I realized after Season 1 of The Tunnel that I was going to want to participate, even if I was the creator and even if I knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. We were going to raise the stakes, and the finale of Season 2 was going to be out of this world. Perhaps a bloodbath, perhaps a meditation on human frailty, but we were paying two separate orchestras a lot of money to create bombastic scores for the last and next-to-last episode of Season 2.
I originally had this idea for a television show where a secret society had perfected time travel and a tourism agency had stolen it, allowing people to go back in time to major historical events. The plot of virtually every episode was going to be the same – tourists go back in time and do something that messes up our eternal timeline, the government agency goes back and cleans up the mess. A librarian leading a double life was the main protagonist, and he was in love with Marie Antoinette. High concept? Yeah. But it was essentially Back to the Future, every week, and I thought that the American public would eventually bite for the historical set pieces alone. The pilot took place on the Titanic. It was going to be gold.
But then that tanked because the production company pulled out and the librarian lead got his wife pregnant and eschewed acting all together, and then the network pulled the plug and I was left with a half-shot pilot and a lot of extra time on my hands to pitch new stories. I was also pretty poor because in an amphetamine haze I decided to pour a lot of my own money into that pilot and I learned what James Cameron learned a decade and a half before me – the Titanic is an expensive boat.
I kept having this dream where a beautiful woman in a gold bikini covered me in honey poured from a golden goblet and then I was ushered into a subway tunnel full of money whipping around me, and I grabbed at it and stuck it to myself. I would wake up with my bedsheets stripped, but then I would get a cup of coffee and waste time looking out the window and thinking about ways to make a wind tunnel full of money a reality. I was pretty sure I’d seen it somewhere before – maybe on a stunt show or something, but I started asking “what if?” questions and I knew I was coming up with a pilot for a reality game show.
I pitched The Tunnel like this: It’s Survivor meets American Idol by way of Fear Factor. People explain their ideas of the crazy thing they were going to do to a panel of former State Supreme Court judges, and those judges tell them how long they get to spend in the wind tunnel full of money. Each episode will start at an American Idol-style pitch meeting, then transition to someone doing their stunt, and then last week’s contestant in the tunnel full of money, wildly grabbing in front of a studio audience.
Vouchers for free cars, fabulous vacations, new houses and shopping sprees whipped around in the eponymous Tunnel. The smallest dollar bill denomination was 100 dollars.
The catch? We devised no safety net. If the stunt was dangerous, it was the contestant’s danger. The entire world would hold their breath.
The network that pulled funding from my time travel television show (called Paradox, by the way) ponied up the cash for the first season of The Tunnel and it was far and away the most highly rated show on all of television. It pulled Superbowl-esque ratings every week. Other networks stopped programming anything against it, instead, they bought syndication rights for the previous weeks’ episode – by the episode.
I watched a man try to fight a California Black Bear (eight minutes in the tunnel). A woman played a grandiose game of chicken in her Ford Taurus against a Ford Prius (Ford was our sponsor) (four minutes). A twin brother duo deep sea dove into the Mariana Trench and then fought a robotic shark (twelve minutes). Another man spent a hellish 15 days at the bottom of a well – climbing out on the 15th day to a cheering viewing public (fifteen minutes).
And I kept having my dream. I helped edit the live broadcast of the stunts and did the legwork getting sponsors to give away wild prizes in the tunnel, but every night, I’d fall asleep and dream of the woman in the gold bikini pouring honey on me, and then I would get into the tunnel. The idea entranced me as much as it caught the imagination of any of our crackpots on the show.
When Season 1 finished, the executive producers of the show said that Season 2 had to be bigger. Bigger stunts, bigger cash rewards, bigger boobs on the bikini girl. And I told them fine, do whatever they wanted, the idea was never my baby. When they came back at me with the idea for a Battle Royale at the end of Season 2 between all the stunt survivors for 10 million dollars, tax free, I told them sure, without really thinking about it.
Instead, I was covering legal pads with ideas of how I could get onto the show and stay in the tunnel for the longest time yet. Some self-styled experts started valuing a minute in the tunnel at 25,000 dollars, but that wasn’t why I wanted to do it. I had enough money. I just wanted to feel what it was like to be in the tunnel that I created, to live the dream that I had dreamt so many nights, to get through a nightmare and be rewarded handsomely.
Every evening I’d pour a glass of wine and write down ideas. Hang-gliding. Parachuting. Lava. Fire. What scared me? What was I afraid of?