Friday, August 05, 2011

Button Button - Adult Style

takethemoneyandrunI’m trying to decide how I feel about the new ABC summer series Take The Money And Run. On the one hand it was created by Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri with Jerry Bruckheimer, who are the the people behind my absolute favourite reality-competition series, The Amazing Race. On the other hand I don’t really think that it’s going to work as a ratings draw for reasons that have nothing to do with the show itself; it follows ABC’s Wipeout which has overexposed this year by airing for most of the winter and into the summer, and it’s on opposite reruns of CBS’s popular NCIS: Los Angeles and FOX’s Masterchef featuring culinary enfant terrible Gordon Ramsay (in a kinder and gentler role), not to mention NBC’s huge hit America’s Got Talent. Regardless, by the time this is finished and posted we’ll know how it did in the ratings. Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t deserve to do well in the ratings. I much prefer the scripted show that follows it, Combat Hospital and not just because it’s produced in Canada by a Canadian network.

The premise of the game is amazingly simple. Two people (the “Crooks” if you will) are given a briefcase with $100,000 and have one hours to hide it. They have a car with GPS, and cell phones. After the time is up they have to wait for two local police officers (the “Cops”) to “arrest” them and take them to “jail” (the arrest isn’t real of course but the jail appears to be a former detention facility). The local detectives do the leg work, tracking down clues based on the cell phone records, GPS logs and any receipts that the “Crooks” have. Meanwhile the show’s two professional interrogator – 35 year veteran LAPD Detective and novelist Paul Bishop, and 25 year veteran LA County Deputy District Attorney and writer Mary Hanlon Stone – try to break down the “Crooks” stories at the jail. If the “Cops” aren’t able to locate the briefcase with the money in 48 hours the “Crooks” get the cash, but if the “Cops” find the money, they get it. The result isn’t really “Hide and Seek” or “Cops and Robbers” but rather a big game of “Button Button, Who’s Got The Button.” Well really “Button, Button, Where Is The Button.”

The idea sounds at least practical but in my mind it’s the execution that lets it down. In the first of six episodes, San Francisco brothers Paul and Raul Bustamante get the briefcase. Driving around the city in an effort to confuse the “Cops” who will be looking at their GPS coordinates, they also make phone calls to their brother, and two friends (Accomplices) to provide them with alibis. A plan to leave the briefcase in a friend’s restaurant falls because they didn’t know that the restaurant wasn’t open at the time they arrived there. Eventually they bury it in Lafayette Park, and after cleaning their hands and finger nails (because dirty fingernails would point to them having buried the case), they continue to drive around until they are told to stop and wait to be “arrested.”

Once arrested the brothers are taken to “the jail,” fingerprinted, dressed in orange jump suits and locked alone in separate cells. Then the “Cops” – San Francisco detectives Cliff Cook and Dean Taylor – and the Interrogators work out their plans. Cliff and Dean will hit the streets to back track along the brothers’ route as provided by the GPS and check out the alibis provided by the cell phone records. Meanwhile Paul and Mary will start questioning the brothers.

The legwork part of the show isn’t overly interesting. Cliff and Dean start out at Golden Gate Park, where they first “arrested” Paul and Raul. They question some bystanders and rapidly decided that the case wasn’t hidden in the park. They call Paul and Raul’s mom and identify themselves as friends of her sons to get the location of their brother (one of the three people Accomplices). Checking this on the map they decide that the case isn’t there because he lives nowhere near the route on the GPS. Another Accomplice is dismissed because he admits to not having seen them during the hour.

Meanwhile Bishop and Hanlon work out a strategy of how to approach the brothers in their questioning. They decide that Raul is the stronger brother, while Paul (who lives at home with their mother) is the less certain brother. This informs their interrogation style. When she questions Raul, Mary is almost friendly gaining his confidence and is able to pick up on his hesitation when talking about his brother Robert (the Accomplice) which is an indication to her that he’s lying. Meanwhile Bishop is working on Paul. His attitude is more confrontational and it yields results as his lies are more easily observed. Giving them some time to rest – and in Paul’s case to become increasingly tense and ill at ease about his surroundings and what he’s involved in – Hanlon and Bishop work out their next steps. They analyze Paul and Raul’s reaction to their interrogation, how to approach each brother and which one to spend the most time with. They also spend time analyzing the GPS material and the phone calls to give Cliff and Dean information on where there were gaps in movement and conversations. They reason that these gaps represent places where the money could have been hidden. While they maintain a rather easy approach to Raul, allowing him to grow increasingly arrogant in his certainty that the “Cops” are nowhere near to finding the case, they increasingly put the squeeze on Paul. They push in on his personal space and on at least one occasion they go into his cell and close in on him so that he has no space to escape. Eventually, as Paul spends more and more time in his cell alone they can see his confidence crumble. Eventually they make him an offer; he can end his discomfort right now if he’ll only let them know where the case is. He let’s them know that the case is in a park, but not Golden Gate Park, and that they buried it although he isn’t clear where the case is. After being called Cliff and Dean search Lafayette Park and after one wrong choice they finally find the case buried in a clump of bushes.

