Treasure Hunters: Premiere

Hunting for treasure has a long and romantic history as a literary device. It evokes visions of swashbuckling pirates, an X that marks the spot, and chests stacked with gold doubloons.

Thanks to NBC, those images have been permanently wiped from my mind, replaced by images of cell phones, laptops, and 30 faceless people being given the same instructions over and over and over again.

NBC made treasure hunting boring.

The show’s format is hardly original, and comparisons to The Amazing Race are inevitable. But Treasure Hunters seems to have cribbed its technical elements, like camera techniques, from other NBC reality shows like Average Joe and Fear Factor. If they wanted to emulate some in-house stock, NBC should’ve borrowed more from The Apprentice–which, while not great TV, is at least decent entertainment.

The TH Producers also borrow a technique common to many Fox and WB shows: closing each segment with a preview of the action in the next, post-commercial break segment. It’s annoying enough when the WB does it on Beauty and the Geek, but it completely destroys the suspense of race-type shows that are supposed to be filled with tension and surprises.

Worst of all, Treasure Hunters has a theme — rendering it about as clever as a high school prom. Treasure Hunters, drawing off of its producers’ connections with The Da Vinci Code, claims to comprise some overarching mysteries regarding America’s Founding Fathers and clues guarded by a secret society. If the secret society is revealed to be anything other than the Freemasons or the Osmonds, I’ll be stunned.

Because the producers have decided to make the show’s theme and plot its main draw, the TH contestants become almost secondary. That was obvious from the start of the episode. Only a few of the teams were given the opportunity to tell the relationships between team members, and the premiere gave viewers no clue as to the dynamics of those relationships.

The Treasure Hunters producers assigned nicknames to all ten of the three-person teams, to help viewers tell them apart (Air Force, Geniuses, Young Professionals). But one defining thread does not a connection make. I need to know something about the individuals on the teams in order to care about them.

Casting heightened the problem. Team Miss USA is made of two blonde women and a brunette, all in their twenties. So is Team Grad Students. On several occasions, I couldn’t tell which team I was watching. Somewhere in a two-hour premiere, producers should’ve allowed time for character development, or even just some conflict. But it never happened.

Treasure Hunters began with a clever twist on the team race format. Five of the teams started in Alaska, while the other five started in Hawaii. But neither group of teams knew about the other; everyone at each location thought there were only five teams in the whole race.

While that’s an exciting way to show different locations and different tasks, it didn’t translate well to television. Just as things were getting underway in Alaska, the show cut to the teams in Hawaii. Without knowing anything about the teams, it was hard to keep track of which teams were where. There were too many people working on too many tasks for viewers to become attached to anyone.

The show’s rampant commercialism was revealed as bland host Laird McIntosh gave the teams their initial instructions. They were each given a cell phone (Motorola), laptop computer (Ask.com), and credit card (Visa) to use during the course of the race. The credit card wasn’t even used in the episode, so why bother mentioning it, other than to please the sponsoring company?

The race itself is hardly worth mentioning. Plenty happened, but all the audience was shown was the mechanical execution of tasks that were neither physically nor mentally challenging. Teams who started in Alaska deciphered a message in Morse code, hiked a glacier, and dug through piles of rocks. Hawaii teams also deciphered Morse code, but dove in a bay, and hiked on a beach.

Throughout, all we saw were teams methodically plodding through each task, which had a number of steps. On the Hawaiian beach, teams had to find a fake plane crash, find a box in the fake plane, find a cane in the rubble, and figure out that the cane contained the key for opening the box. With so many steps, there was little time to show team members interacting with each other. The audience learned plenty about the task, but little about the contestants.

At each new step in each task, host Laird called each team to give them their next clue, halting the action. Unlike The Amazing Race, where the viewing audience only hears the clue when the first team to find it reads it, the audience heard many of the clues five or six times. It was lazy and insulting to force viewers to hear Laird endlessly repeat, “Your next destination: the State Capitol Building, Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Lincoln was the site of the only really compelling part of the show. At the end of the show’s first hour, both groups of teams were instructed to meet host Laird by a statue. Both groups ran around the corner of the Capitol Building, and into each other. Everyone stared for a few seconds as they realized they had twice as many competitors as they’d been led to believe.

Just like that, the moment was over. There were a few short interview segments with contestants saying, “Whoa,” before producers jumped right back into their plot. Laird told the contestants that each team from Hawaii would be paired with a team from Alaska, and that they board buses and figure out where to go next.

Producers took no time to let the audience enjoy what was surely an exciting moment for the contestants. Instead of showing contestants introducing themselves to each other (and us) on the buses, producers cut right back into the action of them trying to figure out where to direct their bus drivers. All of the humanity was lost — in favor of map reading.

Teams decoded a puzzle to reveal that their next clue involved Theodore Roosevelt. Combined with clues from other portions of the race — involving Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — four of the teams correctly instructed their drivers to head to Mt. Rushmore. The remaining two teams, the Geniuses and the Young Professionals, directed their driver to Mt. Roosevelt, 37 miles away. Minutes into the second hour of the premiere, the audience already knew that one of those two teams would be eliminated.

Predictably, most of the other teams found their clues before the final two teams even arrived. The lone exceptions were the Wild Hanlons, a father-son-uncle team headed by a clueless, mulleted patriarch. The only thing that Pat, the father, did right was to wait for the Geniuses to arrive and let them figure out the last riddle for him.

So the Geniuses survived and the Young Pros were eliminated, not that I have any idea who they are anyway. The only interesting fact about that team is that one of its members, Chandra, is due to give birth to twins this summer. She wasn’t pregnant during the filming of this show (at least not visibly), so I wonder just how long NBC has been sitting on this stinker.

During the rest of the series, teams will compete for an unspecified prize. Without having a dollar amount attached to the prize, it’s hard to get that excited about it. To accompany to quiet problem solving, the overwhelmingly static camera shots, and the lack of interpersonal drama, producers tacked on epic, tension-filled music — which didn’t fit the show at all. Along with the undefined prize, it actually made the contest seem less urgent, not mysterious and exciting.

Treasure Hunters needs a serious re-edit this week if it hopes to survive the summer. Tone down the dramatic music, add more dramatic content, and stop interrupting the action with product placements. It’s a great idea, executed terribly. Considering that many members of the production staff worked on The Amazing Race in the past, I expected a more compelling program.