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Escape the Complex is an American reality competition show on RLV Network based on the global phenomenon of escape rooms. The competition involves sixteen contestants, known as Escapists, battling against one another to complete various missions with the goal of navigating themselves out of an elaborate structure in an isolated location. The filming of the show typically takes twenty-four days. Contestants are ejected from the game after each flight and would eventually form the jury to determine who will win the escapade and a US$250,000 grand prize.

The show was created by Greene Gantly, Scotsman Starter, and Mai Thellaroniki who also serve as executive producers. The show is produced by Chico Reid Productions Inc. and distributed by RLV Studios, a veteran reality competition network that aired the hit series RachelLeVega's The Amazing Race. The series has been hosted by Broadway actor and dancer Mikal Vexborough since its inception.

Overview

The format of the show involves contestants who have to maneuver through The Complex, a habitable escape passage of four themed chambers revealed progressively through the show. Each chamber is equipped with over 60 high-definition cameras and 300 overhead microphones in order to monitor and record the contestants. Escapists had to wear necklace microphones during the times they were awake. Cameras and microphones are reinstalled into new areas after each quadrant is finished filming. Gantly and Thellaroniki have likened The Complex to a "fully automated building" where missions, known as flights, and time spent in each room are monitored to unlock at specific times of the day.

Escapists reside in the escape passage of the chamber they are competing in. Before starting the show, they were required to fill a 12.5 inch by 17.85 inch (31.75 centimeter by 45.34 centimeter) container provided by the show, typically a crate, with their belongings including a limited supply of wardrobe, hygiene essentials, and other approved paraphernalia they wanted to bring into The Complex. When they are ordered to transfer chambers, they have five minutes to gather their belongings and move to the next Guest Room. Any items left behind are described as "destroyed"; however, Kandace Moressey (who had forgotten her hairbrush in the first chamber) in the first season revealed her lost item was mailed back home.

Prior to each flight, Escapists are delivered an objective from the dumbwaiter in their Guest Room. The message is usually represented in some kind of cryptic message. When the crawlspace unlocks into their current Chamber, Escapists must deduce clues and tips around the setting to uncover the route of retreat to a containment zone. While solving the main objective, hidden objects (e.g. a key, a gumball, a candy tin) or a minigame are in play, which once properly utilized or won, activated a safety position known as the Penthouse. Once the eligible number of Escapists claim this power, they become safe from ejection and ineligible to solve the main objective. They must then retreat back to the Guest Room where a luxury living space is unlocked for their use. The two or sole Escapists who solve the main objective and submit their key into a port receive a higher power position in that flight, known as The Committee, in which the eligible number of Escapists win a key to the Antechamber where they must create an ejection shortlist of potential Escapists up for elimination. When there are two or more Committee members, they are separated by dividers to submit their individual shortlists. The first person who locks in their shortlist relinquishes the second person from shortlisting the same Escapists.

All Escapists convene at the Ejection Hall following nominations where the shortlisted Escapists are named off and must sit in the drop bungee system used for ejection. During the ejection ceremony, the Escapists could comment on, inquire, and question the shortlisted Escapists for no more than thirty minutes before they must privately vote on who to eject from the show by sliding a chip into the cylinder of the Escapist they want to eject. The Committee is generally not allowed to vote unless a tie occurs. If a tie results on flights involving two Committee members, a short duel takes place between the members to cast the sole vote (usually archery in the first chamber, and a joystick maze in the second chamber).

In the final flight, the finalists must complete an obstacle course of puzzles through the fourth chamber usually topped off with a memory challenge about the game. The Escapist coming in last in this flight is eliminated and immediately sent to the jury. The final two would then travel to separate elevator platforms on the outside of the complex where they must convince the jury their reasons to be voted as the winner of the escape. To signify a successful escape, the platform would descend closer to ground level after each vote is read. The first escapist to touch the ground had their gate unlocked to "bask in their US$250,000 prize" from the possession of Vexborough before the runner-up could join the rest of the cast.

TV show's origin

Gantly and Thellaroniki, directors of numerous Oscar-winning productions, drew out concepts for escape rooms and puzzles, taking inspiration from action-disaster movies such as Armageddon and San Andreas, interiors of Japanese love hotels, and interactive art pop-ups to create a sci-fi exhibit for a museum. After Gantly discussed this research to Starter at Olive Garden, they joked about building a framework for a television show enveloped by these components, which offshooted into serious discussions about using the research to create a reality competition.

RLV Network greenlit the show in early 2015 as Escapada, the dropped titular namesake for The Complex. Broadway actor Mikal Vexborough was brought in to serve as the host after the series was officialized by the network.

