The Great Escape

The Great Escape debuts tonight on TNT at 10 p.m. Eastern

It’s Sunday night, and that swelling fanfare on the soundtrack and those soaring helicopter shots of an exotic location can only mean one thing! The camera swoops down to find our host, Phil Keoghan… no… wait a minute… isn’t that former ESPN personality Rich Eisen?

Indeed it is, as The Amazing Race is still on hiatus for the summer. But reality-competition fans yearning to plug the TAR-sized hole in their Sunday nights could do worse than to check out TNT’s summer series The Great Escape. The show’s surface similarities to the venerable globe-trotting Race probably won’t spawn a legal kerfuffle akin to the Big Brother/Glass House dispute, given that both shows are executive produced by Bertram Van Munster and Elise Doganieri. And while Escape’s slick production values and manufactured suspense inevitably recall its predecessor, the new show’s less-frantic approach makes for a refreshing change of pace.

Eisen, who seems to be barely holding back a derisive snicker at all times, introduces the premise. Three teams will be locked in separate cells, from which they must escape and complete a series of challenges. The first team to arrive at the finish line wins a $100,000 prize. The first episode takes place on Alcatraz Island, recently vacated by time-traveling prisoners and Jorge Garcia. As on The Amazing Race, each team of two has a pre-existing relationship: brother and sister Miles and Meghan are the Red Team; the engaged Brittany and Gabe are the Blue Team; and best friends Jeff and Lexx are the Green Team. (With his rough-and-tumble demeanor and his bandanna pulled down tight over his eyes, Lexx looks like he might be returning to Alcatraz for a second stint.)

Each team must find a map and a key hidden in their cell, then use the key to escape and the map to navigate through the four challenges. (Like all reality shows, The Great Escape has its own lexicon; the teams start in the Detainment Zone, then make their way toward the Transport Zone through Stages 1-4.) Upon completing each challenge, teams receive additional clues and tools, as well as a piece of a master key they must assemble in order to complete their escape. Some challenges are physical (smashing open lockboxes, digging through a pile of heavy sandbags), some are mental (solving a “riddle” that’s actually a simple math problem requiring teams to know how many hours are in a day), and some simply require a bit of luck (spotting a hidden gasoline can).

Complicating the game further are the guards patrolling certain areas of the challenge course. If contestants are spotted by the guards, they must return to their original cells and escape again. On the one hand, this twist adds to the suspense and helps shake up the game; on the other hand, suspicious minds can’t help but speculate about how easily the production could control which teams happen to be “spotted.” (They’re all running around with full camera crews, after all.)

That said, The Great Escape is an instantly involving hour of reality TV, and, of all the competition shows currently airing, looks like it’s the most fun to actually play. The limited number of teams make the action easy to follow, unlike the early, frenzied episodes of any Amazing Race season, and the tasks tend to require a bit more ingenuity than the “go here, then go here” clues the Race has become increasingly reliant on. Picking Alcatraz to kick off the series is certainly an inspired choice, and the production makes the most of the location, from the cramped cells to the dank corridors to the looming San Francisco skyline. The final stage of the escape, in which teams speed away from the island in Zodiac boats just as the sun is rising, is pure HD eye candy.

The second episode, set aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, offers an even more challenging, maze-like course for a new set of contestants. There are minor tweaks and twists along the way—instead of finding keys to escape their cells, teams must use a length of wire to lasso a set of bolt cutters—but it’s not clear how many variations on this theme the producers can dream up. Future episodes will take place in a missile silo and (of course) a swamp, which both sound promising, but the novelty could certainly wear off quickly if the production runs out of unique locations for the show. These are concerns for another time, however. For the short term, at least, The Great Escape lives up to its title.

Stray observations:

  • What are they doing with Alcatraz these days, now that the Fox show has been canceled? Because they should definitely turn it into a Great Escape amusement park so we all can play.
  • Suggestion for future location: An abandoned shopping mall full of zombies.