“These contestants are not actors. They are real people who were tasked to live in a mansion and stay alive long enough to find out who the killer is.”
This line from Giles the Butler’s opening spiel to the season finale of ABC’s Whodunnit? needs to be unpacked. At first glance, it’s the second half of this statement that requires clarification: As was documented following the series’ first episode, and referenced in the opening narration as a claim to the series’ apparent status as a social media phenomenon, there were people who believed a network television show was literally killing its contestants off one-by-one. It even necessitated a tag at the conclusion of each episode afterwards in which the “deceased” spoke from their cadaverous state as though to ensure audiences that this is all fun and games. The consistent references by the contestants to the apparently life-threatening stakes of an ABC summer reality series were an early barrier to my enjoyment of Whodunnit?, but over time one can get used to hearing people speak as though their lives are actually in danger, so this ultimately was not a huge detriment on the series.
However, while Giles’ suggest that these contestants are not “actors” is factually true, they are sure as hell acting. Everyone on a reality television show is acting, sure—cameras change our behavior, whether we’re conscious of it or not, and whether or not there’s a script or outline guiding a person’s actions—however, at the core of Whodunnit? is an edict from the producers that everyone involve must fully commit to its verisimilitude. The reason people were confused about whether people had actually died wasn’t because they were dumb, but rather because they were searching for a definitive recognition of the theatricality of the series and finding no evidence to support their suspicion. In every interview, and during every minute of their time in front of the cameras in Rue Manor, the contestants fighting for their lives in Whodunnit? were also—figuratively, if not literally—fighting for their SAG cards.
And that’s fine. Whodunnit?—which producer Anthony Zuicker calls reality fiction—grew more successful the more ludicrous it became, not because it had wholly earned its flights of fancy—“Death by Mountain Lion” remains my favorite even if the mountain lion turned out to be innocent—but rather because its audience became more conditioned to its audacity. In the beginning, my brain’s inability to accept the contestants’ commitment to the premise was a barrier; by the time I caught up on the season last weekend, it was the primary source of pleasure I took from the series. When Melina asks “Is this for real?” as smoke enters the mansion following the reveal that Giles has been placed in danger, I literally—I am being dead serious—yelled at my television screen: “No, Melina! This reality show that you’ve been on for like two weeks [in real time] that has been consistently reiterating that it is just a reality show is not for real on any level whatsoever. What is wrong with you?!” And yet whereas that could have convinced me to turn off my television in the first episode, here I’m charmed by her capacity to say such a thing with a straight face, just as I’m charmed when Kam—once Melina is revealed to have been killed, perhaps for daring to question the veracity of the production’s smoke effects—suggests either Lindsey or Cris has therefore “murdered ten people.”
My biggest issue with Whodunnit? remains that figuring out who committed these murders was mostly irrelevant to the week-to-week mysteries in the show; one need look no further for evidence of this than the fact that the person who won was convinced the killer was someone else up until the very end. The show actively chose to hide its gameplay structure: Despite the presence of a written test which included a question regarding the killer’s identity (thus technically making it something that counted on a week-to-week basis), the series never showed contestants writing the test, committing instead to the hilarious but also unclear “State Your Case” sequences. And even if we had seen the test in more detail, the fact remains that there were no actual clues to the killer’s identity, with none of the mysteries hinting towards a motive or a character trait or anything else. Cris claims at one point that the “acting” of the contestants itself became a clue: Whoever reacted the least to the murders could be the culprit. But that’s far from a science, and so the identity of the killer—surprise, it’s Cris—has been a pure MacGuffin up to—and even in—the finale.
Said finale is a compelling if also absurd hour of television. Structurally, the final challenge is set up nicely: Kam wins an advantage with a quick puzzle to lead them to Melina’s body, and then things transition into a well-designed final riddle. The “dead” contestants emerging as zombies displays the series going all-in on its camp value, whether it’s Adrianna’s singed feet artfully brushing against the grass as she swings back and forth or the terribly inconsistent meter—I at least presume this was purposefully awful because I’d hate to believe the killer would use such shoddy structure—on the riddles the zombies are each holding. Cribbing further from other reality shows, the final challenge tests their memories of previous murders and their general problem solving skills, with the riddles having enough uncertainty that each contestant has at least one wrong answer after completing all of the riddles (necessary to ratchet up tension ever further). For a show that has had trouble with clarity at points, the onscreen graphics and flashbacks did a nice job conveying the action, and it really was “action”: lots of movement, lots of quick cuts, and ultimately a strong source of momentum heading into the final showdown.
