Escape the room puzzle games are on TV and movie screens everywhere. So, from the perspective of an escape room game designer and owner, how well are they portrayed?
The episode of CBS’s 2 Broke Girls (s05e05, “And the Escape Room”) shows a team-building outing to an Alice in Wonderland-themed escape room.
Unfortunately, the team can’t stop sniping at each other in racist ways long enough to solve anything, the room is physically unstable and dangerous, and two people keep trying have sex during the game. Everything about this game, and this episode, is bad. Really bad.
There’s a brief start to the episode in which former socialite Caroline Channing (Beth Behrs) discovers that her streetwise roommate of four years Max Black (Kat Dennings) has been overcharging her $25 a month in rent. The premise of the show is that the girls are pooling their money equally, saving up to open a cupcake shop; every episode ends with a dollar total showing how much they have in the bank.
The girls work at a diner owned by Han Lee (Matthew Moy), a recent immigrant from South Korea. With them are co-workers Oleg (Jonathan Kite), a cook from Ukraine, and Earl (Garrett Morris), an 80-year-old cashier who’s worked at the diner since the 1960s.
It seems like every joke on this show is mocking someone’s race, height, body, sexuality, accent, social class, intelligence, or sexual history. Every character is a wafer-thin paper cutout stereotype. And there’s a laugh track inserted after every joke. As a viewer, it makes me nervous to think about spending the next 15-20 minutes watching these people locked into a small, stressful room together.
In the escape room sequence of the episode, the camera pans over an industrial lobby with an exposed brick wall and a large, heavy metal door. The cast walks in.
“Right this way,” Han says. He’s the boss, and the one who organized this outing.
“This looks like the room that trucker kept me in when he ‘borrowed’ me for three days,” Max says. The studio audience laughs, as if that’s somehow a joke and not a horrible trauma.
“Did you overcharge him, too?” Caroline asks. She’s pissed because she just found out that Max has been overcharging her for rent each month. Buckle in, because this will come up a lot. It’s pretty much the only plot point.
Han tells the group they’ll shortly find out where they are, so he clearly hasn’t briefed them about what they’re about to do. It’s all part of the mystery and adventure, he says.
“Oh no, this isn’t one of those escape rooms where they lock you in a room and you have to work as a team to get out,” Max says, more of a statement than a question.
“Welcome to the escape room!” says the attendant (John Milhiser), walking in. “Where we lock you in a room and you have to work as a team to get out.” Ba-dum-ching.
“And so it begins!” Han cries, delighted.
Max suggests that what’s going to begin is them “beating the crap” out of Han, and Oleg adds that it would be “together, of course.” Great start, team!
Still in the waiting room, Earl asks if he’s got it straight that the group willingly allows themselves to be locked in a small room, describing it as stuff white people like. He’s not wrong.
Han protests that it will teach them to work together to solve a problem. Max fires back, saying that if they could work together to solve a problem, they would have sent him back to Korea by now. (A reminder: this is her boss and they’re at a work function!)
Oleg says that he’s in no rush to get back to his wife Sophie, who’s putting him through his paces as she tries to become pregnant. He makes a reference to keeping his legs in the air during sex, which perplexes Caroline.
Finally, the escape room attendant comes back into the room.
He hands out safety waivers for each member of the group , telling them that if anything happens to them, it will be their fault. Caroline protests that nobody will sign them before reading fine print, but is cut off by everyone rushing through it and signing without reading.
I get that it’s meant to be a comedic moment, and maybe if the rest of the humor was working, I’d be more forgiving. But as an owner, this is painful to see. This is the moment where you need to teach people the rules of the room — everything from not climbing on furniture to how the emergency exits work — because this is what keeps people safe. Here, it’s just a sad, throwaway joke.
Max says that Caroline reads everything, including the entire iTunes user agreement before buying a Rihanna album. Caroline retorts that she wishes she’d read the fine print before agreeing to be Max’s roommate. Earl asks the attendant if escaping from those two is part of the game, and I am also wishing for this to be over.
