Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
An intrepid reporter for The New York Times, above, and his editor brave a Louisiana bayou while investigating TNTâs reality series âThe Great Escape.â More Photos »
AN ignominious afternoon in the swamp in Louisiana didn’t leave much of my dignity intact, but I can at least cling to this: Someone in this world is even worse than I am at shooting voodoo dolls out of a tree with a slingshot.
That would be my boss.
She and I spent a delightfully humiliating three hours in the bayou here on Monday proving that we would make excruciatingly bad contestants on “The Great Escape,” a competition reality show that has its premiere Sunday night on TNT. Sure, there was heroism — before this tale is through, you’ll read how one of us pretty much saved the other one’s life — but there wasn’t nearly enough of it to balance out the ineptitude.
The show puts three teams of two in an unlikely location and has them race to see which can get out first. The teams have to follow treasure-map-style clues and complete quirky challenges that require quick wits, agility and the occasional bit of muscle. My editor and I apparently don’t possess any of those things. We do, however, now possess some very muddy clothes.
Though only our pride was on the line, there is a lot more at stake for those behind the show. It’s the first foray into the reality genre for both TNT and Imagine Entertainment, the production company of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, which helped develop the show. TNT is known mainly for hourlong dramas like “The Closer” — the channel’s series routinely land in the Top 10 cable ratings in summer — but now it is making a bid to compete on reality turf dominated by rivals like History and A&E. To do the front-line work the channel brought in two experienced hands: Elise Doganieri and Bertram van Munster, the creators of the perennial Emmy winner “The Amazing Race,” who certainly know how to turn a swamp into an amusing yet humbling test of speed and skill.
They let my boss, Stephanie Goodman, and I have at the course they had set up here, about 40 minutes southwest of New Orleans, for the series finale. Other episodes have already been shot at a dormant missile silo, on the aircraft carrier Hornet and elsewhere. The premiere was filmed on Alcatraz. Part of our reason for making the trek was that it seemed guaranteed to be a good time, and it was. But it was also to get a sense of how genuine the experiences in such shows are. Viewer fatigue seems to be settling over some parts of the reality genre, especially the music competition shows, with their phony drama and over-the-top production numbers.
Mr. van Munster is adamant that the way to fend that off is to present a show that is as real as possible. “Reality competition could be here for a long time,” he said, “as long as people don’t mess with the truth.”
So on a hot day in the bayou we sampled some of Mr. van Munster’s truth, or as close to it as we could come. Unlike the actual contestants we were competing only against our own incompetence, and there was no suitcase full of $ 100,000 waiting at the end, as there would be for the first team out of the swamp when the real episode was shot two days later. But it was enough to convince us that, yeah, what you see on television, at least in this show, is a real competition, and yeah, although it looks as if any idiot ought to be able to do it, any idiot can’t.
“Idiot” is what you feel like right from the start. Each episode begins with the teams in some kind of confinement, from which they have to escape, but not before finding a hidden map that will guide their adventure. On Alcatraz it was a prison cell. For us is was a closet-size swamp shack that had been built by the crew, which arrives a week before the shoot and puts in long days creating a course from scratch and testing it to minimize the likelihood that contestants will be killed or — worse — will not be able to master the tasks. If no one ever gets out of that shack, you haven’t got much of a show.
Ms. Doganieri, who was on hand to give an annotated tour of the course, had spared us one burden. We knew where we were going; the contestants arrive blindfolded with no advance notice of the nature of the course. That, she said, tends to leave them pretty amped up, which is not necessarily a good thing.
“By the time they get that blindfold off, they’re like caged animals,” she said. “And sometimes they don’t see something that’s right in front of them.”
It was easy to appreciate their frustration as we rooted around that shack, poking through a cooler and shaking out blankets in search of the map, which was, just as Ms. Doganieri said, right in front of us. And then it was on to the main course, which each week consists of four stages. (We tried two. Had we tried all four, we’d be in the digestive track of some alligator by now because the crew would have packed up and left; we were that slow.)
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