Tuesday 17 November 2015

Hunted has been recomissioned

Oh yes.

We don't need to remind you, dear audience, that Sata strongly endorses Channel 4's recent docugame Hunted

The only new news we have about series 2 is that there is a £100k prize fund to be divided between any winners. We have to say, this news surprises us - we wonder whether the show will be taking a more gamey tone, we wonder whether the prize will be emphasised as part of the programme, and we wonder whether that will actually improve the programme.

We certainly think Hunted As A Game has more longevity than Hunted As A Statement About Modern Britain, and probably more international appeal. We fear Hunted might go the way of the Million Pound Drop, and gradually decline in interestingness and depth as it grows in popularity. 

Regardless, we are very, very pleased to know more Hunted is on the way in 2016. And we shudder at the thought of how much more pressure the fugitives will be under with thousands of pounds on the line.

We never got a chance to use this picture in the review.

Saturday 7 November 2015

"This is fucking marvellous"

Not our words, but his:

It was good though.

Ok, it is unusual for us to break the fourth wall in the first proper paragraph, dear audience, but before we can talk about Hunted we need to talk about this author, and this blog's aims and objectives.

Primarily, I write about things which I find interesting. Generally, that means not terrible things, because they don't interest me enough for opinions to form, and not perfect things, because I would have little to say about something that was unilaterally perfect.

Sata views the interesting middle, then. We also find that level of programme to be the easiest to write about thoughtfully: not too good as to be distracting, not too poor as to be annoying. Hunted breaks this rule because this author, really, really enjoys Hunted. Normally, this would make us reluctant to write: we might gush, we might pull punches, we might overuse the word 'excellent'. Excellent. We hope to avoid doing these things, but also, now that we've made a big deal out of it, we are basically allowed to. Excellent. And now, in the words of Paxman: Let's get on with it.

Taken as a whole, Series 1 of Hunted was an excellent programme. It was exiting and interesting to watch. It was a sound, well-thought out game, but, we think some mistakes were made in the edit. We noticed that it didn't rate too well, and (although the life and death of a show is rarely something we actively care about) wonder about whether it could be refined well enough to return.

Most impressively, though, Hunted was a fantastic experiment. It was an experiment internally: an exercise in surveillance which could never have been created outside of television, and it was an experiment in merging the different styles of television: the reality-gameshow and the documentary, made with incredible care, flavoured to feel like (and advertised as) a 'real-life drama' and thrown into a prime-time slot on channel 4.

Earlier this year, we criticised another quaternary channel for failing to repay its debt to the genre of games. There is no time to thoughtfully assess whether the same comment might apply with Channel 4, but our gut feeling is that it does not, and Hunted is a strong example of why.

The game will not take long to describe. 14 players: 6 pairs and 2 individuals, are told to go on the run. It seems they are aware that they either will or might appear on Channel 4's Hunted, but not when the call is coming: on the morning that their cameraperson arrives, they are thrown into the game immediately. 

The Fugitives...

They must hurry, too, because at the same time, the hunters are set off. Operating from an underground bunker (we embellish) in London, the hunters are a team of 30 - a few field agents, but many more commanders than infantry. The hunters are given basic information on the fugitives: name, address, and photo - any more information is theirs to seek out.

...and The Hunters

But seek it they will, as the hunters use a variety of methods to track the fugitives, themed around the show's documentary side, the methods are introduced by talking about how they might be used by the police or secret services ('the state') in real life. The methods in question are a mix of technological, direct surveillance, and psychological. The direct methods are the most often used - the hunters can request any* CCTV footage, or ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) data, but the technological and psychological are also surprisingly powerful. To go into detail on how would be to replicate the programme; we won't.

(*Fantastically, Channel 4 released their own, slightly opaquely-worded explanation to how this was done.)

This is half of the game, and about 50% of what we see on screen each episode. The other side of Hunted is the fugitives' stories. The fugitives have a reasonable idea of how they might be hunted and this places natural constraints on them: all travel tens of miles from their ordinary home, most hundreds. Travelling undetected is difficult, as is living undetected: the fugitives can withdraw money from a provided bank account, but this will certainly alert the hunting team.
Adversity breeds creative solutions, though, and we'll talk more below about some examples of the general inventive, determined, positive and likeable approach the fugitives took to the programme. Overall, we would describe the Game here, as a magnificent asymmetric battle, both of wits and of determination. 

