“Hunted” on Channel 4 last night was the first episode of a dynamic reality TV programme, long on drama but unfortunately rather short on the insights into the surveillance state that had been promised.
In “Hunted”, a group of volunteers have been set the task of evading a specialist team of “hunters”, comprising former law enforcement officers, intelligence service agents and cyber-security experts. Using a mix of human intelligence and cyber-sleuthing techniques, they attempt to locate the fugitives who could be anywhere in England, Wales or Scotland.
The fugitives themselves had only an hour's notice to hit the road. At that point they are expected to leave behind everything but what they could carry and disappear off the grid for 28 days.
The five participants in the first episode were four women and one man. Although they obviously would have known weeks in advance that they had been selected for the show, they seemed inexplicably ill-prepared to move out and spent quite a while rushing around their houses, throwing things into bags.
The women were travelling in pairs while Ricky, a GP with strong views about the surveillance state, travelled alone... well, not exactly “alone”, as each set of fugitives was accompanied by a camera operator. This led to one of the show's first of many odd moments – the sight of Ricky the GP driving down a country lane, ostensibly “fleeing for his life”, on a scooter with a man riding pillion brandishing a camcorder. All of this was, of course, being filmed from a chase car, which made for good TV but rather got in the way of the premise of the show.
Having said that, the most interesting aspect of the show was the fugitives' stories, as they attempted to “get off the grid” and evade detection. Of the three fugitive storylines, I found the women to be most interesting, partly because they had been paired up and could interact with each other and partly because they were far from adept at their task.
One fugitive – mum of one, Emily – was filled with so much nervous energy I feared that she would lose her mind by the end of the first day. Her companion, a life-long friend who knew all-too-well what she was like, was certainly struggling to maintain her sanity in the face of Emily's series of increasingly impulsive and bizarre choices.
Emily was convinced that every CCTV camera in the country was equipped with facial recognition and was hunting for her, rather than the more mundane truth that 99 percent of CCTV footage is never seen by anyone and facial recognition doesn't work. And yet, despite this paranoia, she insisted on phoning home every day to check on her baby son who she has left behind, a habit which nearly leads to their undoing in episode one.
This, as surely as ad break follows ad break, leads to one of those obligatory reality show “conflict” scenes where Emily's friend has to tell her off for reckless behaviour.
Meanwhile, back at HQ – well, nothing much seems to be going on at HQ. Despite the premise, this was probably one of the least interesting parts of the show. The technology behind the show – much of which was simulated because the real deal is strictly top secret – was unexciting and ultimately not very revealing.
The fugitives had agreed to allow the hunters access to their bank accounts, so all ATM transactions could be tracked. And CCTV and ANPR was, according to a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, “simulated”. One got the impression that there was a maestro behind the scenes, like a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master of old, dropping clues and providing CCTV footage as required to keep the hunters on track.
Despite having all the right credentials, the hunters were not very interesting. The Chief – played by Brett Lovegrove, former head of counter terrorism for the City of London police – was suitably gruff in a CSI type of way but you wondered how much of it he was putting on for the cameras. In fact, the rest of the hunters seem to be working from the same character sketchbook. Having interviewed enough of the these people over the years, I know they can be far more interesting than this which made me wish the producers had had the confidence to let them be themselves.
One aspect of the hunt which I wish they had focused on more was the field teams. I felt that the drama would have been heightened by shifting the focus from the control room to the teams in the field and perhaps in later episodes, as the hunt intensifies, we will see more of these people.
Overall, “Hunted” is a great premise which sets out to expose the powers of the surveillance state but ultimately reveals that most of us will fail because of the simple stuff – the need for money and the need to communicate with loved ones. If you could cut yourself off from these two things, dropping off the grid would be a cakewalk.
Read more about “Hunted” on the Channel 4 website.