For instance, if you don’t know that Shawn Ashmore plays Iceman in the X-Men franchise, you aren’t likely to enjoy a segment in which he makes fun of Frozen’s Elsa or claims to be allergic to ice. (The segment’s title, “The Ashmore You Know,” is the cleverest thing about it.) Plenty of jokes play without explicit knowledge of a particular series—like a scene from Vikings set to ’70s porn music—but a passing familiarity with geek culture is a must.
Project’s biggest strength is that it moves incredibly quickly. Content is delivered at a rapid-fire pace. Don’t get this reference? You’ll probably know this one! Not every segment hits its mark, but a lame joke about Penny Dreadful constitutes only a few seconds of the show’s 30-minute runtime. Quantity over quality is a smart philosophy for a show whose jokes are sometimes hit-or-miss.
Project essentially has two modes: Wheaton riffing and funny videos. So far the latter is more successful than the former. Whereas Joel McHale and Daniel Tosh relied on snarky cynicism, Wheaton tries for the peppy enthusiasm of Chris Hardwick—who serves as tonight’s guest. While he’s in fine shape for this premiere, Wheaton occasionally has trouble keeping his delivery from sounding overly-rehearsed. He’ll likely improve over time and a few off-the-cuff moments tonight show promise of a more relaxed host.
Where the show really succeeds is in slightly surreal clips that are either re-edited for comedic value or simply played wholesale. I laughed the most at unedited clips of P. Diddy calling everyone unicorns in a commencement address, John Malkovich struggling to come up with interesting soundbites for his new pirate show, and a clip from Star-Crossed in which a character misuses a walkie-talkie. Someone on the editing team has a fantastic eye for the kind of stuff that will get big laughs when taken out of context. And it’s not hard to see Project’s re-edited video segments finding viral success. An ’80s-style opening theme song for The Walking Dead (complete with freeze-frame acting credits) seems tailor made to live on long after this broadcast.
Ultimately a lot of what succeeds in a given episode will come down to personal preference. A montage of Hugh Jackman singing his way through X-Men interviews was just okay, but a reimagined version of Cosmos featuring a drunk and/or stoned Neil deGrasse Tyson had me cackling. Again, quantity over quality suits this format. I’ve already started to forget the jokes that didn’t work, but the image of a slowed-down Tyson asking philosophical questions will stick with me.
Perhaps the biggest misstep is that Wheaton doesn’t spend much time highlighting his extensive nerd biography. While The Soup and Tosh.0 hosts mock strange subcultures from afar, Wheaton exists inside of the community he’s commenting on. He has fine comedic timing, but what makes Wheaton unique—and what should make The Wil Wheaton Project unique—is the fact that he’s celebrating his personal and professional passions. Wheaton’s clearly not afraid to make fun of himself—he opens the show with a joke about his teen heartthrob posters—and he would do well to incorporate more of his personal experiences with Star Trek, tabletop games, and other fandoms into his jokes.
The Wil Wheaton Project is not yet must-watch TV, but it’s an enjoyable, energetic half hour with a very clear mission statement. The aesthetic is overly familiar, but the content offers just enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Tonight’s premiere provides a solid foundation for a show that will likely find a stronger comedic voice as time goes on. Once the writers and host settle into a groove, The Wil Wheaton Project could become an essential platform for geek-culture commentary.