We think Hunted made a lot of small but important choices well. Fugitives had limited funds, and there was a safety cost to obtaining more money. Using public transport was made risky by the CCTV replication. The 'hot start' made the beginnings more interesting than they would else have been, it made the contestants less able to make elegant plans. Footage of scenery, music, and accounts were all used well to make sequences emotive. There were moments of quiet as well as of noise: the fact that fugitives' communications were so restricted made loneliness and trust key themes of the game. Our favourite quote comes again from Dr Allen:

We agree up to a point.

One question lies at the heart of every episode of Hunted: What's going to happen? The game here is presented as an "experiment about modern Britain", but it primarily functions as a story generator. We think Hunted's core merit is its quality as a process to make exciting things happen. It makes sense, then, for us to talk about some specific stories from the first series, even though in some sense this is a narrow assessment of Hunted: we only have a single sample from the mechanism to consider. 
One high point, possibly the best of the series, came in the second half of episode 2. (If you haven't seen any of the show, jump in around 35 minutes before reading on. Go on. Go on.) 

A spot of bothy.

Ricky Allen, a fugitive with a sense of fun, sets a 'trap' to turn the tables and spy on the hunters, by drawing them to a remote building while observing them hidden in a forest shortly away. The audience see a little of Ricky's preparations, but mainly follow the hunters as they approach the cabin - then cut over to Ricky as he sits in the bushes, asking his Cameraman to be quieter, gazing out over the hunter team and declaring the scene fucking marvellous.

The sequence is excellently presented, but mainly it's just an excellent event. How do you produce great television moments like this? Take experiments, design the game well, cast interesting people, and make the story as organic as possible. Hunted did extremely well in all 4 of these criteria.

We'll also mention the standoff and chase at the end of episode 5. All the same praise applies to this sequence, and some extra. The first is that episode 5's final quarter was exceptionally well foreshadowed. The lead in built us a sound connection with the fugitives, and twisted beautifully. When we thought things were good they went bad. When we thought things were awful they came through. Good and bad and good and bad again, through a combination of great gameplay and great editing, watching Adam and Emma was a nonstop rollercoaster ride. 

Our favourite newlyweds.

The very best thing about this ending, though, was the ingenious decision to have 2 of the 'office' team go out to perform the capture. This was unprecedented, and suddenly turned the tables on the audience's emotions. Who were we to root for now? The heroic runners were no longer being chased by big-chinned, broad-shouldered goons, but instead by our friends from the office, who we had seen working tirelessly to track them down. This sense was compounded by the shot as we rode in the car with the 2 hunters, as they anxiously twitched on their way to the location. 


By luck or design, this was the best capture sequence of the series, with one of the fugitives making an impressive and (according to twitter) very long run around the area, and one of the Hunters impressively tailing them. As runner finally nabbed runner, we felt less sad than we might have, thanks to the impressive presentation, and we were genuinely impressed by the quality of the quarter-hour we had just seen. 

There are no decent stills of this chase sequence, because it was genuinely spontaneous.

Our only niggle here is the series' ending. We acknowledge that the series needed an end point, something more interesting than watching a clock run to zero while hunters look on gloomily. We think the decision to make the ending effectively all-or-nothing, with the Hunters incredibly likely to capture all fugitives or none, was poor. If all had been captured, we think the audience would have called this unfun and unfair. As it was, all escaped, and there was no real chance that we could get a close finish, which is a shame. 

They did have a clock anyway, though.

We aren't convinced the ending was organic, aren't convinced by a lot of the themeatic arguments around it, and aren't convinced that the Hunters couldn't have reached the airport in time, although we certainly think Hunted is the better for it. We understand that this was difficult to design, and don't really see another option, other than to suggest more than one exit point. We also appreciate the clever decision not to make the escape an emphasised part of the series as a whole, so, will return the favour and not make it an emphasised part of this review.

