matt haviland is on the case …
Whodunnit? poses many questions, and answers few of them. In what seems increasingly postmodern, thirteen professionals (three of them disguising their professions) arrive at a gothic mansion and meet a British butler named Giles. They think they’re in a game show… we think. But then there is a crash. Having wandered through the mansion in horror movie-fashion, the players regroup to find a fellow contestant dead on the ground. Giles leads everyone into another room and then challenges us to believe that they believe someone has really died.
Of course, there’s a measure of “playing along” in any reality show. There’s a theme, maybe there are judges, and everyone takes it seriously. But by the forty-fifth minute of Whodunnit?, one’s confusion over the rules (are there rules?) isn’t as pressing as the question of the show’s authenticity: If they are going to kill someone off every week, does that mean that at least twelve of the contestants will have followed a script—that the last remaining player may be the only real person in the bunch—and thus, would have been the predetermined winner?
Whodunnit? was created by C.S.I.’s executive producer Anthony E. Zuiker, and the lineage shows. One player is murdered every week. The survivors are allowed to search for clues either at the scene of the crime, in the victim’s last known whereabouts, or lodged within the victim in the morgue. Through their crime scene investigation, one player will eventually unmask the killer—who, quoth Giles, “is, indeed, somewhere in this very room. Amongst you.”
While the killings are cartoonish, the clues themselves are inspired. Watching contestant Geno take a steam machine to a smudged bathroom mirror evokes a subtle sense of wonder as the victim’s hidden message is revealed. When three other players poke around a dead body, it’s is like watching a real-life game of Operation. (We begin to wonder how scripted these puzzles are as they get more complex. One scene has contestants interpreting a bible verse to figure out where the murder weapon was hidden — a verse that could only be found through discovering and interpreting markings on a golden key. That’s a pretty layered puzzle for reality television.)
After comparing evidence by the pool, receiving mysterious keys, and completing their second treasure hunt (which reveals the murder weapon), contestants take turns stating their case. With the gusto of Kevin Costner explaining JFK’s magic bullet, they walk in circles around the library and perform their version of the murder. Half of them predict which player did the crime, even though the killer won’t be revealed until the last episode. The camera cuts to glowing footage of their peers looking nervous or murderous.
This is where the show falls apart. After the library sessions, Giles reveals what happened in his most ominous British narration (“Yours cruelly … your killer”). Sasha, one of two female journalists, is saved from elimination right away. The others open envelopes to see if they have been “Spared” or “Scared” (i.e. on deck to be killed). The problem for viewers is that there’s no objective way to predict the survivors or potential victims. We see dissolving clips of each player explaining the crime. Not knowing the correct details of the crime, we can only judge their success on nothing. It’s like American Idol with no judges and dramatic monologues instead of singing, containing within them puzzles that can only be answered by Simon Cowell.
Moreover, the players tapped for elimination seem arbitrarily chosen. Engineer Lindsey didn’t know about the killer’s slingshot until it was too late. “The murder weapon,” she says, “is what caused the whole murder!” She makes it to the next round anyway. Granted, the players tapped for elimination also admit to flubbing facts. Dontae the insurance investigator thought the cause of death was drowning (“But I don’t think that I missed enough to be killed”). Detective-in-disguise Don realizes how badly he messed up before Giles even arrives, and tells everyone to visit him at the morgue. Ronnie, the bounty hunter who solved several clues and found the murder weapon, asks, “How could [Sasha] have been so correct that she blew us all out of the water?” His question goes unanswered. The basis for comparison seems flimsy at best.
Later on, a fire alarm rings, and everyone runs to the pool in their pajamas … almost everyone. Don comes out second-to-last, saying, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!” Then there’s a scream. Like a burning ellipses, Dontae stumbles through the door and jumps into the pool, the camera closing in on his bubbling forehead. Dontae must have been less correct. There seems to be precious little agency in the contestants’ success, rendering the show a bigger case of deux ex machina than drawing cards in Clue.
But the show succeeds on various unintentional levels. After Giles passes out golden keys, we’re treated to a montage of people wondering what to do with them. Homeland security attorney Kam opens up clocks and twirls the minute hands. Another half-dozen pore over a giant bible before the camera switches to Dontae, who’s flipping cushions on the couch. Elsewhere in the episode, talking heads play like scenes from The Office. “I might as well have just taken a knife and just stabbed myself,” says Don, minutes before he receives a “Scared” card. The other attorney, Ulysses, mumbles, “This is the worst dinner of my life,” and then he tips a champagne glass. These quotes are legitimately funny. There’s an amusing disconnect near the end when Dontae, who would soon be burned alive, giggles, “But right now, all I’m thinking is, ‘Don, please die. Please die, Don, so that I can live.'”
Leaving aside the surreal coincidence that Mad Men began just minutes later (Don and Dontae indeed), Whodunnit? works as a bizarre, postmodern take on reality television. Contestants narrow their eyes and rub their chins while a British butler reads from cards written by the man—or woman (or spirit?)–who has enough props and make-up to kill almost all of them. Except they might all be the killer. For a game with no discernible rules, the absurdity reaches levels that could almost be called “genius.” We’re only left to wonder how much is on purpose