The strange relationship between reality TV and movies continues, with producers concocting unscripted versions of everything from romantic comedies to horror. Now comes another slightly novel stab (or as novel as an imported format can be) at recasting reality as theatrical thriller in “The Phone” — a slickly produced, urgently paced exercise that only falls apart if you give it more than a moment’s thought. Think of it as “The Mole” with a pinch of “Fear Factor,” and a welcome break from the progeny of “The Hills,” which have made MTV come alive with the sound of Gen-Y narcissism.
Featuring an army of producers that includes Justin Timberlake, “The Phone” works very, very hard to erase its strings and earnestly create the sense that its “characters” are A) random Hitchcockian participants in this nail-biting plot, and B) at times in genuine peril. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
The show begins with four twentysomethings receiving an unexpected phone call. Well, not really so unexpected: Turns out they signed up months earlier to participate in a gameshow, and they’ve been told to go to this location and await instructions. At one site, a car explodes, and onlookers (presumably extras) gasp in shock, along with the contestants.
Their phones (ta-da!) subsequently ring, and the game begins: Find clues to stop the mad bomber. They’re divided into two teams and put through a series of stunts by “the operator,” Irish actor Emmett J. Scanlan, who wears a trenchcoat, speaks with great seriousness and ratchets up the camp factor to near-lethal levels.
The hour then becomes a kind of scavenger hunt with stunts — which, in the Seattle-based premiere, includes scaling the Space Needle. A final round of twists determines who walks away with as much as $50,000, and there are mental as well as physical challenges. These gameshow elements work better than the theatrical flourishes — which include, hilariously, having costumed cops “arrest” the bomber — but are also less distinctive.
Indeed, beyond the innumerable variations on romance and dating (see “Meet My Parents”), most efforts to adapt other movie conventions to TV (see “13: Fear is Real,” “Cha$e,” “The Runner”) wind up looking like precisely what they are: cheap knockoffs with untrained actors. So while “The Phone” is somewhat fun as a game, it’s inane as “North by Northwest” Lite, which appears to be the device meant to set it apart.
For all that, it’s easy to admire the ingenuity and effort that went into fabricating a thriller-like experience, even without buying into it. “The Phone” almost lost me at “hello” with its odd concept, but as experiments in reality go, it’s not a completely bad call.