It was there that Whodunnit? fell apart. Lindsey receiving different instructions confirmed she would be the killer’s final victim, but everything from that point forward suffered mightily from the fact that it was really, really staged. Mind you, as noted, Whodunnit? has walked the line between real and fake throughout its run, but this was the first case where there was absolutely no doubt that what we were seeing had been carefully blocked and planned. While sold as a spontaneous moment coming after the tense, action-packed challenge, it became abundantly clear this was anything but spontaneous. Either the remaining contestants were reacting to an empty screen where Lindsey’s death was later superimposed (thus they were told what would be there in advance), or they were responding to this after the show had time to film Lindsey’s death. And given that Cris was supposedly aware she was the killer, and Kam was aware he wasn’t the killer, this means they knew what was “revealed” in that sequence the second they walked into the room (unless Kam wasn’t told where Lindsey was, although then at least everything after her being killed was pure theatre).
I think that last paragraph just broke my brain, as it likely broke yours. I don’t care that the show doesn’t hold up as “real,” but this was a moment where I wanted the façade to disappear. Get rid of the glossy camerawork and multiple angles that betray the fact there were multiple takes of this sequence. Take Cris out of character instead of having her smile and say she’s killed eleven people and have Kam just stand there like “Are you kidding me?” Don’t bother with the montage of Cris in a black hoodie committing all the murders when it’s not giving us any new information (like why she killed them). Allow Cris to speak in actual words instead of silly rhymes that take the scene too far into the realm of stage play and away from gameplay. The series managed to evolve into an interesting collection of alliances and strategies over the course of the season, but that was always at risk of being swallowed by the murder mystery setup that should have stopped the second Cris revealed herself to be the killer.
Perhaps it is a fitting end for a show that exists solely to entertain, with no effort made to engage the audience in gameplay or turn the killer into a complex mystery worth thinking about for more than a handful of seconds. While well-structured, the finale was just as empty as the rest of the season, earning points for the goofy execution and the commitment to the bit while failing to grasp that isn’t always enough to hook an audience. As much as I hope Whodunnit? continues for the sake of seeing how another group of strangers keeps a straight face while referencing their impending death by reality television show (which I truly came to enjoy as the season moved forward), the series’ tone and style felt wildly at odds with how a satisfying conclusion to a reality series should function. Instead of catharsis (as you get when someone finally wins a competition), or understanding (as you got when The Mole was revealed), we got a heavily staged anti-climax that fails to add much of anything—ironic or otherwise—to the series.
Finale Grade: B-
Season Grade: B
- Kam refers to the killer’s murder room as an “orgy of evidence,” suggesting that’s the only way to describe it. Really, Kam? Is the evidence having sex with each other? Because if it’s not, there are countless other ways to describe it.
- The challenge’s structure was sharpest in that there were certain clues—like the color of the font on Adrianna’s video—that not everyone would know; Kam, for example, had never seen the video in question. He guessed right, but if he hadn’t it would’ve been one more riddle he had to solve again.
- Regarding the challenge structure, I presume it was set up that Cris was always going to be sent to the upstairs room, and that whoever finished the puzzle second—even if that person hadn’t been Cris—would be sent to the other room. But I’d be curious how that would have played out differently timing-wise.
- As noted above, it’s always important to remember this was likely filmed over a period of about two weeks, so memory challenges are easier for them than you might think. That said, the audience sees the show replay these murders over and over again in ways the contestants don’t, so it potentially evens out.
- If we want to talk about the show not being real, creator Anthony Zuiker played one of the cops who led Cris away at episode’s end. They weren’t even real cops! A MURDERER IS RUNNING FREE.
- I hope the next season—if there is a next season, ABC has shown no signs of renewing the series—starts with Kam being murdered while at the baseball game with Ronnie.