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Review: MTV's "The Phone"

April 21, 2009 |  1:40 pm

The-phone "The Phone," a new reality show premiering tonight on MTV, is a treasure hunt dressed up in the clothes of an action film — a clue leads to a puzzle, which yields to a clue, which leads to a puzzle, which leads to a clue, which leads to a test, which leads to a prize. While not a million miles away from shows like "The Mole" or "The Amazing Race," it is more insistently cinematic: a phony reality meant to look like a real film.

In tonight’s opener, the superimposed narrative concerns a "mad bomber" the players must locate and stop; the city of Seattle is the game board. (The title refers to the cellphone by which the four players receive the instructions — from Irish actor Emmett J. Scanlan as the Operator — that propel them through the game.) It’s good fun and exciting as intended.

That the show lists Justin Timberlake as an executive producer makes it newsworthy, at least to the extent that one feels compelled to note that the show lists Justin Timberlake as an executive producer. (Done.) He didn’t create it — the series is based on a Dutch show that has also been franchised to Australia. And it is not exactly of a piece with the rest of his work, apart from being on MTV and cast from and pitched to his peer group.

Most reality shows want you to take something highly manufactured for something spontaneously real; here, the idea is to make something partially real look totally invented, like a scripted movie. That "The Phone" relies on retakes, inserts, editing, off-camera coaching and choreographed stunts — that it manipulates time and space to its own ends — makes it more like a movie, yet no less like a reality show. You recognize the artifice, enjoy it as artifice, even as you submit to it.

As an actual story, it is as thin and preposterous as your average Hollywood action film, but (like your above-average Hollywood action film) the momentum carries you through the muddy bits and over the plot holes. Even with the imagined context of "The Phone," you don’t need to believe — or to suspend your disbelief — that there’s a bomber on the loose to enjoy the set-pieces and feel the suspense. The show’s pleasures are visceral and sensual. It looks great, moves fast and makes excellent use of the city — locations include Rem Koolhaas’ new Central Library, popular Pike Place Market, the monorail and the Space Needle. (Future episodes have also been filmed in New York and Boston.) And the producers don’t break the pace with the customary cutaways to players retrospectively commenting on the action, although they have clearly asked them to think aloud as the game goes on.

Fit young people with good wind and a tendency not to overly panic when asked to climb to the top of the Space Needle or bob for keys in a ship’s hold as it fills with water — a little panic is likely encouraged — the contestants are introduced in quick, broad but dramatically suggestive strokes. (This one is "afraid of fire, guns and heights," that one "doesn’t trust people too easily."). Yet while there is very little in the way of character development, even compared with most reality shows, the game is cleverly arranged so that character becomes the final deciding factor.

-- Robert Lloyd

(Photo courtesy MTV)