It seems that every once in a while, I stumble across a local restaurant or social club or fundraising group promising an evening of fun revolving around a murder mystery dinner, which never really seems like all that much fun. I like theater, I like mystery, not so keen on murder though fake ones are fine, and I like dinner, so it should be 75% lovely. But breaking down the fourth wall for theater always makes me a little uneasy. Not the murder part, mind you, but the fact I will be stuck solving a fake crime with very real audience members who I may or may not want to murder before the dinner is over.
I suspect there's always going to be at least one pushy know-it-all who will try to run things (and do so badly), a few people who willl talk too much and have nothing useful to contribute, and everyone is going to be, at heart, pretty boring. Then, the murder mystery will probably be dumb and involve lots of hokey gimmicks and too-clever murder methods and will make me want to hit myself over the head with the collected works of Agatha Christie.
So, "Whodunnit?" (ABC, Sun. June 23 at 9:00 p.m.) is just like that, but here's the good part -- all of those annoying people are in there, but we don't have to deal with them! No, we can sit on the sofa and make fun of them as they screw up time and time again. This is a more notable improvement than you might think.
In the premiere episode, "High Voltage," we quickly suss out who the ringers are as well as who the pains-in-the-ass are. More importantly, so do the other contestants. One person is so widely and thoroughly disliked so quickly, lunch becomes like an unpopular kid's journey through the high school cafeteria.
As we might expect, the plot is thus far spectacularly convoluted and not very smart, though murder mystery fans will enjoy the process of piecing clues together with the contestants while feeling clever about it all. It's also a little hard to swallow the spectacular cliches that pop up time and again. There's a spooky butler named Jiles! There are keys engraved with clues! Messages to the contestants are delivered in parchment envelopes on silver platters! Aaack! Apparently someone believed that sticking to the extremely tired formula of murder mystery and plastering it on top of a reality TV competition format was update enough. Not hardly.
What show creator (and "CSI" franchise mastermind) Anthony E. Zuiker brings to the table is some crime scene analysis and dead body poking, which at least drags the plot out of the 19th century. While it's a little weird for a mansion to have a fully functioning morgue, it isn't any weirder than the idea of a killer inviting a bunch of strangers to play sleuth as he picks them off, I suppose, and it helps to make the show seem less like an elaborate game of "Clue."
We get a sense of how much "CSI" has changed the landscape of how we feel about blood and guts when we watch a few players pick and poke at a surprisingly realistic body in their search for clues. Of course, one of them could be the killer, so they had better play it cool. And therein lies one of the elements that works well on this show. Just as "CSI" has changed the landscape of TV viewing, so has reality TV, and all of the players seem well aware of their roles on the show. Petty rivalries crop up quickly, alliances are made and broken, and what ultimately may be the great unknown drawing us in every week is not the mysteries, but the relationships formed (and, ultimately, the true identity of the mole).
"Whodunnit?" isn't all it could be, and it's too cliched to be appointment television, but for breezy summer fun? It might be just the thing.
Will you watch "Whodunnit?"