The stylistic approach to automate The Complex after introducing the Escapists into the game was worked to set a 24-day operating schedule when and where flights and ejections would be carried out without the need for a physical presenter until the end of the season. Vexborough teased this feature in a pre-show interview with Morning Crashers Morning Show. This is also the first reality competition without the use of in-game confessionals.

The Complex arrangements

The location of the set for the first season was revealed to be at an abandoned garment factory outside of Victorville, California. Crews arrived about a month before filming to prepare the premises and create any necessary props for the escape passage. For seasons two and beyond, a new complex was constructed on Agua Dulce Movie Ranch in Santa Clarita. The overall schematics and design for these rooms reflect the themes for each season. Information in this section is general.

Chamber

The Chamber is the main competition space for each flight. Temporary walls and removable installations are used to create boundaries between the space, and scaffolding and concrete pillars with quick-fit steel trusses are assembled to add elevated floors after each flight. In some flights, the space becomes an open exhibit for novelty missions (a lifesize aquarium, a commercial jet, e.g.). Three chambers are built to signify each phase of competition. Challenge designers Jenni Parker and Ernesto Brigada worked with Derider & Frank Structural Engineering Firm to create the set design for each flight.

Concourse

The finalists reach an expansive multi-level competition space infused with elements of the past three Chambers which they had to maneuver through to claim two elevator shafts in a semi-outdoor space. Vexborough described this space on the first season as an "over-the-top obstacle course".

Guest Room

Escapists reside and interact with each other as roommates in the Guest Room. The sleeping quarters and communal bathroom is accessible from the Chamber by a remotely locking doorway. Minimal furniture is placed within the space. The room is also the dining space for the Escapists where they are served two portioned meals between flights. There are three Guest Rooms built, one per Chamber. Vexborough described the environment of this room was inspired by the "oneness of military barracks".

Penthouse

The Penthouse is accessible from all three Guest Rooms and contrasts the quality of the initial sleeping quarters, accommodating a lounge area, California king bed, private bathroom, a hot tub or sauna, a mini wet bar, and access to a personal chef. In season one, Escapists who win this prize could only interact with other Escapists for fifteen minutes after each mission has officially concluded before they were ordered to go back into the Penthouse until the ejection ceremony. From season two onward, other Escapists could enter the Penthouse as long as the reward winners are in the room and have invited them, but only for a maximum of one hour.

Antechamber

The Antechamber is a narrow room hidden in the hallway between the Chamber and Guest Room. The room is decorated to fit the theme of the current Chamber and holds a digital table surface displaying the names of available potential nominees. The room, whenever entered by the Committee to compile their shortlist, is stocked with an antipasti platter and a meal made courtesy of the personal chef from the Penthouse.

Ejection Hall

In each season, the ejection hall is located on a five to six-story-high elevated floor equipped with bleachers for the escapists and a unique drop bungee system suspended over the edge of The Complex. The escapists who make the shortlist would sit in the bungee system that is controlled by mechanical technicians behind scenes. The ejection method changes every season (dynamite plunger, slot machine, etc.).

Series details and viewership

Season Escapists Winner Runner-up Airdates Average viewers
(millions)
First aired Last aired
1 16
ShaniaBissingerProfile
 7 votes 
 
Shania Bissinger
LukeBaccarinProfile
 2 votes 
 
Luke Baccarin
March 8, 2016 May 24, 2016 4.136
2
 x votes 
 
Nicky Yermo
April 4, 2017 June 27, 2017 3.21

Controversies and criticisms

After the series was greenlit by RLV Network in 2015, the format of the show was criticized for taking elements of Big Brother and Survivor on its American sister station CBS, and Race to Escape on the cable network Science Channel which was then airing to a smaller audience turnout. Some viewers believed Escape was a "cash grab" over current trends, though many viewers were quick to praise the format for its originality.

Escape has been criticized following reports of (HIB) "harassment, intimidation, and bullying", obscene language, acted scenes, and the physical and mental strain of competing on the series. A couple of seasons have also been criticized for discrimination, racism, misogyny, and ageism, particularly Season 4.

Vexborough has been criticized for his use of racy euphemisms during the competition. On February 2, 2020, it was reported that Vexborough was under investigation for sexual harassment allegations brought about by two former crew members from the show and a former contestant. As a result, the show suspended production and returned to a cooloff phase as allegations were dropped in spring of 2021. The fifth season would resume filming following the coronavirus pandemic in early spring of 2022.

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