Viewers who regularly watch CBS’s The Amazing Race will feel right at home in the opening moments of TNT’s The Great Escape (10 p.m. Sunday), a new reality competition series. The music, quick camera zooms and even host Rich Eisen’s script are familiar.
Unfortunately, similarities to The Amazing Race quickly erode.
Where the Race introduces characters who will drop off team-by-team through the course of a season, The Great Escape introduces three new teams of two each week. It’s pretty much impossible to invest in characters who are essentially guest stars.
The Great Escape purports to drop ordinary people in the middle of an action/adventure movie each week, but an episode made available for review, Escape from Alcatraz, fails to live up to the show’s nail-biting promise.
Each week the teams have to escape from some sort of confinement – a prison, a mental hospital, the bowels of an aircraft carrier – and the winning team walks away with $100,000.
Each team is clad in one of three colors (red, green or blue) to help viewers distinguish among them since a new batch gets introduced each week. That’s a simple, smart move on the part of the producers.
In the Alcatraz episode that airs Sunday night, the three teams are transported to Alcatraz Island as night falls and put in cells that they promptly turn over in efforts to find a key to escape. This leads to the first of four phases they must complete in order to win the game.
Turning over a jail cell wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but watching the contestants hurl things about – and later write on the floor of Alcatraz with what sounds like a stone – makes a viewer wonder how the National Park Service, which operates Alcatraz as a historic tourist attraction, will react to seeing the site disrespected.
Once a team escapes its jail cell, teammates use a map to find their way around the island and complete additional tasks. It seems like The Great Escape would be a fun game to play, but it’s not that exciting to watch because there’s no reason to invest in the characters and because so much of the show seems overly produced.
The Great Escape has four production-company logos at the end and counts Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (Arrested Development) among its producers, along with Race veterans Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri. With that high level of creative auspices overseeing the show, there’s no question that The Great Escape looks fantastic.
But a show can only have a high-gloss sheen when great care is taken; that care clashes with efforts at realism.
After players are on the run completing their tasks, they can get caught by guards roaming the grounds. If players are caught, they’ll be sent back to the cell, which they trash again to find another key. In order for viewers to see the players, the crew trailing them has to shine a light on them, which should give away their position to the guards. But it doesn’t really seem to do that, which makes the notion of them playing an entirely fair game of flashlight tag a work of fiction.
It’s a necessary concession for the high-quality production values that producers want to offer and one that wouldn’t matter if viewers had a reason to care about the characters. But they don’t, which is why such picayune details pop to the fore as this viewer sought to stave off boredom – or risk a Great Escape into slumberland.