The Great Escape is TNT’s first foray into reality show territory. It has impressive credentials from the get-go, with major Hollywood names Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing alongside The Amazing Race masterminds Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri. It also has a simple, easily explained premise. Three teams will be locked in a prison-like setting, and the first team to escape and find host Rich Eisen at the finish line will win $100,000.
It sounds like a can’t-miss premise, but the show’s first episode proves that pulling it off is more difficult than it sounds. Prison escapes have been great fodder for drama for decades, an easy way to ratchet up tension, because the viewer (or reader) never really knows for sure how it’s going to turn out. The stakes are always high for a dramatic escape attempt… unless it’s a reality show that has contractual clauses for the escapees.
In a word, nothing is at stake on The Great Escape. Sure, the teams all want that $100,000 prize money, but their lives don’t depend on it. When the competition ends, they’re all going back home, none the worse for wear. They aren’t facing the wrath of vengeful guards, or a lifelong prison sentence, or the death penalty. They’re not even facing particularly harsh weather. It turns out that without that tension, this show has more in common with, say, a kids’ show like Legends of the Hidden Temple than an adventure-based series like The Amazing Race. This is a game show dressed up in adventure show clothing.
That clothing is what you expect. With a show about breaking out of prisons, the producers pretty much had to start (or, alternately, finish) with Alcatraz, the most famous prison setting in North America. Three color-coordinated teams are transported blindfolded to the island and unmasked in the cell block. Eisen welcomes them and lays out the rules of the game. Each team starts in a cell and must find a map and a key to let themselves out. Once they’re out, the game is divided into four more stages. The teams must complete the stages in order, completing a task in each one and in the process assembling “The Great Escape Key,” which they’ll turn over to Eisen at the finish line.
To make their challenges more difficult, the contestants are aware of guards patrolling the grounds, and if a team is spotted, they’re returned to their cells, where they must find another hidden key, break out again, and then pick up where they left off. In the first episode, at least, the guards are only found between the stages, so that once a team is working on a task, they won’t be bothered. This allows the teams some breathing room, but it’s also less dramatic for us, since we know they’ll be safe until they finish the task.
The tasks in the episode range from free-form to strictly regimented and from familiar to — if not exactly surprising, then at least not-so-familiar. It’s great fun to watch the teams tear apart their prison cells to find the keys, and even more fun when they have to return to their cells and sift through the destruction for a second key. It’s also entertaining to watch the teams trying to open a lockbox when they have a wide variety of tools from which to choose. Less exciting are the “grab this bag with a magnet” and the “move this pile of heavy things out of the way” challenges.
At Alcatraz, there’s a lot of area for teams to cover between the various stages, when the guards come into play. This adds an element of uncertainty to the game. When a leading team can be knocked back to the start by poor timing or a lack of concentration, it keeps the ultimate outcome up in the air, theoretically. The first episode actually undoes that uncertainty rather early. Again, the stakes are reduced.
In between the action scenes, people talk. Eisen does his best to give his voiceovers a level of gravitas that lets the viewers know this is Serious Business. And the team members explain why they’re here: engaged couple Brittany and Gabe want to pay for their wedding while Lexx mentions he’s “$15 or 16,000 in debt.” Clearly the competition is meaningful for them, but what about the rest of us? With a new set of teams in every episode, there isn’t time for us to become invested in the contestants the way we might while watching a season-long, gradual elimination competition.