Just How Fake Is Whodunnit?

The new reality-competition murder mystery is pretty fake, but that works in its favor.

ABC's new reality-sleuthing competition, Whodunnit?, is such a smart idea that it's hard to believe nobody's tried it before. (Unless they have, and I just forgot. The closest concept I could recall was The Mole, so feel free to correct me in the comments.) Thirteen contestants bunk at Rue Manor, where a killer is at large -- and it's one of them. Solving the murder of the week, or at least coming close, means survival and a shot at the $250,000 prize; failure will lead to another player getting killed off, until it's down to three Poirots in the final.

A Clue/The Most Dangerous Game/Survivor hybrid sounds like a slam dunk, but it isn't, necessarily. For the show to work for viewers requires a carefully calibrated level of difficulty to the puzzles and clues, challenging enough to throw some players off but not so challenging that nobody gets it. (The premiere's Bible-verse clue is perfect; it gets everyone to the Good Book, while presuming that only a few of them will make the connection with the two crowns.) Not all the players can have all the same information all the time, which is why players can visit, say, the crime scene or the morgue but not both -- but then it's also essential to guide them to the right information so the entire cast isn't dicking around for 20 minutes on an irrelevant clue. Whodunnit? strikes a good balance there, so far.

But the show's real strength is the two levels of interest it's operating on -- not just the central mystery of the episode, but the how-the-tapestry-is-knotted mystery of how the show itself is made. The examination of initial victim Sheri's body, for instance. One of the players notes en route to the morgue that, um, there's a morgue in the house, which is creepy and also never happens -- but another player has said in a previous scene that she has a wiggins at the crime scene even though she knows it's not a real dead body. With that in mind, as players roll Sheri's body over to inspect it for evidence, you wonder both what they'll find re: cause of death, and whether that's really Sheri, or a model, or a CPR dummy with a death mask on, or what.

In other words, yes, it's fake, or at least contrived. It's like those murder-mystery dinner-theater shows, but on TV. It works because the contrivance is apparent; because Whodunnit? may try to hide the strings, but doesn't deny that the strings exist; and because, as you try to figure out who is (or totally isn't) the killer based on the snippets of the players' "case statements," your mind is cartwheeling through a hall of strategic mirrors on the production side. What if everyone nails the Moriarty in, like, Week 3 -- did the showrunners have Plans B-N on a whiteboard in the event that the killer had to become the killed? And how much is the killer told? I suspect it's more substantive than "you did it; try not to make eye contact with anyone," but did Whodunnit? cast an actor, or just a player who could follow strict instructions about where to stand and when to show up in various places?

Major credit to the show for not bait-and-switching the contestants by casting them without telling them what for; detectives include Don, a PI and retired cop; Adrianna, a crime reporter; and Dontae, an insurance investi-- well, not him, anymore, and he got killed off primarily because his theory of the crime sucked (and, uh, so did Don's actually), but my point is that this isn't the customary collection of reality-TV bartender/models. Yeah, everyone's an expert nowadays thanks to CSI (and CSI creator Anthony Zuiker co-produces here), but it's a group with a higher-than-average number of people familiar with crime scenes, investigative techniques, et cetera, and therefore harder to buffalo. Unless the bios ABC gives us for one of the players is bullshit. Or all of them. Or each of them thinks s/he's the killer. My brain hurts. It's awesome!

My brain started hurting in short order, trying to keep track of whom I saw where, who came in late, which players checked which crime scenes, and who lied about their findings versus forming alliances with info. The videotaped case statements did nothing to help me keep it straight, and while it's nice of the show to throw in a nice, slow segment towards the end with the players finding out if their theories mean they're "Scared" or "Spared," Dontae's fiery Sunset Boulevard demise blew my mind all over again. It's definitely him face-down in the pool, but did they have a stunt guy running through the house covered in flames? Is Dontae actually a stunt guy himself? And what did the Manor-issue pajamas have to do with anything?

I went back to rewatch a few scenes, to see what I might have missed. Whodunnit? is fake -- Gildart Jackson, playing the host/butler/poor man's Hugh Laurie, Giles, frequently seems on the verge of snort-giggles -- but if it's got me trying to figure out how, it's doing its job.

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