The attendant tells the group that he’ll be collecting their phones so that they can’t google answers, and they place them into a large plastic basket. Oleg says to not look at his screensaver unless the attendant has a strong stomach. The attendant replies that he’s seen lots of things and isn’t easily shocked, but glances at the phone and recoils in disgust. “Why are your legs up?” he asks.
A light on the wall turns white, and the attendant says that’s the sign to go ahead and enter. Suddenly, Sophie bursts into the room, out of breath from running. She tracked Oleg’s phone so that they won’t miss part of their baby-making window.
Oleg tells her she shouldn’t be there because it’s a work function, but Han says it’s fine, because she does as much at the diner as the two girls. Sophie warns them that her app could go off at any time, with a cartoon monkey demanding she and Oleg have intercourse.
“Well that’s a fun wrinkle,” Han says.
As the team walks in, Earl announces that it’s the whitest thing he’s ever seen, “and he’s seen those shoes that have toes.”
Finally, they enter the room. It’s pitch black. Earl curses, and Caroline announces that she’s feeling “angry, scared, and both of Max’s boobs.” Max sarcastically asks her if that’s their version of make-up sex.
Sophie tells them to hang on a minute, because she has a pepper spray flashlight. She turns the flashlight on, and sprays Han right in the face. Max is into it (the pepper spraying, not the game). Han cringes, but recovers quickly.
Some lights turn on, illuminating a wall by the door. Sophie points out some “kooky light switches”, suggesting that the team should give them a try. Oleg walks over to the wall, which has several rows of light switches, all in the down position.
There’s a portrait of Albert Einstein over a plaque that says, Choose Correctly or Lose Five Minutes. Oleg doesn’t recognize him, which Max uses as an excuse to insult him.
Han counts the switches, seeing that there are 26 in total. Pattern recognition is a big part of puzzle-solving, because there are only so many ways that things can be encoded or ciphered. Seeing 26 of anything means there’s a good chance that we’re probably dealing with the English alphabet.
Caroline also points out that it’s one more dollar than the amount Max is stealing from her. (Number of times this has been mentioned thus far: 6, including 3 times before they reach the escape room)
Han asks for help, and Oleg makes the connection to the alphabet, thanking “Comrade Kangaroo” for teaching him English as a child.
Caroline asks which one could represent light, which Han notes starts with “L”. Sophie is impressed.
Caroline says it’s easy, and that it’s a portrait of Einstein which means the answer must be scientific. She notes that in the Theory of Relativity, e=mc2, light is represented by the letter “C”. She flips the third switch on the top row, and the lights turn on in the rest of the room.
The lights reveal an Alice in Wonderland themed-room with checkerboard floors, toadstools, and a lopsided tea party table.
The group gasps in appreciation. Caroline is especially excited, telling them she’ll be great at it, because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was always her favorite story. Oleg notes that Sophie and he have only ever seen “the hardcore porno version.” Sophie adds that it was titled “Alice in Underpants,” and that their dentist was in it.
The room attendant bursts out from behind an astroturf flower mound, now dressed as the Mad Hatter. Everyone jumps, startled. “That’s enough of all your chatter!” he proclaims. “It’s time to listen to the Mad Hatter!”
Han says that he thinks it’s the same guy as before, and Sophie says, sincerely, that Han is a genius.
The Mad Hatter puts a card in a timepiece, noting that they have one hour. He continues his performance, gesturing grandly over the tea party table.
“You filled this room with illumination, but you are not done with this situation,” he rhymes.
Max asks him what rhymes with “kick to the crotch.” (I have some suggestions…how about, “This, I do not want to watch”?)
He grimaces but continues on: “To proceed and be done with me, you must answer these riddles three.” Earl quips that the group should remember that he’s 80 years old.
The riddle continues: “One. Take it out of the package, it goes in your mouth. Chew it too long, and it will go south.”
