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Review: Hunted ends as a slick but frustrating show

Hunted's hunters, including Aki Peritz, Ben Owen, and Theresa Payton. (Photo by Michael Yarish/CBS)

Hunted ends its first season on CBS tonight, having been a consistent—and consistently, frustratingly obtuse—show for all five episodes that have aired so far.

Let’s start with what it does well: The best thing about Hunted is that it’s immersive and cinematic. It switches between two points of view, the hunters and the fugitives, and gives each equal billing. Handheld cameras get close-ups and extreme close-ups that are well-composed and mimic a thriller. As the hunters close in, there’s intense action. Like Survivor and Amazing Race before it, the show has established its own voice, though it’s one that mimics CBS’ procedurals.

The production brought together a diverse cast that doesn’t come across as rejected Amazing Race teams, and they’ve all seem up to the challenge. Each approached being on the run in different ways, with varying degrees of success, and with varying kinds of obstacles. Aarif and Immad, for example, are on the run during Ramadan, which means they’re fasting during the day, in addition to trying to evade capture.

The hunters, well, I don’t know. Is anyone rooting for the hunters? I’m sure they’re all accomplished professionals, but they’ve been given Their attitude is that they should be winning all the time, and while that may make sense for law enforcement, on a reality competition, it just turns them into one-dimensional villains. They frequently come off as arrogant twits, and that’s before you know that they’re getting key information from the producers.

Therein lies Hunted‘s weakness.

Hunted decided to keep us in the dark

It’s a competition that doesn’t share its rules with the audience, and if a team gets too good at playing the game, the show changes the rules to punish them, which is so absurd and completely insulting to the audience and to the players.

A disclaimer tells us that the law enforcement techniques are replicated. Of course that makes sense—after all, a reality TV show cannot view ATM surveillance footage or hack someone’s bank account.

But how does that work? We don’t know, and examination of their on-screen claims reveals how thin and crumbly they actually are.  My reporting on just a single scene revealed that some of what they claimed to be doing just doesn’t exist (like searching for rental cars in a massive database or tracking a truck rented through Enterprise). As best as I can determine from the information I’ve learned and from what I’ve read, if something seems like it could be obtained through a plausible law enforcement technique, then the production gives that information to the hunters.

The hunters can’t trace a cell phone’s location. They have no access to surveillance cameras. They cannot see ATM transactions. There is no access to license plate recognition/LPR technology—when the command center suddenly gets a hit on a license plate, that’s just the producers telling them where a car was. Ditto for ATM footage and locations, or surveillance cameras.

The production says they share information just like it would be done in the real world. But the reality—what we don’t see on TV—is probably more something like a hunter saying, They posted on Craigslist. The IP address of the computer they used would reveal the computer’s location. Okay? And then the production is like, Okay, here’s the house where they are!

Even if it’s not like that, we don’t know. CBS refuses to let anyone from the production be interviewed. Hunted refuses to show any of that to its audience.

I understand the editing choice, because getting bogged down in those details would make this more of a show for Survivor geeks and less of a show for the massive audience CBS gets with NCIS fans. They’ve gone broader, which seemed to work at first, but ratings have been falling; last week’s episode came in third in its timeslot.

And editing around all of the pesky little details—like these—becomes super-sketchy when you realize that the production has incentive for fewer people to win: that’s $250,000 less that has to be paid out. Survivor always gives its $1 million prize; there are no guarantees here.

I cannot imagine a network reality production would truly cheat, but an absence of information creates a vacuum that sucks in every available conspiracy theory.

Is Hunted making any argument being made about law enforcement’s power? It’s unclear, and that lack of coherence means the production is either trying to have it both ways (appealing to pro-surveillance and anti-surveillance factions), or just failing to make a decent case.

At best, Hunted leaves us with a CSI-level understanding of some law enforcement techniques, which is to say we don’t really understand or maybe even get the wrong idea because we’re watching a fictionalized, oversimplified version. And that’s what Hunted ultimately provides: a lot of questionable fiction in the context of a reality competition. Everyone involved, including the audience, deserves better.

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