It’s hard to know whom to root for in “Hunted,” the new reality show on CBS. On the one hand, there are the “fugitives”—ordinary people who, in teams of two, go into hiding for twenty-eight days, within a hundred-thousand-square-mile area of the American southeast. On the other, there are the manhunters charged with finding them—veterans of the F.B.I., C.I.A., N.S.A., and U.S. Marshals, among other agencies, who specialize in catching criminals and terrorists on the run. In theory, we should side with the fugitives: all they want is to win two hundred and fifty thousand dollars while evading capture in our increasingly authoritarian surveillance state. The manhunters, however, are undeniably appealing. They may be (slightly) less photogenic than their counterparts on “Quantico,” “NCIS,” and “Homeland,” but they’re clever and professional—real-life Good Guys charged with protecting us. If reality television thrives on ambivalence (about the Real Housewives, the Kardashians, the contestants on “America’s Got Talent”), then the ambivalence one feels while watching “Hunted” is civic. Who are you more afraid of—terrorists or the state?
In recent days, the Trump Administration has discussed requiring incoming travellers from certain countries to provide lists of the Web sites that they’ve visited and their passwords. In the U.K., a new law has given the government sweeping surveillance powers enjoyed by no other Western nation. In many ways, “Hunted,” which combines digital-age paranoia with law-and-order patriotism by means of a dystopian game show, is the ideal reality series for the Trump era. Tonally, it’s an exercise in educational schadenfreude: it’s both creepy and satisfying to see how people get caught. Lenny DePaul, a former U.S. marshal who runs the field operation on “Hunted,” sends watchful ex-military types with nicknames like “Griff,” “Buck,” and “Shadow” to search the contestants’ apartments and interview their spouses and children. Theresa Payton, who served as the chief information officer in the George W. Bush White House, heads the show’s cyber-intelligence team, ordering her analysts to listen in on phone conversations, hack e-mail accounts, and scrutinize CCTV footage. The fugitives, meanwhile, struggle to erase the digital traces they’ve left behind. In the second episode, two fugitives—a forty-something couple who pray, occasionally, for God’s help evading the hunters—are hiding in a swamp; the investigators surmise that, at some point, they’ll have return to civilization to stay with friends. The question is, which friends? Payton asks her investigators to hack into the couples’ Facebook accounts; there, she has them post a wanted ad—a provocation for the fugitives’ “circle of trust.” When people begin to comment on the ad, Payton puts their names on a list; her team then looks back through a few years’ worth of Facebook posts, paying special attention to the listed friends. They notice that one friendship is especially tight; whenever that particular friend posts something, one of the fugitives likes it. As it turns out—spoiler alert!—the likes don’t lie. When DePaul dispatches agents to the friend’s house, they find the couple there and apprehend them. Such is the remorseless logic of the manhunt. Every tangle of unpredictable behavior harbors at least one entirely predictable thread.
“Hunted” is, of course, a tightly edited, streamlined reality-TV confection, complete with dramatic music and pre-commercial cliffhangers. I had assumed, therefore, that the search was also gussied up, even predetermined—but, when I met DePaul and Payton recently, they praised the show’s authenticity. “Sure, we knew it was a game,” DePaul said. “But once the light turned green and we hit jump street the adrenaline rush was the same. We wanted to catch the bad guys.” He chuckled. “I mean, they’re not actually bad guys, but you know what I mean.”
I joined DePaul and Payton for lunch at Primola, a clubby Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. DePaul discovered the place when, from 2006 to 2013, he commanded the U.S. Marshals New York/New Jersey Fugitive Task Force. Bearded, fit, and voluble, he is extravagantly extroverted—a gifted storyteller and friend to all (except those he hunts). During his twenty-nine-year career, he guarded John Gotti —“Sneak down to Little Italy and bring back some sandwiches,” Gotti would plead—and helped capture the Boston Marathon bombers and the D.C. snipers; he is now retired, and finds that he misses the thrill of the hunt. Surveying an appetizer of salami and cheese, he said, “Hemingway was right: ‘Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it never really care for anything else.’ ”
Payton resembles the long-lost sister of Amy Adams and Kristen Wiig. She now runs a cybersecurity firm that, among other things, catches spies in the act of industrial espionage. She is a fitness nut who, while shooting “Hunted,” completed a “burpee challenge,” maxing out at five hundred squat-plank-pushup combinations. Like veterans who served in the same unit, DePaul and Payton now finish each other’s sentences.