“It’s what Earl’s doing right now,” Caroline says, pointing at his mouth, where he’s visibly chewing gum. “Oh Lord, am I peeing?” he asks.
Caroline repeats the rhyme, answering it correctly.
“Exactamente,” the Mad Hatter says. “That wasn’t too hard. Put your answer onto this card.”
He brandishes an oversized Queen of Hearts cart, presenting it to Earl. Earl dutifully places his gum onto the card. It’s not clear why, or what will be done with it.
Also, it’s pretty dang lucky they happened to have gum on them, if they’re required to have it to answer. What would have happened if they hadn’t had any? Would a verbal answer have been enough? Why the card?
Han congratulates them, saying that the Groupon has already paid for itself. Funny, but not for the reasons the show thinks — the use of Groupon is a hotly debated topic amongst escape room owners.
Time for the next riddle! “Two,” the Mad Hatter says. “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is big. Michael J. Fox’s is small. The Pope has one, but doesn’t use it. Madonna doesn’t have one at all.”
This is a common riddle, easily found online. So I guess they really did need to take their phones to prevent them from Googling answers.
“Dongs, the answer is dongs,” Oleg says. Cool. Thanks for getting that out of the way quickly, I guess.
Sophie makes a crude joke about Madonna. Max says that she used to think dongs were the answer to everything. Caroline solves the riddle: “Last names.”
“Correctamundo!” the game host chirps. “With your brain power, you’ll be out of here in under an hour.”
Caroline thanks him, but says that if she was that smart, she wouldn’t have spent the last four years getting ripped off by her roommate. (Mention count: 7)
Everyone in the group is tired of hearing about it too, at least. Sophie says her sister lost both of her thumbs in a combine accident and didn’t talk about it this much.
Earl gives Caroline some cash so that she’ll stop talking about it, and although Caroline takes it, she also says she won’t speak any more during the rest of the game.
Max says it’s fine, and that she doesn’t care if they ever get out. Unfortunately, that’s when we hear the haunting cry of the monkey on Sophie’s sex app. She says they’re going to have sex — cue the laugh track, and cut to commercial.
After the commercial break, we return to the group. Oleg and Sophie are not having sex. The Mad Hatter is holding oversized cards with quotes on them.
Everyone is begging Caroline to help, but she’s sitting on a toadstool pouting. Han says her feud is getting older than Randy’s accent, finally giving a name to our hapless Mad Hatter room attendant. He apologizes for dunking on Randy, saying he knew he’d be a safe target. Randy changes the timer from 30 minutes to 15 with another rhyme.
“Time moves forward, it doesn’t go back. You’ve got fifteen minutes; it’s forty five that you lack,” he tells them.
Max rallies the group, saying that they don’t need Caroline, since they were clever enough to figure out the wifi password to the women’s shelter next door to the diner where they work.
Han holds up a card that reads, “If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be,” asking the group who said it.
Max gestures to an illustration of Alice characters Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, suggesting that maybe it was the “fat twins”, since “it made no sense” and “they look like they get stoned a lot.”
She’s not wrong, actually; they did say that:
‘I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum; ‘but it isn’t so, nohow.’
‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’
The answer might be “logic”, or it might be the character names. There’s a lightbulb above their portrait, but it doesn’t go on, so it’s not clear what the input method is for the answer.
Oleg is holding a card with the first stanza of “Jabbywocky” by Lewis Carroll.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
It’s actually from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But there is a portrait of the Jabberwock on the wall, also with a lightbulb over it.
None of that actually comes into play, however, because the monkey app cries out again. “Okay Oleg, drop your pants,” Sophie says. “The monkey wants his banana.” Oleg reaches for his belt. Max demands that Caroline help them before they have to see their coworkers and neighbors mid-coitus.
“I would help you and be your heaven-sent, but you screwed me on the rent,” she replies, imitating Randy’s delivery of the riddles. (Mentions: 8)
Max asks what it’s going to take for her to get over it, and Caroline points out that she hasn’t even apologized. Max quickly says that she’s sorry and asks if they’re good, but Caroline isn’t satisfied by the fake apology.
