Hey, who else out there remembers that old game show Finders Keepers? Where kid contestants had to tear apart a series of rooms in order to uncover objects hinted at in clues? Those old treasure hunts came to mind while watching The Great Escape, a new competitive reality show from the makers of The Amazing Race that premiered last night on TNT. The two shows aren't exactly analogous given that Escape involves pairs of grown adults competing in various tasks in order to free themselves from such confined places as a closed prison (Alcatraz) or a decommissioned aircraft carrier (the USS Hornet), but the image of these contestants ransacking rooms to search of concealed objects (usually keys) took me back to my lazy childhood afternoons spent watching Finders Keepers repeats.
My own nostalgic memories aside, the Great Escape producers most likely didn't have Finders Keepers in mind when they hatched the idea for this series. Instead, it feels like they were looking for a more contained, cost-effective way of doing The Amazing Race for a cable network that doesn't have the resources of CBS. At its best, Escape retains what makes TAR so addictive over ten years into its run: the sight of (hopefully) entertaining personalities completing fun challenges in exotic settings. And while Alcatraz may not be as exotic as, say, India, it's definitely not an environment that the average viewer gets to experience every day. Here are three lessons that TGE successfully learned from TAR and three more that they still need to master.
What They've Learned
1. Casting Matters
It always takes a couple of episodes for TAR to find its rhythm, because the first few hours have an overabundance of teams to keep track of. As the herd is thinned, the show gets more exciting and the contestants' personalities have more room to pop. Because TGE has only three teams of two competing against each other, it's like a Final Three leg of TAR every episode. That gives you more time to get to know the contestants and their various quirks. Take Lexx, one-half of last night's Green Team, who, in the course of the episode, punched a wall in a rage, admitted that he was about to become homeless and not-so-jokingly suggesting that maybe the inflatable boat carrying the eventual winners sank. In other words, he seemed like the sort of potentially homicidal crazy person who probably should have been locked up in Alcatraz rather than escaping from it. You also had engaged couple Brittanny and Gabe who were hoping to win the dough to finance their dream wedding and finally brother/sister duo Meghan and Miles who overcame a slow start to ultimately triumph. It was nice to actually be able to remember a contestant's name and personality right away instead of having to wait several episodes.
2. Maps Are Your Friend
One of our favorite parts of every TAR episode is the appearance of the Amazing Map with the Amazing Red Line that shows how the teams are hop-scotching from one country (or continent) to another. The TGE contestants don't traverse the globe, obviously, but the producers do keep track of their movements with the aid of a handy location map with color-coordinated pins that pops up every now and then to show the teams' current status and how close they are to reaching the next stage of the challenge. (It's not unlike those maps you sometimes see in video games, which taunt you with how far you still have to go until you find the level boss.) It's useful as visual shorthand and a fun recurring image to boot.
3. Keep the Contestants Moving... On Their Toes
When it's really clicking, TAR effectively keeps the racers off balance with unpredictable tasks, added gameplay elements (like those pesky U-Turns) and general surprises (like legs that don't end). TGE doesn't allow the escapees to get complacent either; once that buzzer goes off, they don't get a moment's rest until they've successfully escaped. One of the best obstacles the producers have come up with are guards that patrol various areas in each location and, if a team is caught, they're promptly escorted back to the start of the course. Granted, the guards on last night's episode seemed to give the contestants an awful lot of leeway (they clearly pretended not to hear Lexx's snitfit that resulted in him punching that wall) but that element at least adds a tinge of danger to the escape. We do hope that none of those guards are veterans of the Stanford Prison Experiment...
What They Need To Learn
1. Find A Better Host
Sure, it's tough to find a host as lovable as TAR's Phil Keoghan. But it's a shame that the producers didn't hunt a little bit harder to find someone more charismatic than Rich Eisen, whose past hosting duties have generally been NFL-related. If you're wondering how his sports background qualifies him to host a series about ordinary people escaping from confined places, we're honestly not sure either. And the mismatch shows -- Eisen breaks down the gameplay in such a bland, listless manner, he makes TGE sound like a lot less fun than it actually is. Let him take his briefcase full of $100,000 and head back to the NFL Network. This show calls out for someone who actually seems interested in the art of escape. May we suggest Wentworth Miller?
2. Mix Up the Challenges More
The TAR producers usually try to make sure that every leg offers a variety of challenges, from physical to mental to simple endurance. We're not surprised that TGE's challenges are less varied given the limited setting. Still, there were a few too many "needle in a haystack" challenges in last night's episode; by the time the contestants were forced to turn over boxes in the armory in search of one more hidden item, we had to stifle a yawn. At least Finders Keepers had that "hidden pictures" round to balance out all the room searches. We'd like to see the contestants get more physical in future episodes.
3. Don't Get Too Predictable
There are some editions of TAR where the producers are clearly phoning it in and waiting for the final leg becomes a chore. The first episode of TGE was definitely promising, but we can see how this show could become stale after a few episodes if they don't challenge themselves to find new variations on the central premise. For example, do the contestants always have to escape from a prison-movie ready setting like Alcatraz or the Hornet? What about a less predictable location, like, say, an amusement park? And maybe they begin some escapes handcuffed to something rather than simply locked up in a cell. Whatever it is, just find ways to keep the show's routine from becoming too... well, routine.
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