Treasure Hunters, which premieres tomorrow night on NBC and moves to Mondays thereafter, is really no more than the globe-trotting CBS reality-competition series The Amazing Race dressed in the clothes of the 2004 Nicolas Cage action film National Treasure.
That film was about a hoard of loot hidden by the Founding Fathers behind a series of Da Vinci Code-style firewalls, brain teasers and locked boxes, and though the resemblances may not be technically actionable, if the network legal department has done its job, they are close enough that we may reasonably imagine Jerry Bruckheimer - producer of both The Amazing Race and National Treasure, oddly - wondering just what is up with that.
Still, given that people are usually happy to be given another version of something they already like, and judging by the success of its constituent parts, I would expect this series to do well.
Survivor is, of course, also among its ancestors, the very model of the modern let's-pretend game show. (I detect hints as well of Cannonball Run and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.) The stage here is set with some burble about "the secrets of history," "hidden messages left by our forefathers" and "seven mysterious artifacts" that "protect the secret of the key" to a treasure whose "location is guarded by an ancient secret society that still exists today." (Not Opus Dei, I am guessing.)
You should not expect too much of an actual story to emerge from this hodgepodge of themed puzzles, scenic romps and bold product placement (Visa cards, Motorola RAZR cell phones, Ask.com and Orbitz.com, "a crucial tool for booking your travel along the hunt"). But the narrative decorations are inextricable from the fun, in the same way that Candyland or Uncle Wiggly give a little life to moving pieces around a board or Disneyland clothes a roller coaster in the trappings of a trip through space, a runaway mine train, an alpine adventure.
Ten teams of three hunt for clues that send them to puzzles whose solution hurries them on to their next destination; in tomorrow's opener, all roads lead, through jungles and across glaciers, to Mount Rushmore, just like in North by Northwest, where the first team will be eliminated.
Most of the contestants are young-to-youngish, sensibly enough, given all the running and climbing and swimming and diving and huffing and puffing involved, and a disproportionate number seem to be from Texas.
It's become commonplace to claim that the advantage of reality shows is that ordinary folks are inherently more interesting and (by definition) more authentic than what writers are making up these days. And though it is true that many working screenwriters have no ear for the way people actually talk, what the average Joe or Jane has to say is not always interesting either, or immune from cliche.
What reality TV does offer, however, that its invented competition largely does not, is a real sense of place. Non-reality television habitually substitutes one place for another in the name of practicality or economy. Treasure Hunters puts you exactly where it claims to put you: in the choppy waters off Maui, or on an Alaskan glacier, or the steps of the Nebraska State House, and does you the favor of photographing them well. This is exciting in itself, regardless of what the contestants are up to, and makes Treasure Hunters an ideal summer entertainment for armchair travelers.
"Treasure Hunters" airs 8 p.m. to 10 p. m. tomorrow on NBC. Its regular time is 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays. Rating: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children; advisory for coarse language)
Robert Lloyd writes for the Los Angeles Times.