She says she’s the only one who knows the story of Alice in Wonderland, which means she’s the only one who knows the way out, gesturing at a rabbit hole in a platform behind them.
“Alice went down and so will I,” she says. Han declares the outing a bust, just like Max’s future. (Laugh track, of course.)
“Just like Alice, I’m sick of being stuck in this upside-down world where your best friend lies about the rent,” Caroline says. (Mention #9)
Randy interjects, telling her she can’t go down the rabbit hole. She says that she can, and jumps into the hole, disappearing into a space that looks far deeper than that platform suggests.
Han says that he’s next. Randy is terrified, but still manages to make a little rhyme. “I don’t want to burst your bubble, but your friend’s in a lot of trouble,” he says. Then he breaks character, telling them that the hole isn’t a part of the room and is just for show. (Then why is it in there?)
Max asks if it’s a rabbit hole and Randy tells her there are rats in there, not rabbits.
“This place is a death trap,” he adds, rolling his eyes.
Not cool, Randy!!!!
Okay, I have to take an interlude here.
I know this whole show is a comedy thing and it plays fast and loose with realism and taste. Fair enough. But patron safety is the #1 priority for people making escape rooms. Fire safety regulations in the US are very strict, and rightly so. Recently there was a tragic accident in an escape room in Poland, so we can expect even stricter rules to come to US rooms soon. This is as it should be.
Basic safety includes things like sprinklers, alarms, fire extinguishers, unlocked doors, and emergency preparedness training for staff. It also means players shouldn’t be physically restrained, and should always have a clear and easy path and method to exit. (Check out this guide to how renowned escape room reviewers and all-around nice folks Room Escape Artist will be approaching this in their future reviews.)
Having a giant, open hole leading to an inescapable pit is already an obvious no-no. But calling it a rabbit hole in an Alice in Wonderland room is literally an invitation to players to enter it. The design suggests its purpose.
And as we will shortly learn, in this show the rabbit hole is on a fragile, unstable platform, over a rat-infested pit, in a room with a locked door only openable with a keypad, with an attendant who isn’t capable of getting them out.
Back from commercials, and now the group is gathered around the hole that Caroline has just leapt into. Max peers inside. “Caroline, please tell me you’re okay,” she calls into the hole. “I can’t, because I’m not,” Caroline answers.
“I’ll use the emergency code to get us out of here!” Randy exclaims, prance-jumping over to a keypad by the big door. He enters the code (5947) and a buzzer goes off. He turns back to the group. “I’m gonna be real honest with you right now, I don’t know the codes,” he says. Arghhh.
Caroline, down in the hole, calls for help. Max says she’s going to go in, and asks for the pepper spray flashlight, which Sophie sets off in Han’s face again.
The monkey alarm goes off again and Sophie says it’s time to have sex in front of Oleg’s coworkers. Were the others just warning timers? No, never mind, I don’t really want to think about it too hard.
Oleg protests a little before they start getting undressed and posing in awkward positions. Earl asks for the pepper spray to use on himself, and Max jumps into the hole so she won’t have to see. We all wish we could do the same.
Below deck, we can see all the wood supports that are holding up the platform they’ve been on. Caroline says she’s not physically harmed, but is hurting emotionally. “I jumped into a floor hole for feelings?” Max asks, exasperated, because she somehow can’t learn a lesson about how to give a genuine apology and own her actions.
They discuss the situation, and it turns out that Max lied four years ago because she didn’t expect their roommate situation to last. When it did and they became best friends, she didn’t know how to come clean. Okay, maybe she does learn…
Caroline is charmed because it’s the first time Max has said they were best friends without a bribe. She says that’s worth a lot more than money, and Max should know how much that means because Caroline loves money.
