Science Channel is promoting Stuck With Hackett as “Survivorman Meets MacGyver,” and really, that’s a pretty good summation of the show. In the first episode, the dreadlocked engineer Chris Hackett is “stranded” in the Mojave Desert, where he comes upon an abandoned motel. Hackett talks a bit about civilization and comfort, and then gets down to the business of creating makeshift air-conditioning for his chosen motel room. It quickly becomes clear that this is the show’s modus operandi: in each episode, Hackett will be stuck in some remote location and he will engineer something out of the materials on hand.
In the premiere, at least, this is moderately interesting to watch. Hackett clearly knows how stuff works, and uses his knowledge to make simple machines. Even better, he makes those simple machines do complex things. He creates solar-powered air-conditioning using a wind turbine made from pieces of a rubber trashcan, a coiled hose, and a pool of water. He also uses ductwork to make a solar chimney, sucking the hot air out of the room. As the day grows later, Hackett takes on the challenge of air-conditioning without the help of the sun. This second makeshift type of A/C is clearly more dangerous, since propane figures heavily into it. It’s also more effective, though, as it gets the room cold enough so that he can see his breath, and allows him to make ice in the process as well.
As impressive as Hackett’s engineering skills are, Stuck With Hackett doesn’t quite work as a show. For one thing, Hackett isn’t an especially compelling host, and his lack of charisma translates into a listless half-hour of television. He goes on and on about all the “obtainium” he’s discovering. He defines obtainium as any object that has outlived its original purpose but can be re-used for something else. Sadly, as much as he may love the word, it’s nearly impossible to separate “obtainium” from the term “Unobtainium” featured so heavily in James Cameron’s Avatar, which makes the repetition that much more grating.
Stuck With Hackett is also stuck with an unoriginal premise. When Science Channel premiered Survivorman in 2005, it was a bracingly new idea. Les Stroud would go into remote locations on his own, dragging his own camera equipment around to film himself surviving for a week. Since then, Science Channel and its big brother, Discovery, have been trying with limited success to recreate the kick of that show. Even though Hackett begins his first episode by letting us know he’s not a “survival guy,” the shadow of Les Stroud, Bear Grylls, and their ilk hangs heavy over Stuck With Hackett.
The found-object engineering aspect has also been done to death in the past decade or so, and usually with more panache. Mythbusters offers more intriguing concepts, The Colony adds a post-apocalyptic reality-show sheen, producing a faux urgency. Even TLC’s Junkyard Wars, itself a repurposed version of the UK’s Scrapheap Challenge, made a game show of the premise, pitting two teams against each other in a massive junkyard, with a set amount of time to create a specific type of machine. With all these variations out there, streamlining the concept into “Guy shows you how to make stuff in remote locations” seems a step back.