Stay Tuned: 'The Great Escape' is not so great

Melissa Crawley

In real estate they are fond of saying, “location, location, location” when valuing homes in desirable areas. I would like to add that it's an equally fitting phrase for weekly reality TV shows that involve people in a race. Races that involve a change of scenery are visually interesting. Races that involve running through dimly lit, dilapidated buildings on a small island prison or narrow corridors on an aircraft carrier? Not so much.

This is the primary problem with “The Great Escape,” TNT's contribution to contestants-who-solve-puzzles-and-run-between-check-points shows. In this version, three two-person teams try to escape different locations every week. The first episode's escape was shot at Alcatraz. The second episode's break out takes place on an aircraft carrier. But what makes both locations difficult to escape — their isolation — also makes for a repetitive competition.

On the Alcatraz episode, the contestants begin their jailbreak locked in cells where they must find an escape route map and one of several hidden keys to open the door. Once they bust out of the “containment zone,” they have to follow the map to several more zones. Each zone has a puzzle and a piece of a master key. They must solve the puzzle to move to the next zone and collect all four pieces of the key. The completed key will tell them where to find host Rich Eisen. The first team to reach him wins $100,000.

Since no prison escape episode would be complete without guards, this one has several patrolling the island. If a team is caught, they must return to their cell to hunt for another key and break out of the containment zone all over again. To keep the pace moving, the teams are allowed to return to the place where they were caught. To keep you from turning the channel because it's all a bit confusing, Eisen pops up to narrate the teams' progress. There are also random alarm sounds that go off (similar to what you would hear in a disaster movie if there was a scene of an imminent core meltdown) followed by a woman's voice announcing status updates that all the teams can hear (“Red team has escaped the containment zone”). This is meant to create a feeling of urgency in both the contestants and the audience. But it's not much of a nail-biter when teams quietly pass each other in dark courtyards and dimly lit hallways.

With little in the way of scenery change or dramatic tension, you're left to focus on the contestants, who are at least entertaining in their effort to provide a clever soundbite. There's the guy who says: “I saw my competition this morning — in the mirror” but then can't remember the solution to a simple math problem and the guy who describes the game's hardships as “a lot of creeping and running — that's hard on your legs.”

For those who fail to win the money, there's always the reward of personal growth. Reflecting on their few hours trying to solve riddles and locate hidden objects, contestants talk about how it made them stronger. Couples discover that they are “bigger than the game.” Friends say they are closer than when they started. That's nice, but it's too bad they couldn't escape to “The Amazing Race.

Melissa Crawley credits her love of all things small screen to her parents, who never used the line, "Or no TV!" as a punishment. Her book, “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing,’” was published in 2006. She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.