Hunted, a programme that sends members of the public on the run to be tracked down by a team of police-like pursuers, should, by any measure of logic, be a load of codswallop. That’s the view any sane person would have, if they’ve never watched the thing. But tune in just for five minutes and you’ll discover for yourself the ridiculous joy of this brilliantly ridiculous programme.
Tired of the same old reality formats? That’s the starting point for Channel 4’s absurdly high-concept offering, which takes TV to new extremes, as the volunteer participants go on the run for 28 days, allowing themselves to be hunted by security experts and counter-terrorism investigators given the same powers as the authorities. Everything from private messages and social media profiles to number plate recognition is used without hesitation, each measure accompanied by a vox pop explaining the context in which they would normally be permitted to use such extreme tactics (far more often than you might expect).
The result is a surprisingly gripping study of surveillance in modern society, but not one that takes itself seriously – it’s a wonderful combination of low-brow nonsense and high-brow faux-topicality. Indeed, part of the fun lies in the surprising lengths to which authorities are allowed to go in a manhunt. But if that shocking efficiency is the driving force of its initial appeal, the show gets better and better as contestants begin to fight back. One episode sees someone use a decoy in their clothes to distract a helicopter, while others travel to places like London, a hub of security cameras and people – remember, the average person is caught on CCTV up to 70 times a day – and then visit their family members. Bizarrely, some of the most successful contestants simply hide in a field in the middle of nowhere for several weeks.
That game of one-upmanship makes for riveting viewing, as drones and ATM machine monitoring comes into play – and, best of all, the introduction of plain-clothed undercover trackers, which leads to a nail-biting sequence in a car, as an operative gives a lift to two unsuspecting contestants. The format, meanwhile, dares you to cheer for the underdogs fleeing Big Brother, while leaving your sympathies uncomfortably divided. You start out curious about who will make it to the end of the series. You end up wondering if anyone will at all.
The addition of a celebrity version brings a dose of novelty to the box sets lining All 4 too. Celebrity Hunted brings an added frisson to the existing tension, because the people trying to avoid being spotted are recognisable faces already – which makes it harder to blend in or seek help from friends and family without detection. One MP (who picked a bad time to participate in this programme) even goes to work to take part in a major Brexit vote. You can’t write this stuff.
It’s all edited with the panache and pacing of a Bourne thriller, which combines slick editing, fast pacing and overly tense music to make for a gripping 60-minute ride. With four seasons under its belt, Hunted’s appeal hasn’t eased up, which is testament to both how well constructed the format is, and how fun it is to watch members of the public be really, really bad at impersonating James Bond. There’s no guilt here – just pleasure.
Hunted Season 1 to 3 is available to stream and download for free on All 4. Season 4 is available until 17th March 2019.