The makers of Treasure Hunters (NBC, debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, regularly airs Mondays at 9 p.m.) are pathetically eager to hype the show’s likeness to The Da Vinci Code, and not having read Dan Brown’s masterwork, or seen the movie, or played with the action figures, I’m in no position to stop them. However, I can tell you that the show is essentially a baroque rendering of CBS’s Amazing Race that also incorporates, in its gawking at Freemasonry and its Hitchcock-like fetish for national monuments, the substance of the 2004 Jerry Bruckheimer film National Treasure. Further, this reality competition combines themes drawn from extreme sports, word puzzles, class warfare, and hot-body contests in a strikingly effective manner. It manages the neat trick of being simultaneously brain-teasing and mindless.
After blaring out an intro featuring Mount Rushmore, the one-eyed pyramid from the back of your Washingtons, and a glinting pile of something doubloon-like, the two-hour premiere introduces us to the contestants and explains both the rules of engagement and the local laws of product placement: Each of the 10 three-person teams traversing the globe on this exalted scavenger hunt receives messages on a special Motorola phone, and each is encouraged to use laptops with “special access” to Ask.com to decipher the clues they unearth —that is to say, look stuff up. The teams are also in possession of Treasure Hunters Visa cards, but these do not come into play in the premiere, and there’s no word what the APR is.
Five of the teams are kicking off their search aboard the USS Jefferson, cruising near Hawaii. These are the Brown Family, the Fogal Family, Air Force, the Grad Students, and the Geniuses. While the members of Team Air Force really are officers who met in basic training—two of them are a married couple—the boys of Team Geniuses really aren’t that bright; they just take a lot of science classes. The Grad Student squad—three women, two of them twins—might just as well be called the San Diego State Bikini Team. The Browns, a trio of brothers from Midland, Texas, are encumbered by their fattest member, Tonny, whose butt crack will shortly be impressed upon the minds of millions. And then there are the Fogals, a mom and dad and adult daughter from California. While Treasure Hunters generally styles its stars as round characters who can be endearing and off-putting by turns, the Fogals are unremittingly loathsome, unburdened by any sense of fair play. Says the smarmy patriarch: “If there’s a point where we have to stretch the truth a little bit and ask for forgiveness later, I don’t think we’re beyond that.” He is, by the way, a pastor.
Meanwhile, up in Alaska, another five teams go bounding around a glacier in search of some planted documents containing some 8th-grade-level riddles that’ll tell them where to go next. You’ve seen Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, so you know what the Boston-born men of Team Southie Boys are about: “We have a lotta street smahts.” The women of Team Miss USA know what the score is; I believe it is the former Miss Indiana who suggests to her teammates, regarding the strategic deployment of cuteness, “We’re not gonna use them just yet. Let’s save our manipulation until we really need it.” The unimpressive Team Ex-CIA makes a good case, unwittingly, for the total overhaul of America’s intelligence apparatus. The Young Professionals are boring and uptight. And I presume that the backwoodsy family known as the Wild Hanlons is so called because Team Mullet is just too easy.
While the show cheerfully exploits our curiosity about cryptography and the occult—not to mention, of course, whether any of the beefy Southie Boys will “form an alliance” with one or more of the cheesy beauty queens—it is not about anything more than the lower pleasures: the hearty thump of its soundtrack, the spectacle of adults acting like overmedicated children. Unless I missed something, this first episode doesn’t even detail what the winners of Treasure Hunters stand to gain. The tagline of The Da Vinci Code is “Seek the Truth,” but this pseudo-knockoff isn’t interested in truth or anything like it. It’s just about the seeking, a simple demonstration of the thrill of the chase.