As a series of events, as a game, we think Hunted was nearly flawless, however, we've yet to talk really about Hunted as a Television Programme. This is again difficult, because while so much on the TV side was done well, the errors stick out to us abruptly.

Tonally, the series was excellent. Our fugitives were introduced to us: not as heroes, nor reality stars, nor people particularly sure in their own suitability, but as keen amateurs. See for example the typical promo shot that was released before the broadcast. Our love for them - and I challenge the audience not to fall in love with Ricky Allen - was left to develop organically.

Indeed, there was a real lack of force - a few times we saw the fugitives refer to the Hunters as 'evil bastards' (which we hope they took as a compliment) - but the audience were impressively left alone. We think there was a narrator, but they always said things like "Emily is in a car", not "Emily is in trouble". The edit took no side, decisions by Hunters and Fugitives were never critiqued by the programme, and the isolated nature of the game meant there was little internal criticism. The Hunters provided occasional comments, but these were vague and rarely fully informed. Hunted presented itself as primary evidence: a record of occurrences that the viewers were invited to build opinions from, rather than a designated narrative illustrated by the events.

This comes at a small cost - not being told what to think means the audience have to work more, and especially makes the early episodes feel like tough watches - BUT it adds so much to the potential value of the series. Viewers who tune in each week feel like experts in the game, they start to engage more deeply, eventually, they start to fill in the gaps themselves.

It's important to emphasise that this is a really rare and brilliant thing for television to be doing in 2015.

This is a really rare and brilliant thing for television to be doing in 2015.

We have complaints though, mostly about the timing. The series was filmed so that all the stories could exist independently, and then decisions were made afterwards as to how they would fit into episodes, and how much of each episode would follow each story.

In general, we often felt the wrong points of the story had been emphasised, while better parts suppressed or rushed-through.  Many commented that the first episode emphasised the Hunters' story too much over the contestants, and unfolded too slowly. We don't think this was true of the series in total, but certainly think that the opening could have been weighted to be a bit more newbie-friendly. Indeed, we think the opening broadcast was generally a little weak, and probably the worst of the lot.

We criticise the decision to spend most of the first episode on stories that weren't resolved in that episode. Episodes 2, 4 and 5 focused mainly (not entirely) on a single open-and-shut story, and we really feel Hunted would have done better to open on such an episode. Instead, we got too much of Lauren and Emily (who we see plenty more of), a large amount of Ricky (who could have been held back), and a weird, 5-minute departure mid-episode to capture Elizabeth and Sandra. Elizabeth and Sandra weren't the most interesting capture, but they were the most interesting thing in episode 1 - and they weren't even put at the end.

They only lasted 26 minutes.
The strange rhythm of e1, throwing it's best story into the middle, setting up too much, and ending on a weak anticlimax, left the audience - even this author - feeling a bit iffy after the first broadcast. We also really think a better story like that of the Singh Brothers could have been used instead. Indeed, it was only the excellent developments of episode 2 that really confirmed that the series was capable of all we'd hoped, and we worry that those who didn't stick around never saw Hunted for what it could be. As evidence for this point, we'll mention that of this author's IRL friends, those who fell into an episode mid-series all stuck around for the duration, whereas not all those who ran from the start did the same.

There are similar criticisms which we'll list quickly. Episode 2 had enough without the bothy trap. The demise of Ricky Allen was a massive emotional low point, and could have been pushed back so that we had a new hope to root for at the time. The ends of episode 3 and 4 felt too similar, with solo fugitives being pinned down at stations. Presenting Freddie and Jacqui's story 3 episodes after Davinder and Harinder was wrong and confusing. Adam and Emma were too interesting to be given just one episode, and their episode, 5, took an unfairly large share of the series' great moments.  

We want to emphasise, again, that we think Hunted was excellent, exciting, brilliantly-made television. It was not perfect, but the problems that existed were missed details, not fundamental flaws. It was unique, it was original, and it was brave. We understand Hunted may be made soon in the US, and we strongly wish to see more of it back in the UK. Failing that, though, we hope it will be remembered as an intelligent and influential programme.