Whodunnit?: TV Review

Whodunnit? Episodic - H 2013
ABC/Randy Holmes

Whodunnit? Episodic - H 2013

A decent premise with poor execution, save for the executions of contestants each week.

"CSI" creator Anthony E. Zuiker makes murder a competition, as contestants must solve weekly crimes while being terrorized by one of their own.

ABC's new competition series Whodunnit? is more or less a reality series of Clue, conceived of by CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker. The series brings together 13 competitors who must solve a weekly mystery in the hopes of winning an eventual $250,000. Each week, one competitor is eliminated for failing to solve the mystery, and by eliminated, the show, like a Mafia don, means murdered!

There's something vaguely satisfying about having the bewildered picked off first, even though in the first episode it appears that few of Whodunnit's cast seems capable of solving where they left their keys, much less a murder. The competitors reside in Rue Manor -- the murder house -- and are guided through the game by Englishman Gildart Jackson (Charmed), who plays Butler Giles, a good indicator of how hard the series is trying.

Each week, the competitors -- crime reporter, bar-trivia quizmaster, attorney, flight attendant, engineer and more -- must solve the murder of one of their fallen comrades. While the first murder is pre-planned, the rest are decided from among those who fail to work out the facts behind the crime. One of the contestants, it should be noted, is also the actual murderer. His or her cryptic statements are read aloud at dinner by Giles, where contestants are told whether they are "spared" or should be "scared." The contestants know the murderer is among them, but part of the game is to be able to figure it out and reveal it in the finale.

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Whodunnit? is in some ways a survival show, which means that competitors immediately begin lying to one another, saying they aren't there to make friends, and start forming and breaking alliances. Those with investigative backgrounds hide it, and people who attempt to step up as leaders are viewed warily as the potential killer. Trust is a non-starter, and the producers did a tremendous job at finding an incredibly confused and shocked group of people. They scream when presented with the first highly fake murder scene and say things like, "The morgue is right downstairs; what kind of house has a morgue downstairs?" A murder house. Or maybe just a TV show that has all their sets in one place.

The most startling thing about Whodunnit? might be a self-realization by crime fans of how little amateurs really know and how ridiculous it sounds to regurgitate half-remembered forensic jargon. Though Whodunnit? pulls its style from, at times, CSI or even Agatha Christie novels (though Ten Little Indians this is not), there are no experts here to help guide the amateur sleuths, which gives everything more of a Nancy Drew feel at best. Also, without real motive or context, the clues are just heavily guided puzzles that lack the need for any intuition and appear to be based on pure luck.

For the most part though, everyone is running around frantically, piggybacking onto somebody else's discoveries. To kick things off, the contestants must choose to visit the crime scene, the last known whereabouts or the morgue, but not all three. They can then decide to share the information or keep it to themselves before the next clue, which is a key with a riddle. While one competitor, Ronnie, a private detective, does all the grunt work to figure out where the clue leads instead of just going around jamming it into everything, the others end up jumping on his findings, then beat him to the punch. 

In an incredibly hokey turn at the end of the day, the remaining contestants go into a room alone and address a camera, spelling out what they think happened regarding the crime. The theories closest to reality are rewarded, while the most outlandish or least-informed being potentially punished by death. It's like Game of Thrones, apparently -- "You win or you die." The competitors get genuinely nervous: "I'm fighting for my life!" 

Though Whodunnit? wants to give ordinary people the ability to step up and use their brains to solve a crime, the results (as of the first episode) are either painful or unintentionally funny. Bafflingly, ABC already has a book series underway, written by Zuiker, that will fictionalize the events portrayed on the show into a narrative. The finale of the premiere episode ends with a fiery finish and the demise of another competitor, but even those theatrics can't ignite this series, which may have been better staying fictional.