Whodunnit?

Whodunnit? debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.

In the midst of Whodunnit?’s opening episode, TV crime reporter Adrianna finds herself at an impasse. None of her fellow investigators are willing to share information with her, leaving her mostly in the dark about how their fellow investigator Sheri met her grisly end. As we follow her from failed conversation to failed conversation, she explains her persistence as follows: “I know my life is on the line and I don’t want to be the next one dead.”

If you are going to watch Whodunnit?, ABC’s latest summer reality series, you need to prepare yourself for people to say things like this without them subsequently breaking out into laughter. Yes, in the world of Whodunnit? Adrianna is at risk of being the next victim of a mysterious killer who invited 12 strangers to his or her Los Angeles mansion so that he or she could assimilate among them while picking them off one by one based on their crime-solving skills. In the world of reality television, Adrianna is a reporter who is here to play a game where she solves mysteries and could win $250,000, and who has clearly been instructed by producers to do her part in heightening the realism in what is often a hokey, silly exercise in crime reenactment filmmaking.

As someone puts it when Sheri’s body was first discovered, “in my heart I know it’s not a dead body.” No one who is playing this game believes that anyone is being killed, but they nonetheless scream at the sight of a dead body, and act as though the 4:38am fire drill that concludes the episode is something other than a clearly orchestrated way of staging the killer’s next murder and revealing to the audience who has been eliminated for doing the worst job of solving Sheri’s murder. In order to play the game of Whodunnit?, and work to solve the mystery of how Sheri found herself dead in the great room, you also have to play along with the producers’ love of theatrics.

Whodunnit? is built on the foundation of ABC’s gone but not forgotten The Mole, focused on a combination of close observation and the inherent distrust of knowing that someone in your group is working to sabotage you. However, at the same time, the identity of the killer is outside the realm of the show’s structure: each week involves the contestants determining how the murder was committed, but the actual identity of the killer—at least at this point—remains a red herring. Whereas every moment of The Mole was in part about observing the actions of your fellow contestants and breaking down the game structure to build knowledge, Whodunnit? is structured around puzzles that feel like something out of a point-and-click adventure game (specifically reminding me of the crime scene investigations in the Pheonix Wright series, originally for the Nintendo DS and now available on Apple platforms).

After the murder, the contestants are divided into three groups: one visits the scene of the crime, one visits the morgue, and the other visits the victim’s last known whereabouts. All three locations are carefully designed by the producers, which include CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker: when part of a message appears on a bathroom mirror, you bet there’s a clothing steamer nearby that helps the group reveal the entire message. Of course, in order to unlock the complete picture of the crime, the groups need to communicate with one another, which is when the strategy of the game comes into focus. Do you tell those who were investigating other spaces what you saw in an effort to gain their trust and learn what they saw? Or do you keep the secret hoping that you’ll be able to piece together the rest and still have a key piece of information to yourself?

The game is built to include periods of conversation, here over finger sandwiches, where the contestants break off into alliances to discuss what they saw at the various locations. This transitions into another “event,” in which the killer is kind enough to offer everyone the same clue in the form of a riddle, sending the would-be detectives running off into the house to try to solve it. Some people are present when one person solves the riddle and discovers a key piece of evidence that puts the details of the murder into perspective; others are elsewhere in the mansion following false leads, forcing them to scramble for an ally to tell them more about the story. The friendless Adrianna was one of those people, but despite not having an ally she finds another way to get the information that shows she’s smarter than her reputation might suggest (if not smart enough to have solved the clue on her own).

When Whodunnit? is indulging in its murder mystery setup, it’s caught between taking itself seriously and wanting to indulge in some campy charm; at any given moment you expect this to be a stealth season of The Joe Schmo Show, a feeling that sometimes works in the show’s favor but often proves debilitative to its overall goal of embedding you within a murder mystery. However, the producers have put together an interesting cast by combining people with investigative experience with those who simply enjoy solving mysteries: Detectives and bounty hunters have some distinct advantages in the game, but they also risk treating it as a real scenario as opposed to a constructed puzzle, which can leave them running to catch up with other contestants. Perhaps sensing the silliness around them, the contestants do a nice job of taking this seriously without necessarily treating it as something serious; there’s no breakout star among the cast, but they’re a diverse enough group in terms of age, occupation, and personality to keep things interesting.

Whodunnit? will rely on that as it moves forward. The first episode offers a prime space for distrust and uncertainty, as the contestants are still adjusting to the lay of the land. Now that they know how the game works, will they be as open to quick alliances and the chaos they inspire? Will they continue to gasp at the sight of clearly staged events in the same way they did when they were seeing their first example? Each episode ends with the contestants “stating their case” in an empty room, various camera angles capturing what are essentially cheesy courtroom speeches. They exist so we can get a clearer sense of who is and who is not on the right track, so that we can predict who will be in danger of elimination—sorry, in danger of being murdered—that night, but they’re also likely to make many viewers roll their eyes, especially if the contestants themselves tire of playing the game to such a degree.

Whodunnit? isn’t exactly a mystery for the viewer: Unlike some of the contestants, we have all the clues we need to piece together what happened, and there’s no sign of hidden clues as to the killer’s identity (although all of the contestants take a guess during their confessionals). Rather than playing along, viewers are expected to enjoy watching the game being played, not unlike how viewers of procedurals like Zuiker’s CSI: are really watching a crime get solved as opposed to solving a crime. And while I enjoyed the first hour of Whodunnit?, I did so at enough of a distance that the show could just as easily become tiresome in a few weeks. Perhaps that’s the real mystery: Without that initial thrill of seeing just how many times they’re willing to fake electrocute an actress playing a corpse, and without the sense of discovery that comes with meeting a set of 12 strangers for the first time, is there a good reality competition series here? My gut is telling me there could be, but there’s enough conflicting evidence to makes the series’ future unclear.

Stray observations:

  • The series presents Sheri as an actual contestant who happens to be the first person murdered based on something that happens early in the episode. Was the first “murder” actually as unplanned as the show suggests, or was she always intended to be the first victim? Additionally, do they film the reenactments before or after the murder? The production/presentation balance is unclear, and makes the show seem faker than it has to be at times.
  • The conclusion of each episode—two contestants knowing their “lives” could be in danger—reminds me of the end of episodes of Fox’s Murder in Small Town X, which offers a precedent for Whodunnit?. The major difference between the two shows is that Murder in Small Town X was much more consistent in tone and style.
  • If you prefer your murder mysteries in literary form, creator Anthony Zuiker has written a “companion” to the series setting up the “Mystery Manor” concept, which is available as a Kindle book.
  • “Dude dude dude, creepy man coming down the stairs”—Melina, the only person paying attention as host/butler Giles arrives to greet the contestants.
  • “What house has a morgue in it?”—a house constructed for a reality TV show? There are a lot of questions like this where the answer is “Because you’re on a TV show,” but no one comes right out and says it.

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