By Courtney Thomas
The Great Escapists finds television personalities Richard Hammond and Tory Belleci on a deserted island. Their friendship is pushed to its limits and they complete impressive works of engineering in their attempts to get rescued and make the island more comfortable. The premise, watching car expert Hammond and Belleci of Mythbusters fame engineer their way out of a shipwreck scenario sounds like it would play to the presenters’ strengths, but rather than focusing on the technical challenges, the show is subsumed by its uninteresting, sitcom-esque subplot.
Richard Hammond, a charismatic former host of the BBC’s Top Gear and one of the stars of Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour, has, on occasion, found himself in wilderness survival scenarios that make for great television. In one memorable Top Gear episode, Hammond was dropped in a remote Canadian forest to test the distress beacon on a wristwatch. Waiting for his comrades to rescue him, the dangerous cold seemed to have real stakes, and Hammonnd’s rage at his situation contrasted with his fellow presenters’ nonchalance was genuinely funny.
Not so in The Great Escapists. Viewing it will make you appreciate good writing, because this show hasn’t got any.
The problems begin with the framing story. Hammond and Belleci are being interviewed by some sort of customs agents or officials from the country whose coast guard rescued them, and they tell about their time on the island through flashbacks. The agents are perpetually unimpressed, which distresses Hammond and Belleci, who are used to meeting fans. It’s cringe-worthy, but the plot device is featured in every episode.
In addition to the flashbacks, within the storyline Belleci and Hammond record videos as if for television while on the island. They manage to dry out and charge a washed up camcorder and cellphone and they make messages for their families and their imagined audience. They pay great attention to the feasibility of drying out these devices, but it only serves to make the parts of the series filmed by real crews seem even more fake by contrast.
Throughout the series, the two play one-dimensional versions of themselves. Hammond exaggerates his egotistical celebrity persona and insists constantly that island life is worth embracing. Meanwhile, Bellici’s every third line is “We need to get off the island!” The conflict is forced but ever present, and exhaustingly, every engineering project is tied back to it.
The engineering challenges are the most successful, and Belleci in particular does better explaining the projects than in the semi-scripted bits of manufactured conflict. He finds a way to melt glass bottles to create a lens, which he then uses to shine light towards any ships that might pass by at night, and he sources chemicals to create rocket fuel for signal flares. The projects themselves are undeniably cool, including a steamboat, a tank, and a gyrocopter, but they are given too little screen time compared to the story and conflict.
Instead of trying to sell the shipwreck narrative, the show should have used the task-based format both presenters thrive in. In Top Gear and The Grand Tour, the producers gave the presenters mystery tasks which they had to complete using the cars they’d chosen. The banter seemed to arise naturally. In Mythbusters, the set quests were the myths, and the presenters did builds in order to demonstrate scientific principles and replicate the conditions of each urban legend they put to the test.
Unfortunately, the builds for most of the engineering feats in The Great Escapists are not shown, indicating that Hammond and Belleci probably did not complete them on their own or using only the tools that could have plausibly been on a boat. In episode one, a huge multi-room, multi-story fort is constructed out of island trees, boat scrap and driftwood. Even with as much know-how as Belleci and Hammond have, for a team of just two, the build would have taken weeks. For what is essentially an engineering show-off show, the practical facets of the projects are only lightly depicted.
The show has one good joke early on, but unfortunately it gets extended to death. Hammond sees a half deflated soccer ball among the ship wreckage and remarks “Old, leathery, out of shape… I’ll call you Clarkson!” in reference to Jeremy Clarkson, his fellow Grand Tour presenter. The soccer ball then becomes the head for a dummy that serves as a cross between Wilson, the volleyball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway (2000), and Buster, the Mythbusters crash-test dummy. Rather than letting Clarkson be a tool, however, Hammond and Belleci’s characters refer to him so frequently that the agents in the framing story understand him to be a third man.
The series should have been shorter, and Belleci and Hammond should have trusted their natural chemistry instead of forcing so many fights. Few of the choices make sense, and at the end of the day, the impressive forts and vehicles can’t make up for the badly written scenes interspersed throughout. As a result of the insistence that every material came from the shipwrecked boat, the show feels fake. How could they expect the audience not to notice that Belleci had to jerry rig a way to weld, but had a welding helmet on hand? The show never commits to an audience, at times targeting children and at others the Top Gear crowd. Mostly, the show is a disappointment because it has occasional glimpses of what could have been a strong show about the wealth of engineering possibilities a few resources can offer.