DePaul has found working on “Hunted” surprisingly satisfying, in part because the fugitives were often resourceful—they hid in woods and on the water, and used all sorts of technological tricks to disguise their trails—and in part because the manhunt had realistic resources at its disposal. “We had access to confidential informant funding,” he said. “Like, ‘There are some guys hiding in a bunker around here—a hundred bucks if you tell us where they are.’ We had thermal vision, helicopters, K-9 …”
“We had a tip line,” Payton said. “Facial recognition. Drones.”
“We hung up wanted posters,” DePaul continued. (True, the posters acknowledged the artificiality of the hunt—“This individual is voluntarily ‘on the run’ as part of a NEW TELEVISION SERIES,” one read—but they got the job done.) In key respects, the show simulated the limitations of the law: the investigators found themselves waiting on simulated subpoenas. Conversely, there were ways in which the simulated manhunt couldn’t match the real one.
“Contacting real law enforcement to do true A.P.B.s—we didn’t have that,” Payton said.
Are there top-secret resources, I asked, used in real life, that couldn’t be used on television?
“Of course there are!” DePaul said. “There are trade secrets in our community that we don’t talk about—”
“—And that’s the end of this, or we stomp on your phone!” Payton said, perhaps only half in jest, while DePaul laughed. He hazarded that the onscreen manhunt was between seventy and eighty per cent as intense as the real thing. The most inauthentic part of the experience, from his point of view, was the tight polo shirt that the wardrobe department made him wear. “I got friends texting me, saying, ‘Lenny, what are you doing? What is that, a size medium?’ ”
In the first episode, a ludicrously attractive couple named Matt and Christina—he is a former college basketball player, she is the former Miss South Carolina—are apprehended after using an A.T.M. in a bus station. (“That was a rookie mistake,” Payton said. “We almost wanted to give them a do-over.”) Part of the pleasure of watching the show, obviously, is imagining that you could escape the hunters; why, I wondered, do people even bother to run? Why not just hide out in the woods for a month, eating tuna fish and planning your spending spree? “People think they can be in a bunker for twenty-eight days, not interacting with the rest of the planet, just the two of them,” she explained, toying with a baked clam. “But, honestly, that could be its own reality show—two people trapped in a bunker for twenty-eight days! No way. They’d want sunshine, they’d want air, they’d need supplies. They’d get on each other’s nerves and call somebody to complain about it.”
“Eventually, you’re going to need human contact,” DePaul confirmed. (In the British version of “Hunted,” which premièred in 2015, one team emerges from hiding to hop into town “for a curry”; another decides to get a beer in a pub. Both are caught.) “You’re gonna slip up, and we’re gonna be all over you like a cheap suit.”
Giuliano, the restaurant’s owner, approached the table. “Lenny!” he exclaimed.
“Here’s the question,” DePaul said. “Did you watch the CBS show?”
“We débuted Sunday night!” Payton said.
“Channel 2,” DePaul said.
“Channel 2? No kidding!” Giuliano addressed the table. “I always tell him, one day he’s gonna be a star.”
While DePaul ordered his usual (the seafood risotto) and Payton asked for salmon and broccoli, I found myself wondering about technology. In part because of shows like “Mr. Robot,” Americans are now familiar with digital tools like Signal (which lets you create anonymous digital phone numbers) and Tor (a browser that confounds digital eavesdroppers). We think that we’ve wised up—we imagine that we know how to cover our digital footprints. “There’s one team on the show that uses Tor,” Payton said, nodding. “But not everybody in their circle of trust uses it. Fugitives think they can delete their accounts and stay off the grid, but the rest of their circle that’s helping them is not off the grid. You just have to follow the signals.”
“You gotta give some of these guys ‘A’ for effort,” DePaul conceded. “But when you’re dealing with people like us—”
“—it’s, like, ‘Aw, that’s really cute! Good job!’ ” Payton said, laughing.
