"Hunted" is a reality show that takes 18 regular people and casts them as fugitives. Working in nine teams of two, they go on the run within a specified search perimeter, with a one-hour lead and limited funds. If a group of professional investigators fails to find a team in 28 days, they win $250,000. As with any storyline that relies on one group chasing another, physically and in this case technologically, through closed circuit TV footage and the fugitives' digital footprints, it has a built-in level of anticipation and excitement. Will they narrowly escape or finally get caught? But what makes this show more interesting than some others in the reality genre that have posed a similar question ("The Mole" comes to mind) is that it asks another, more entertaining one: Would you make smarter choices if you were suddenly on the run?
The answer is yes, at least in the case of the team who used an ATM at a bus station and then took a bus from the same station to Atlanta, where they were immediately apprehended upon arrival. The disbelief that many viewers would feel as those two knuckleheads make an eye-rolling mistake is part of why the show works. It relies on a shared screen language that the audience developed through watching action/thriller films and any television procedural where investigators hunt criminals. It feels familiar so it's easy to pass judgement on the contestants' mistakes.
But familiarity alone can be boring so the show heightens the action with camerawork that stresses tight angles and shaky shots as the camera operator runs alongside the fugitives. Contestants are often shot in close-up, which increases the sense of paranoia and anxiety. Their diary sessions, where they speak directly to camera about what they are feeling, further add to the emotional tension that the camerawork creates.
At headquarters, the investigative team is less exciting. They look at bank accounts and phone records and analyze social media for clues. In the field, operators take instructions from the investigators but their contribution is mostly reduced to shots of them in a car or combing through the fugitives' households. In the first episode, a former CIA analyst makes a discovery about one team that anyone could figure out with a 5-minute Facebook search. It's a case of real life investigation being much less thrilling than the fictional version where one person usually uncovers a surprise clue that no one saw coming.
The relationship between privacy and surveillance is a central theme of "Hunted" and a timely one as our reliance on technology continues to expand. To survive, the fugitives must go off the grid completely. Can they do it? Could you?
"Hunted" is on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EDT on CBS.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.