The 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man, based extremely loosely on a novel by Stephen King, is not the most likely candidate for eerie prescience, what with its preponderance of lycra jumpsuits and prominent supporting role for former Family Feud host Richard Dawson. But its vision of a TV-obsessed world where everyone watches sadistic competition shows featuring literal death sport is getting closer and closer to coming true every day; by the time we get to the movie’s 2017 setting, we may indeed be forcing convicted criminals to outrun sadistic gladiators with souped-up chain saws on national TV.
In the meantime, Sci Fi is doing what it can to bring us the next best thing. In a way it’s appropriate that the network sort of dedicated to science fiction is airing game shows that look like they could come from a dystopian future. The first and most Running Man-like is Cha$e (Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), which, like The Running Man, sets a group of contestants loose in a contained environment to race to a finish line while being pursued by dangerous antagonists. The show’s pursuers are called Hunters, and they dress like Agent Smith from The Matrix and get point-of-view shots that make them appear to be Terminators. Although they stalk the contestants implacably through various real-world locales, their “kill” technique doesn’t involve actual physical harm or even some sort of harmless fake shooting; no, the Hunters merely tag out the contestants they catch.
One thing that Cha$e is stuck with that Hollywood movies are able to avoid is human cowardice. In a Schwarzenegger movie, the characters will of course do brave but stupid things to save their compatriots and engage their attackers. In real life, if someone is coming after you, you’re probably not going to jump out and confront them. Thus, Cha$e is more The Hiding Man than The Running Man, and despite the many incentives the producers give the contestants to interact with each other and risk capture to obtain valuable Hunter-deflecting items, the show is mostly boring shots of people wandering around looking at maps and standing in warehouses waiting for the clock to run out so they can be the last one standing.
If Cha$e is trying to emulate a sci-fi movie, then Estate of Panic (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) is doing the same for horror. Set in a creepy mansion presided over by a devilish lord and his mute butler, it evokes both classic haunted-house stories and the deathtrap-oriented plots of the Saw series. Here contestants must search through various areas of the estate for hidden reserves of cash, all while being tormented in far more dangerous ways than the runners on Cha$e. They may be trapped in a room rapidly filling up with water (and snakes), or tangled in wires that give them constant electric shocks. The chance to win a relatively small cash prize seems far outweighed by the suffering of going through the challenges, but of course there’s no shortage of willing participants.
Unlike Cha$e, Panic creates a constant sense of imminent peril such that its contestants are never able to escape from the manufactured confrontations. Thus, it’s far more suspenseful, but in a sickening, I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this sort of way, and the result is not so much excitement as despair. No one really gets hurt on Panic, but it seems entirely possible that they could, and not even in a wacky way like people bouncing off of giant rubber balls on Wipeout. It’s about as close to actual, real torture as you’ll find on a TV show that isn’t the news. As we learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is the future.