Max says she does know how much she loves money, because Caroline almost ruined their friendship over it…but not Max, by lying for four years, overcharging her friend, and then failing to admit to it or apologize. So, uh, scratch that learning thing, I guess.
They’re ready to get out of there, but Max had landed hard on her ankle, twisting it. Now it’s Caroline who’s apologizing, for causing them to be down there in the first place. Max echoes her earlier words, saying that yeah, sometimes sorry doesn’t cut it. Yikes.
They don’t know where they’re going, or have a clear way out, but we’ve long ago left the realm of reality, so we can just assume there’s some kind of non-Euclidean architecture happening. They crawl forward under the platform, and Caroline admires Max’s butt.
As they get closer, they can hear Oleg and Sophie moaning while having actual, full-on sex, as their other coworkers comment on it.
“Hey, why is the floor sagging?” Max asks. Oleg and Sophie come crashing through the floor in front of them.
Sigh. Game over.
Show woes aside, this is a bad game. None of it makes sense. Every element requires outside knowledge. And every “puzzle” we saw is potentially game-breaking, in that if you didn’t know the answer, there’s no way to proceed.
The first thing the players encounter, the portrait of Einstein and the light switches, is the only actual puzzle in the game. Unfortunately, it requires people to know 1) who Einstein is, 2) that he created a theory related to physics and light, and 3) what that shorthand for the theory is, and 4) what each of the letters stand for. Flipping a wrong switch takes 5 minutes off the total 60. There are 26 switches, so if they picked randomly and guessed wrong 12 times, they would have used up their entire play time without even turning on the dang lights.
The first riddle seems to require people to have gum, because the attendant asks them to place it onto a card. Perhaps if people just guess correctly, he would move them onto the next riddle. But the placement of the gum onto the card is so random (and unhygienic) that I have no idea what to make of it.
The second riddle, about surname length, is equally random. It’s also designed to be a double entendre, which doesn’t really have a place in a room themed for children’s literature.
There’s clearly some sort of matching puzzle with the quote cards and portraits on the wall with lightbulbs above them, but there’s also no clear method for inputting a correct answer to turn on lightbulbs, nor what information someone would derive from successfully completing it.
And then there’s the giant hole. The myriad safety issues of this room are really beyond the pale. The fact that the employee calls it “a death trap” and then can’t actually release any of them (including himself) from the room is really just the worst. So there’s definitely some funny stuff in this episode, but it’s not where the writers were hoping to put it.
I feel sorry for anyone who saw this and thought that this is what they could expect if they visited an escape room. The experience from the beginning to the end was just terrible for everyone, including the people watching this show.
- Counting the preamble to the escape room scene and the conflict resolution convo at the end, Caroline complains that Max has secretly overcharged her for rent a total of 10 times in the episode. The episode is 20.5 minutes long, without the opening and closing credits. So it gets brought up about once every two minutes. It’s exhausting.
- Whether it’s mocking people for being foreigners, dissing their intelligence, commenting on their sexual appetites, or mocking their age, if there’s an opportunity for this show to insult someone, it takes it.
- And then it punctuates every insult with a laugh track, as if what they’ve just said is somehow okay. Yikes.
- Pretty much all comedies thrive on dysfunctional characters, but the clever shows are well aware of the fact that their people are troubled, and allow them to learn and grow, even if it’s difficult. This is not one of those shows. Max never owns fully owns her mistake, although she does eventually apologize. Somehow it all gets turned back onto Caroline for “loving money,” instead of being justifiably upset that her best friend and roommate stole $1200 from her over 4 years.
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L. E. Hall is an artist, writer, puzzle-maker, immersive environment and narrative designer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on the intersections between arts, culture, and technology, especially in gaming.
She is the founder of puzzle, game, and experience design company Timberview Productions, founder of Portland’s first escape the room game company, the award-winning Meridian Adventure Co., and the author of Katamari Damacy for Boss Fight Books. She proudly serves on the board of the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), a non-profit organization supporting indie game development and community in Portland. Find her work online and on Twitter.