by Robert Iwataki
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Reality TV shows may finally be getting recognition for their merits, but they’ll continue to be at war with each other. One battle continuing to be fought is over the use of dramatic license. Sci-Fi Channel’s last great reality game show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, frequently used scripted scenes in order to strengthen its narrative. These staged moments ranged from the contestants saying obviously scripted lines to special effects that would transform a setting in a blink of an eye. This hurt the show’s overall credibility as reality television. Despite the controversy, the series was extremely enjoyable and offered a fantastic alternative to all the other reality game shows plaguing the air waves.
Cha$e is Sci-Fi’s next hyper reality game show. The premise is that a group of ten people are sent running around a “game board” (i.e. a deserted real world location) solving puzzles, collecting hidden money markers, and avoiding “Hunters” for an hour in a real life video game. The prize is $25,000 which they’ve earned for every second they’ve remained in the game. There’s only one winner, so whatever money the other contestants have earned or found during the hour is forfeit. The added threats are the Hunters who “tag” out the contestants from the game. The video game aspect is the main hook for the series, but is it really different from the other shows on television?
My biggest problem with the series is the back story. Alright, a reality game show whose concept is “a living video game” probably doesn’t need a back story, but when creating such highly contrived simulated realities adding a back story makes all the difference. The show is hosted by actor and television personality, Trey Farley. He has created Cha$e for no other reason than he wanted a real-life video game to see played out. You can imagine my dissatisfaction. Would it have been so difficult to have Farley portray an eccentric millionaire who didn’t mind giving away thousands of dollars in exchange for an hour of ten unsuspecting people’s misery and pain? Or why not just make Farley an Arcade-inspired, full-blown supervillain? It’s obvious that Cha$e wants to be a more grounded show than the comic book inspired Superhero, rather than be a literal real life video game.
After a brief scene in the pilot episode “The Harbor 1.0” explaining the premise, the contestants are launched right into the action with no other goal than to stay in the game and wait until the exit location is revealed two minutes before the end of the hour. This almost undermines the show’s greatest assets, the contestants. There are no back stories for anyone, instead the contestant’s personalities and strategies are revealed in very vague, brief interview clips given throughout the program. In fact, at the end of this episode, the winner announces they will invest in a house for their family. Great, I thought, but I had no idea that was why they wanted to win. Don’t expect to be rooting for any one contestant except for the most inane reasons like they helped another contestant get back on their feet after they’ve tripped. Because each episode is stand alone, there’s no reason to dwell on the contestants. Simple stereotypes can be assigned to them and then the rest of the episode is dedicated to the chase.
Throughout the hour the contestants are constantly stalked by Hunters. These characters wear suits and sunglasses and act as robotic as possible, not unlike the agents from The Matrix movies. They’re given individual names to make them similar to the gladiators of American Gladiators as they will be the constants from episode to episode while the contestants change. The Hunters may be actual people, but they are portrayed in a very unrealistic manner. Their vision is enhanced by scanning graphics and word commands. They do not speak, but at one point, a Hunter on a motorbike communicates the location of a contestant to the other Hunters in the area in a scrambled electronic voice. This was obviously created in post-production, but done to further create the illusion that the Hunters are not human. The Hunters of the show actually remind me of the Temple Guardians from the kid game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. They exist to catch the contestants and throw them out of the game empty handed.
The contestants are not without defenses. The first puzzle in the game, which entails stacking painted barrels in the correct order, is awarded with “deflectors” which are used once to divert an approaching Hunter toward the opposite direction. Later, the contestants have to join their backpacks together with another contestant to unlock “invisibility glasses” which allows the Hunters to be unable to see them for two minutes. These puzzles do not offer much in terms of thinking. The solutions are clearly presented and offer little more challenge than a chore. At one point, two contestants have to pedal half a mile on an exercise bike in less than five minutes. The key to this game isn’t so much in brain power as it is in physical stamina.
I commend the show for maintaining a sense of urgency. I found myself at the edge of my seat only fifteen minutes into the program. Despite cardboard contestants, seeing them flee from Hunters is pulse poundingly exciting and it is a relief to see one escape their grasp by using one of their defenses. The editing is also a large part of it as the show switches from contestant to contestant via an overhead map of their location and their proximity to the Hunters. Because the show itself lasts for an hour, events are shown in real-time, the same way that has made 24 the success it is.
My biggest question going into the show was how accurate would Cha$e be to a video game? I was happily surprised to discover that it has the same sort of adrenaline pumping energy that an intense video game has. There are enemies to avoid, items to be obtained and used, and puzzles to get through the stage. The only part that feels unfaithful to the medium is the survival time, but even that has become customary in numerous death match first person shooters. Be warned, watching this show is the equivalent of watching your friend play a game without a controller in your hand. There’s moments where you want to be in control and because of that I think the show achieves what it has set out to do.
Cha$e ends up being a more down to Earth reality game show than Superhero was, but it still dabbles in fantasy over reality. The Hunters are not presented as they were when the contestants were actually running around; they’ve been enhanced in editing. There are a few recreated shots of the contestants looking at their game phones in order for the show to transition to a message from Farley. One inserted shot of a contestant’s map being blown away by the wind also feels eerily staged. Nonetheless, this show will most likely not endure the same criticisms of its predecessors and does manage to create a high tension, thrilling hour of entertainment.
Robert Iwataki is a film editor and writer living in Chicago.
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