Monday, June 19, 2006

Not Quite An Amazing Treasure Hunt

What makes a show work? Specifically, what makes a reality competition show work? Back in 2001, following the success of Survivor the summer before and Survivor 2 that following summer, CBS, ABC and NBC each introduced reality shows that involved travel to foreign locations. The ABC show was The Mole, the CBS show was The Amazing Race, and the NBC show was Lost. The series almost immediately ran into problems with the public because of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The Mole managed to produce a second series plus two rather lacklustre celebrity editions, but of the three the biggest success was CBS's Amazing Race which continued to this day. As for Lost it was an absolute mess with no sense that the participants were actually racing and no suspense beyond whether the contestants were going to be able to beg for enough money to get where the had to go. Now NBC is reentering the "reality travel competition" field with a new entry called Treasure Hunters. I hate to admit it but while it's nowhere near as good as The Amazing Race it isn't a terrible show. At least not yet.

In the premiere episode a group of five 3 member teams where presented with a clue in Morse Code on board a ship off one of the Hawaiian Islands. Another group of five 3 member teams received a different Morse Code message in a mining camp in Alaska. Each team was equipped with a Visa Card, a Motorola Razr cell phone, and a computer which could apparently only get These items were apparently important if for no other reason than product placement. There's more of that as the show goes on. The Hawaiian teams - a group of "geniuses" from SMU, a Pastor and his wife and daughter, a trio of female Grad Students, three Air Force officers, and the three brothers Brown - had to swim from their ship, identified as the USS Jefferson (except it isn't - the closest the US Navy has is the submarine USS Jefferson City) to small boats. The small boats would then take them to the coordinates they received in the Morse Code message where one team member from each group would have to dive to find their next clue, sealed in metal boxes with the presidential seal on them. This clue led them to a "plane crash site" made up of artfully spread wreckage where they'd find their next clue; a painting in a metal box that could only be opened by putting together a key hidden in canes. The paintings had a map on the back with words in Greek letters. Meanwhile, once the Alaskan teams - a trio of former CIA interns, three friends from South Boston, three former Miss USA contestants, a team of "young professionals", and a trio of Texas rednecks calling themselves the "Wild Hanlons" - deciphered their clue they were off by helicopter to a glacier where they found a map in a block of ice with the words Stillwater Washington carved on it. This sent them to Lake George they went there and had to dig under cairns to find wrapped metal cylinders, etched with standard Latin letters and their Greek counterparts.

That's how the first episode of Treasure Hunters began, with the ten teams not knowing of the other's existence until the clues led them to the State Legislature building in Lincoln Nebraska. It was, I have to admit a very neat twist made even better by the fact that the clues that the Alaskan teams brought were needed to decipher the clues that the Hawaii teams brought. The clues, when used together, would give the teams the location of their destination meaning that competing teams had to work together to find out where to go next, and they had to use their brains to work out the correct place. The words on the map gave them one possible location but whether that was right or the clue more subtle and based on more information than just the words on the map, was something they had to think about.

Professional TV critics have been quite arch about this show. I don't think they're being totally unfair. There are weak points to the show, which I'll get to shortly. Still I don't think it's as bad as they make it seem. Hardcore fans of The Amazing Race have for a long time wanted to see the clues on that show be more puzzling, as they seemed to be in show's first season. The clues in Treasure Hunters have certainly been cryptic, whether it was deciphering the Morse Code message or figuring out that "Stillwater Washington" was the equivalent of Lake George. And there was a great clue that the two teams that went to Mt. Theodore Roosevelt could have used - if they hadn't been such literal thinkers - which involved viewing the front of the Hawaiian painting reflected in the Alaskan cylinder. I was also impressed that success in at least one aspect of the game actually required teams to work together because quite literally without working together they would fail.

There are a number of weak points that detract from the show. The constant product placements, and the reminders of the product placements are galling. They constantly mention the Motorola Razr phone; at least one player on each team was are seen wearing T-shirts; there's actually a billboard - real or CGI I don't know - promoting Genworth Financial Services which is a major sponsor of the show. Then there's host Laird MacIntosh who judging by his voice seems to have none of the interest or enthusiasm that a Jeff Probst or a Phil Keoghan bring to their shows. You hear a lot from MacIntosh. Any time there's a clue discovered by a team his unsmiling unenthusiastic face pops up on the Motorola Razr phone to tell them what to do next and exactly how to do it. He also makes sure that the audience at home knows exactly why the clue is right.

Casting, and the utilization of the cast, is another problem the show has. At three people per team the cast is too large and it's hard to really single out individuals some of the teams, including leading teams like the ex-CIA interns and the Air Force officers are essentially faceless, and it's clear who the no hope teams are - the overweight Brown brothers and the dumber than a sack full of rusty hammers Wild Hanlons. Certainly the two all woman teams - the Miss USA contestants and the Grad Students - are virtually interchangeable not only within themselves but between each other. There are only two real individual stand-outs and they stand out for reasons that aren't really good for the dynamics of team play. One is the pastor, Brad Fogal, who in the first episode took the clue out of a box opened by another team, and ignored his daughter after she was hit on the hand by the lid from the crate that box with the map clue was hidden in. The other is Charles from the Genius Team whose arrogant refusal to consider any alternative other than what he himself had come up with nearly caused his team to be the first eliminated.

Perhaps the worst thing of all about the show is the pacing. Amazingly the producers have created a reality competition show where there wasn't little dramatic tension at any point including the final task. Tension, whether it's between the teams, between team members, or the race to complete tasks is why people watch reality-competition shows. The editors of The Amazing Race cut the arrival of the teams in such a way that even though there may be minutes or even hours between the teams in danger of being eliminated, we as the viewer always think that the thing is close. There is an urgency to accomplish tasks. That doesn't exist on this show. The pace is leaden and the end, at least in the premiere, sudden.

And yet for all of the things that are wrong with the show, there is considerable potential for future editions (assuming the show does well enough to come back next summer) if the producers would simply look at it and figure out what they're doing wrong. The product placements could still exist but be more subtly inserted. The number of people on each team could be reduced to two or there could be a clear reason why there needs to be three players. The could treat the audience as if they weren't children who needed their hands held every step of the way. They could get a more enthusiastic host. They could build the tension. The seed of a good show is here but if the show is to go on for a second season the seed needs to be nurtured differently to make it work better. I confess that I'll be watching but this has a lot to do with there not being much else to watch this summer however the show had the potential to be a lot more gripping and the fault for it not working better than it does should be place squarely on the producers. What they've given us right now is watchable but not particularly compelling.

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