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Hunted is a reality show about surveillance and human error

In the fourth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank warns Mac and Dennis about the dangers of manhunting: “Don’t even joke about hunting no man.” It’s too bad that advice didn’t travel to the network execs at CBS, where the latest attempt to grab eyeballs is a reality show called Hunted, billed as “the world’s most elaborate game of hide and go seek.”

But it’s a bit more complicated than a spiffed-up playground competition. The premise is this: nine teams of two people agree to live as fugitives while being “hunted” by 32 former intelligence agents, detectives, and Army vets. Any team that can make it 28 days without being captured will win $250,000. Teams are allowed to ask anyone for help, but there are rules: they cannot leave a 100,000 mile radius in the Southeastern United States, and they cannot spend more than $500 during those 28 days, available only in $100 increments.

Obviously, this isn’t Frank Reynolds’ kind of man-hunting. The idea here is that FBI agents, behavioral specialists, and NSA cyber analysts are uniquely equipped to find even the most slippery criminals — let alone the ones who think a Halloween costume makes a pretty swell disguise. But during Hunted’s season premiere last night, the search team eschewed technological advances for a more reliable failsafe: human error.

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Last night, three teams were introduced. David, a former gang member-turned-criminal defense attorney and his girlfriend Emiley; Christina, who was crowned Miss South Carolina USA in 2014 and her boyfriend Matt, who is worried about not being able to ask his parents for money, and longtime friends Angela and Michele.

David / Emiley and Christina / Matt made the biggest blunders of the night, which meant they got the most screen time. Emiley wrote her entire itinerary (including addresses) on a calendar, and though she ripped the page out, she had pressed down hard enough that it left an imprint on the following page. All it took was some innovative pencil shading for the hunters to figure out where the couple was and where they were going next, which seemed suspiciously simple.

Matt and Christina, two well-off, white 20-somethings, introduced themselves by saying, “We’ve never had a trial or tribulation this big” in reference to their participation on a reality show capable of earning them a quarter of a million dollars. They get cash out of an ATM in the bus station they’re leaving from, practically handing the hunters a countdown clock and a map to their destination. Later, one of the hunters points out that people from “confident” backgrounds tend to being the easiest to find.

Still, the amateur fugitives’ incompetence doesn’t stop the investigators from giving us a glimpse into their fine-tuned process. Here’s an exchange between two hard-nosed hunters after they get a hot tip about Matt and Christina from their Facebook profile pictures:

“If you see a 6’8” person standing around you’d say, ‘Hey, look at that guy.”

“With a gorgeous blonde on his arm?”

“Yeah, they’re not gonna blend.”

Maybe this bit of detective work is a simplification for entertainment purposes — a nice little soundbite about conventionally attractive people on the run. But most “leads” uncovered by seemingly hours of investigation were similarly dull or obvious (you can say you’re looking for a “circle of trust” on social media, but we all know you’re just looking through their friends section).

And yet, much of what the investigators do on Hunted is hammed up to make it look like a particularly rigorous CSI episode. “The civilians who are participating think this is a game, but my team is going to take this very seriously,” Robert Clark, a former FBI agent, deadpans over a menacing jingle. Clark is the head of this 32-person team, which also means he slaps headshots of the fugitives on a white board like he’s auditioning for the part of a grizzled but successful cop on The Wire.

But even if Clark is giving an Oscar-worthy performance, who’s going to watch him do it? Hunted is not a novel idea (a similar series aired in the UK in 2015), nor is it particularly well-executed, save for the way in which it picks at its competitors deeply ingrained sense of paranoia. A car parked on the side of the rode might be a neighbor, or it could be the people you know have been hired to track you. And the contestant’s lack of privacy is not entirely manufactured. As Emiley puts it, “When I agreed to be on the show, I agreed to open up every aspect of my life to be exposed.” Because that’s what The Hunted is really about: digging through people’s stuff, physical and digital, to see if it tells you what they’re going to do next.


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