As a longtime fan of espionage thrillers, fantasizing about faking my own death, and The Amazing Race, I thought Hunted might be pretty good. The Amazing Race is an optimistic, brightly colored show about exploration and multiculturalism; it still looks like something that was conceived in 2000 and shot its first season in early 2001. It’s shocking that it took more than 15 years to get a post-9/11 version of the show, but Hunted replaces comforting host Phil Keoghan with an army of former cops and soldiers, using every tool in the modern surveillance state to track down its contestants, who scurry from town to town in a constant state of moderate-to-severe panic.
But the question is: Does the show still work when you turn it into a hunt?
The premise of Hunted is simple, but the rules are kind of complicated. Nine teams of two people each are told that within a certain 48-hour period they’ll be approached by the show’s production team and told to run. From that moment they have a one-hour head start to gather their things and hit the road before the hunters, a team of 32 military, intelligence, and law enforcement veterans, are set loose. If the fugitives can go 28 days without getting caught (specifically, being touched) by a hunter, they win $250,000.
In the premiere, we’re introduced to three of the nine teams. The first, David and Emiley, was by far the most interesting. David grew up in Miami and was in a gang as a kid. He’s been arrested 13 times, but claims to have evaded the police many more times over. Since then, he went to law school and grew a huge red beard, and now he’s on the run with his girlfriend, a pastor’s kid from Alabama who says she wants to prove to David that she can keep up with him on the lam.
Michelle and Angela are high school friends about whom we know little, apart from that they’ll both miss their children. Their character development will have to wait until they have a run-in with the hunters, I suppose, because we didn’t spend much time with them.
Matt and Christina are an engaged couple from Charleston, South Carolina, both of whom describe themselves as close to or reliant on their parents. Their master plan involved getting those selfsame parents to drive them to Atlanta, and when Mom and Dad no-showed, they started driving in their own car, but only got as far as Augusta before they panicked and hopped on a bus, using cash they withdrew from the bus station ATM. Thinking it would be tough for them to blend in (Matt is 6-foot-8 and Christina is a model), they packed wigs, which didn’t prevent the hunters from recognizing them at the bus station in Atlanta. In other words:
But the show’s biggest flaw isn’t the panicked carelessness of the fugitives; it’s the ridiculous self-seriousness of the hunters. For starters, CBS calls them the “Command Center Investigators,” a term I refuse to use going forward for the sake of simplicity and my own self-respect.
Their operations center is a set full of whiteboards and computer monitors in “an undisclosed location,” which, I imagine, allows the producers to show helicopter shots of the Atlanta skyline while saving money by working out of a strip mall in Roswell or something. The hunters drive blacked-out GM SUVs and use the NATO alphabet to identify their two-person field teams of ex–Army Rangers and NYPD detectives.
The leader of the hunters is FBI veteran Robert Clark, who is a bullet with a mustache. He’s assisted by operations team leader Lenny DePaul, who has a goatee, enormous pecs, and a penchant for extra-smedium golf shirts. DePaul looks like the kind of man who really enjoys trying to intimidate his daughters’ boyfriends, and at one point in the first episode, he dropped the line, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man. It gets in your blood.”
A show with a little more finesse, or a show a little less determined to show The Cops and The Troops as heroic and infallible, might have had a little fun with the premise, setting up occasional roadblocks for the hunters or revealing the inner Inspector Javert in Clark and his Fighting Goatees. Instead, the hunters are given every advantage, as the show grants them access to security camera footage, as well as the fugitives’ homes, phones, and computers. Meanwhile, the fugitives are restricted to a 100,000-square-mile playing field: Georgia, South Carolina, and parts of Florida and Alabama. Plus, they’re given only $500, which they can only withdraw from ATMs $100 at a time.
Those limitations, while perhaps expedient for filming a TV show, undermine the hunters by stacking the deck too far in their favor. If a team of elite intelligence, military, and law enforcement veterans needs a month to track down the tallest couple at the College of Charleston Alpha-Delta-Pi Spring Fling, while knowing they’re limited to $500 and can’t leave the SEC East, why even have law enforcement? It’s like giving the New England Patriots a two-touchdown head start on your pickup flag football team.
And these hunters are possibly even less likable than the Patriots. Reading out David’s dossier, a group of hunters discovered that not only was David a defense lawyer, but that he said he’d been beaten by crooked cops in Miami. Their takeaway included a laughing aside: “It sounds like he’s got a low opinion of law enforcement.” This was by far the show’s low point.
It’d be one thing if the show even hinted at the possibility that the hunters might pay for their hubris down the line, but Hunted insists that it’s trying to imitate real life. Among the hunters is former British intelligence officer Ben Owen, who wears dark dress shirts with a black suit and black tie, giving off the impression that the casting director and wardrobe coordinator weren’t talking about the same Interpol in production meetings.
Said Owen: “This is what would happen in real-life scenarios when we’re tracking down fugitives.” This isn’t a game show to the hunters; this is a classroom demonstration for how Good Guys track down Bad Guys.
In addition to a chilling sociopolitical message, Hunted’s perspective on law enforcement kneecaps the show narratively. The premiere’s final act turns when the hunters discover Emiley’s desk calendar. She’d written out their 28-day itinerary and ripped out the page it was on, but she pressed down so hard while writing that her pencil marks showed up on the next month as well. The show ends as David and Emiley try to elude the ludicrously named Team Foxtrot by escaping in the trunk of a friend’s car.
That’s the kind of drama that’d have you on the edge of your seat in a John McTiernan movie, and it’s unfolding in a cliffhanger ending to the first episode of a reality show. It’s gripping television, but it’s undermined by the previous 55 minutes, in which nobody involved seems to understand they’re playing a game.
We’ll see in the weeks to come whether David and Emiley can overcome Hunted’s suffocating supercops — and whether Hunted itself can do the same.