On his blog, producer Jerry Bruckheimer offered an explanation of some of the rules that the players – particularly the “Crooks” had to abide by. The “Crooks” had to use the vehicles provided. They are allowed to park it and walk places. They are also allowed to use pay phones in addition to cell phones. The “Cops” and Interrogators have access to GPS data and Cell Phone Records. Apparently they also had access to any Tweets or Facebook postings the “Crooks” may have made though that isn’t stated in Bruckheimer’s posts. The briefcase has to be hidden in a location that is accessible 24 hours a day. If they use a person to help hide the case – for example in someone’s house or business – that person must be accessible by the detectives. Finally, the “Crooks” are required to answer all questions asked of them by the “Cops” and the Interrogators, however both the “Crooks” and the “Cops/Interrogators” are both permitted to lie. Indeed lying is expected, and both sides are encouraged to attempt to deceive the other.

There are a number of things about this show that don’t really work and in the end one major problem that has to do entirely with a given episode and is a fault in the very conception of the show. One of the problems is the way the show is set up with the three pairs of people involved: the “Crooks,” The “Cops” and the “Interrogators.” The “Crooks” and the “Cops“ are contestants in a game. They aren’t paid by the production but are participating for the chance to win $100,000, while Bishop and Stone are constant participants, paid by the producers. They are, for lack of a better term, the professionals on the show. And yet they had the bulk of the screen time in the premiere episode – more certainly than Cliff Cook and Dean Taylor and arguably more than the Bustamente Brothers. The show becomes a battle of wits between Bishop and Stone and the Bustamentes while Cook and Taylor are at best supporting characters. If this show was a scripted production (like Castle for example – in fact this example) Cook and Taylor would be Ryan and Esposito. To do the show properly the battle of wits should be the two partnerships who are trying to win the money, while the people from the show  would be the ones doing the leg work for them.Of course there’s no guarantee that you’d get real world cops who are strong interrogators let alone photogenic enough and polished enough to be able to split our sympathies between them and the “Crooks.” And yet, for me at least there was a sense that the “Cops” didn’t really do enough to deserve the money.

However for me the overriding problem that the show has is the most basic fault that any show – scripted or reality – can have. The show lacks any real sort of dramatic tension and as a result it is at its root, kind of boring. The development of dramatic tension is something that van Munster and Doganieri seem to do so well in The Amazing Race that I expected to see it here, and I didn’t. Truth be known of course, I’m not really sure where the dramatic tension could have been developed. We know that the “Crooks” will be caught, because it’s built into the structure of the game that they have to hide the briefcase in an hour and then pull over and wait for the “Cops.” This takes the “thrill of the chase” element out of the game. And we really don’t get a confrontation between the two groups who are after the money, the “Crooks” and the “Cops.” They are basically playing to separate games, with the link between them being the “Interrogators.” After they “arrest” the “Crooks” the “Cops” have nothing more to do with them on an interpersonal basis. And they also get much less screen time. What the show eventually devolves into is two people talking (albeit not necessarily the same two people). Such dramatic tension as exists is largely manufactured by Bishop and Hanlon commenting on which person is most likely to crack and the approaches to take. The act (commercial) breaks don’t occur in such a way that they hold our attention by being dramatic “mini-cliffhanger” moments as we see in scripted shows, and indeed in reality competition shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race. These are felt to be necessary in order to bring us back to the show immediately after the commercials. I’m not sure that even the best editors – and for The Amazing Race van Munster and Doganiei employ some of the best editors in the Reality-Competition business – could have built the dramatic tension in this episode. Even the final segment, where Paul and Mary “break” Paul Bustamante and get him to reveal where the location of the briefcase is anticlimactic. The producers “thoughtfully” put up a clock indicating how long remained in the 48 hours. With twenty hours left in the time that the brothers were being held and fifteen minutes left in the show, it wouldn’t take a genius to realize that the “Cops” were going to win the money, and since Bishop and Hanlon had focussed on Paul as the weaker of the two brothers that he would be the one to break. And of course that was exactly what happened.

Take The Money And Run was a series that I was looking forward to because of the people associated with it. I expected van Munster and Doganieri to produce a show as good as their other show, The Amazing Race. If they had produced a show that was even half that good It would be better than most of the summer shows on TV. I thought that Take The Money And Run had potential to be that good. The actual product was far less than what I had expected and hoped that it would be. It is a failure if for no other reason than that it violated the cardinal rule of Television; It’s boring. Worse, it’s boring without the redeeming quality of being smart.

(And as for the ratings, Take The Money And Run finished fourth in total viewers with 5.28 million, and third in the 18-49 demographic with a 1.9/5. the ratings for the other shows in the time period were America’s Got Talent with 11.92 million viewers and a 3.1/9 in the demographic; NCIS: Los Angeles with 8.13 million viewers and a 1.5/4 in the demographic; Masterchef with 5.87 million and 2.4/7 in the demographic; and Shedding For The Wedding with 410,000 viewers and a 0.2/1 in the demographic. Take The Money And Run retained 79.2% of the rating from the new episode of Wipeout that preceded it.)

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