‘Evil genius’: The Bridge is addictive and deviously twisted TV

Few TV genres divide viewers as dramatically as reality TV. Some have an abiding aversion to it. They protest about its misleading label, pointing to its essential artifice; they’re irritated by the incessant recapping; and they object to casting designed to maximise conflict and controversy. They vow that they will never, ever, watch another reality show, and they declare it with the kind of conviction with which people used to announce that never watch anything but the ABC and SBS, before the streamers arrived to alter the TV landscape.

Then there are those who are happy to get hooked on reality TV. They eagerly anticipate each season of The Block, wondering what kind of properties will require renovation. They’ll merrily gather to guess who’s inside the Mirrorball costume on The Masked Singer and compare the latest Bachelor to his predecessors. They’ll argue the merits of the housemates on Big Brother and the cooks on MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules. They understand that “reality”, as we know it beyond TV, plays little part in this genre, and they don’t care.

An ethical dilemma is built into the concept of The Bridge: should the contestants play for themselves, or toil for the benefit of their team?Credit:Nigel Wright

The appeal lies elsewhere: in the sometimes-fiendishly constructed challenges; in the combustible collections of contestants; in the behaviour of people under pressure; and in a style of storytelling that induces them to stay tuned to find out what happens next.

If you’re part of the latter group, The Bridge (Paramount+) might be one for you. This polished production arrives featuring hallmarks of some of the series that have gone before – notably the pioneers, Survivor and Big Brother – yet puts its own spin on the genre. Not to be confused with the 2011 Swedish/Danish crime thriller of the same name, this production, shot at Lake Pieman on Tasmania’s west coast and produced locally by Endemol Shine, is based on the Spanish format introduced in 2017 by El Puente.

Making the most of the striking Tasmanian wilderness, it sees an initial group of 12 people allocated 17 days to build a 330-metre bridge from the water’s edge to an island in the middle of the lake. And, in one sign of the show’s impressive visual flair, towering over that island is an eerie beacon that glows with red lights, an inspired visual motif, like omnipresent evil eyes, and a device that occupies a central role in the contest. When the beacon’s lights flash, flares intermittently blast off from it and land in different places, where they trail red smoke, marking the site of a chest containing instructions for the bridge builders.

Beneath the beacon sits a cash prize of $250,000. However, in a final twist, which underlines the concept’s “evil genius”, if the task is completed within the allocated time, only one of the contestants can cross the bridge to claim the potentially life-changing loot. And whoever is voted by the others to take that coveted walk can decide if they want to keep it all for themselves or share it around. Quite a decision.

Tiana and Bardie at work on The Bridge.Credit:Nigel Wright

The show has a number of immediately appealing attributes. It looks terrific, making the most of its lush, remote location. It has a short-and-sweet season of six episodes and, in a sign of how swiftly the action moves, the contestants are determinedly carting logs to construct a raft within the first half hour. And because it’s screening on a subscription service, there are no ad breaks, and therefore no spaces within the episodes for annoying and unnecessary recaps.

Then there’s the narration, provided by Hugo Weaving, who delivers it with an authoritative, voice-of-God gravitas. When he uses his soft growl to tease with an upcoming twist – “For one, sparks of desire will become flames of betrayal” – the commentary assumes an almost Biblical resonance.

In addition, there’s the significant role of the beacon, which is an inventive way for the producers to insert challenges and twists, and one that quickly induces a Pavlovian-like reaction in the contestants. Alerted by its flashing lights to a flare blast, they rush to discover what the latest missive will bring. Sometimes it’s good news – additional equipment, yummy provisions – sometimes it’s not: maybe they’ll be instructed to vote out one of their teammates. And in an additional, devious twist, the contents of the chest might benefit the person who reaches it first: it could be an offer of money. So it can be worth racing to get there.

A dozen strangers are tasked with building a bridge, using rudimentary tools, rope and large timber logs. But only one of the group can cross the bridge to retrieve $250,000 in a trunk.Credit:Nigel Wright

The device also underlines what the genre’s detractors might describe as its lab-rats-in-a-maze quality. In reality shows, there are always two games under way: the one that the contestants are involved in and the one that the producers are playing with the cast and the audience. The beacon acts as a constant reminder of who’s controlling this game.

Woven into the fabric of contests like this one is the understanding that, along with the physical and mental challenges, there will be ethical dilemmas for the participants. Should the contestants play for themselves, or toil for the benefit of their team? What alliances should they form and how honest will they be about them? What compromises, or even betrayals, will they consider in order to improve their position? And if they make such choices, how will they justify that behaviour?

Watching the contestants grappling with such dilemmas can be compelling. And the complexity of these decisions is enhanced here by the casting, with the producers selecting a group that divides along race, gender and age lines, with tensions between them becoming more pronounced as the project progresses.

Those with that entrenched antipathy to the reality-TV genre might not be enticed by The Bridge. For the rest of us, though, this cleverly constructed, well shot and snappily paced series is an addictive winner which keeps the twists coming until the finale. Well played, Endemol Shine.

The Bridge is streaming on Paramount+.

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