When you think of Panama, you may think of hats or canals or tropical rain forests. You may not think of skyscrapers, but you should.
In the 21st century, a construction boom has hit the Central American nation’s capital of Panama City, sending up a forest of tall buildings, including the 70-story Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower and the twisting glass 52-floor F&F Tower.
Still under construction is the Oceania Business Plaza, two blue glass towers joined by a sky bridge, with a smaller building below that boasts a park on its roof, complete with grass and trees.
On this warm, sunny February day, it’s the setting for a spectacular stunt that’s part of “The Hero,” a competitive reality series premiering Thursday (June 6) on TNT. Pro wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is executive producer, host and mentor for the series, in which 10 contestants face challenges that test their strength, courage, mental sharpness and even their morality.
The audience will get to follow the competition not only on television but through multiple social-media platforms and ultimately will get to vote on the winner of the ultimate cash prize. The final amount of the prize depends on how many competitors take money offered for the individual challenges instead of returning it to the pot for the finale.
On this day, the contestants are split into teams and perched on a platform atop the sky bridge. Wearing a harness attached to a rope, they must leap out from the platform, grab a clue dangling from a pole and descend to the grass below.
In between challenges, the contestants live in a luxury condo in an unfinished building — one of many in Panama City. On the day before the Oceania challenge, Johnson sits down for a chat in a condo just below the one the contestants inhabit.
With a spectacular view of skyscrapers and the ocean harbor behind him, he recalls one of his inspirational speeches, saying, “What I was trying to bring back to these guys today, to remind them that it’s very easy to be myopic once you get fatigued and emotional.
“This show is designed to create epic moments for you. You guys are going to go through stuff. You’re tired; you’ve got to work through it. You’ve got to perform better than others under stress, but keep in mind why you’re here. America’s going to enjoy living vicariously through you and creating these epic moments. So in that spirit, they understood the show is going to be different.”
As to what would make people want to fly to a foreign land and put their lives in danger, Johnson tells Zap2it, “I think everybody’s driven by something different. In this case, whether it’s a trauma surgeon or a SWAT officer or the female boxer, the hair salon employee, all the cast, everybody’s driven for different reasons to challenge themselves.”
Other challenges take the potential heroes into the wilderness, through twisting streets in older neighborhoods of the city, down into the water — and to the top of the towering Millennium Bridge, which spans the Panama Canal.
On an earlier day of filming, one of the contestants perches high atop one of the bridge supports, which are connected by cables to the bridge deck. As a camera helicopter circles overhead, the contestant must rappel down the side of the column, swinging out to the cables to grab clues to a riddle.
If the contestant makes it to the bridge deck, the riddle must be solved in front of Johnson. Then there will be a decision whether to take the prize money for the challenge or toss it back into the pot to increase the amount awarded to the ultimate victor.
As for the moral aspect, Johnson says, “One of the main things I brought up today is the importance of empathy and understanding people. Not only is it important in life, but it’s important in this show. It’s maybe one of the elements that can set us apart.”
David Eilenberg — senior vice president of unscripted development for TNT and TBS — who’s on hand for the filming, asserts that fans will find someone to believe in when it comes time to cast their votes.
“This is both casting structure,” he says, “and what The Rock is able to inspire in people, is there are people in this cast that I think are going to come off as, and are, really noble. They’re really genuinely trying to do the right thing. I don’t think anybody’s going to feel like they have a series of bad options. I think it’s actually going to be hard to choose.”