TNT’s The Great Escape: so pretty, so dumb

TNT’s summer competition reality show The Great Escape was one I was really looking forward to. Teams of two attempting to escape from things, produced by The Amazing Race‘s Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri, with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s companies Alas. To paraphrase what I wrote on Twitter last night, it’s like encountering a super-hot person and discovering they’re super-dumb, pretty but empty. Alas.

With that pedigree, it’s not terrible television, of course. The locations are pretty damn awesome: Alcatraz and the USS Hornet so far; a missile silo and an Air Force boneyard in the future. They look gorgeous, too, lit dramatically and filmed in high definition.

In these places, three teams of two–who change each week, which doesn’t bother me because while we don’t end up really knowing much about them, it’s about the same level of depth as The Amazing Race has taught us to expect–complete a series of tasks. They are not boring tasks nor always easy, and watching is entertaining enough.

But oh, the wasted potential! There has to be a certain amount of control, of course, especially in these real-world locations, where the contestants can’t just go around smashing windows or something. But these are often like the worst Amazing Race challenges: All the contestants have to do is complete a series of instructions. A, B, C, done. In the show’s best moments, things are cleverly hidden or disguised, and sometimes that trips up a team. But that’s rare. Usually, it’s well-marked or obvious enough.

It doesn’t feel like an escape, it feels like we’re watching someone put together an Ikea bookshelf. I think the show would improve exponentially if the teams were given less information and forced to be more industrious. Figuring out a way to open a door you’ve been told to open isn’t that challenging; likewise, when there are axes just sitting next to a crate, how hard is it to discern what you’re supposed to do?

And then there are the guards.

The guards are the biggest bunch of bullshit in a reality competition I’ve seen in a long time. They make sure we know we’re watching an overly produced, contrived scenario. We’re told they “patrolling on a regular rotation,” but it’s ridiculous–and I mean fucking ridiculous–for them to pretend to not notice a camera crew with lights standing out in the open filming two people who are trying to hide. Whether or not they catch people seems completely arbitrary; even if it’s not, the show does a terrible job of making it seem genuine. Jeff Probst could taser every non-alpha male in the middle of a challenge and it’d look less like producer manipulation than this does.

Last week, on Twitter, Kid Lazer called it “new version of Legend of the Hidden Temple.” That’s so perfect it’s unbelievable. I loved Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple, a game show that concluded with an obstacle course in a multi-story set, which came off like a side-scrolling video game. It really is the perfect comparison, down to the guards, although the temple guards were at least assigned to certain rooms, so they didn’t just randomly pick people off.

Also, Olmec had more personality than Great Escape host Rich Eisen does here. Hmm.

Incidentally, Legends of the Hidden Temple was produced by Stone Stanley Productions, which went on to produce The Mole, the first two seasons of which are near-perfect television and had outstanding examples of well-produced challenges that forced the contestants to use both their brains and bodies.

Alas, The Great Escape comes from the producers of The Amazing Race, and it ends up just repeating the biggest problems of the race.

The Great Escape: B-

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.