On “Hunted,” Payton and DePaul report to Robert W. Clark, the former head of the F.B.I.’s anti-gang unit for Los Angeles. He’s the guy who strides into the command center, slaps two photos on the whiteboard, and says, “I want these folks caught!” Clark estimates that, over the course of his career, he’s been responsible for the arrest of sixty-eight hundred people. On the phone, he told me that DePaul and Payton have a gift for understanding human nature. “When you’re on a manhunt, you learn about a person’s friends, family, job, upbringing, interests, hobbies,” he said. “Most people, they see all that, and it looks to them like a van Gogh painting. A guy like Lenny DePaul will come into the room and see a perfect Mona Lisa. He’ll focus it down to a picture where he can anticipate what that person’s thinking, what their next move’s going to be.”
For DePaul, who comes from a large Italian family in Utica, New York, grew up around policemen. “I had an uncle who was a detective,” he recalled, “and on Sundays we’d have him over for dinner. He’d tell stories—the same frickin’ stories every Sunday, but I would sit there and just stay glued to the guy. Big guy, six-six—Rocco, we called him.”
“That’s your dog’s name,” Payton said.
“I’ve had five Shepherds, and they’re all named Rocco,” DePaul said. He now lives on the North Shore of Long Island with his wife, an executive in the shoe division of Elie Tahari. He’s a regular guy: his hobbies, he said, are “watching football, watching baseball, and smoking cigars.” He lifts weights. His favorite television show is “24.” “Jack Bauer: that guy never had to go to the bathroom or charge his cell phone!” DePaul said.
DePaul likes the chase—the helicopter swooping in, the field agents at a sprint. Payton, by contrast, takes a slower approach. One fugitive on the show is an author; she investigates the people whom he lists in his book’s acknowledgments. Later, in a moment of determined frustration, she declares, “I’m gonna surveil every single person in their circle of trust, and somewhere I’m going to find David and Emiley!” Payton, in short, is good at spying on people. At the same time, she has an ambivalent attitude toward surveillance technology. (At one point in the show, she warns, darkly, that “the Internet never forgets.”) I told her that I had found moments in “Hunted” unnerving, even disturbing—at one point, for example, the investigators comb through a fugitive’s Internet search history; they discover that he likes kayaking, and focus their search around a lake. “I like to say the show should ‘engage and enrage,’ ” she said. “History will decide if Edward Snowden was a traitor or a hero; I don’t like the fact that people suffered out in the field because of the information that was disclosed. But he did open a dialogue that needed to happen for a long time.”
“Hunted” unfolds in a confusing moral world. When a group of bystanders, after seeing a wanted poster, debate turning some fugitives in, it’s hard to say whether they’re informers or good citizens. In other television shows, we watch investigators hunt down terrorists. On “Hunted,” we watch them pursue realtors, lawyers, doctors, and househusbands. Two of the contestants, Aarif Mirza and Immad Ahmed, are Pakistani-American Muslims; Aarif works in marketing and Immad runs a nonprofit that helps refugees. (“I’m American, I wear shorts,” Aarif says, when asked to describe himself. “I’m just trying to get a cheeseburger.”) In a recent episode, Aarif and Immad shave off their beards to avoid detection. Will this gambit fool Payton and DePaul? Do we want it to?
The hunters sometimes think about these questions. For the most part, though, they focus on the work. Over biscotti and a cappuccino, DePaul said that it is all-consuming. “Cop-killer cases, the D.C. snipers, the Boston bombers—those cases, you want to put them to bed in a hurry before anyone else gets hurt.” He often dreams about manhunts. “How about night sweats? How about jumping up in bed at night?” he said. “You’re always visualizing. What if?”
Payton agreed. “The first couple of nights after we were done, I was still doing ‘Hunted’ in my dreams,” she said. “I was in a helicopter flying over the woods. The field agents were, like, ‘We’re tired, we’re beat, but we know they’re here …’ And I was, like, ‘Oh, send me!’ I jumped out of the helicopter and started running through the woods.”
“Did you catch them?” DePaul asked.
“I caught ’em!” Payton laughed. “I woke up and was, like, ‘That was awesome!’ ”