I have been a murderer before. I’ve played “How to Host a Murder,” the party game featuring a “murder” described via audio tape, where each guest takes on the role of a “suspect.” If it sounds macabre, rest assured that each “How to Host a Murder” game is so full of terrible puns and ridiculous setups (the game I played was set in ancient China, and titled “Who Hung Woo”) that it’s not. The board game “Clue” works on a similar premise: the victim, Mr. Boddy, is nowhere to be seen, and none of the suspects have a reason to be suspected, other than being in his house surrounded by potential weapons. Rather than try to evoke an emotional response to the death of Mr. Boddy, the game reduces the murder to an abstract puzzle.
The new mystery series, Murder in Small Town X isn’t interested in abstractions. The opening scene of the first episode, filmed in spooky, green-tinted Blair-Witch-o-Vision, features a man working in his basement when the killer strikes. He screams, runs upstairs, and falls, blood from his hand staining the front door. The killer runs upstairs to corner a sleeping girl; she flees the bed and cowers in the corner. Later, we see a videotape of the mother, hollow-eyed, reading dully from the killer’s message, her daughter’s body lying limp in the background.
So happen, supposedly, the murders of Nate and Carmen Flint and their daughter Abby, three otherwise unremarkable residents of the peaceful small town of Sunrise, Maine. Sunrise does not actually exist; nor do the Flints or any of their lovers, friends, enemies, rivals, or acquaintances. The suspects in the case, while mostly capable actors, are saddled with dinner theater roles: Abby’s rebel boyfriend, the girl-next-door who turns out to be a stripper, the crazy Gulf War veteran. And the plot’s twists and turns are right out of Peyton Place: one character was having an affair with Nate Flint, another was his father’s former business partner, another favors a development to which everyone else in town objects. This means everyone has a motive, and while that works well in parodies, it undermines Small Town X‘s apparent desire for viewers to treat this murder mystery seriously.
In fact, this is all an elaborate setup for 10 contestants to work together as “investigators” of the “crime.” One investigator is eliminated each week; the last one will presumably name the suspect to win a cash prize. The show isn’t very clear on how the final contestant will be determined, or even whether he or she will be required to name the killer to win the prize. It’s hard to take interest in a game show that doesn’t explain how people win. Because of the presence of the contestants, who are presumably more “real” than the Flints, Murder in Small Town X is being marketed—and criticized—as a “reality” show. No disclaimer precedes the show’s airing; only a quick note at the end tells you that the Flints are actually actors, alive and well. This odd quasi-reality tone also applies to the device by which contestants are eliminated. Each week the “killer” sends an envelope with two locations, one of which contains an important clue and one of which means “certain death.” In truth, that means the investigator is kicked off the show, but the game’s premise has them actually “killed” by the “killer.”
The group of investigators nominates one person to set out for each location. Before they leave, they are asked to tape their “last will and testament.” In the first episode, one woman cried en route to the location where she would be “killed,” and told her kids she loved them via the camera; in a later interview, she said she hadn’t slept well at night for fear of the “killer” breaking in. A police sergeant directs the “investigators,” telling them whom to interview and what to look for, turning the investigation into a glorified scavenger hunt. But the investigators don’t seem to be following real police procedures; they routinely show crucial evidence to suspects, break into suspects’ houses, and so on.
Following orders, the contestants are reduced to sheep—very obnoxious sheep. They get terribly excited when they can answer the killer’s questions, usually about things that would be easily picked up in any investigation. They quarrel ostentatiously about who gets nominated to go out and possibly face the killer. Here the relationship between murder mystery and game show breaks down; Survivor‘s voting-off-the-island mechanism doesn’t work on a show where the contestants are theoretically supposed to work together. Every minute Andy or Jeff complains about Kristen trying to take over the group is another minute we could spend on trying to figure out whodunit.
But the real problem is that Murder in Small Town X can’t decide how “real” it wants to be. If it were completely unrealistic, the mechanism of sending an investigator out alone to meet the killer might work; but since it wants to coat the story with a veneer of realism, the idea is ridiculous. Why not just send in a SWAT team, capture the killer, and prevent more deaths? The inherent premise of the murder mystery (to find the killer as quickly as possible) works against the reality show setup (where we know we’ll have to wait long enough for all the contestants to be eliminated). Agatha Christie often kept her killer going for a whole book, by delaying Hercule Poirot’s or Jane Marple’s entrance, since once that happened, you knew it was only a matter of a few chapters before the satisfying resolution. In Small Town X, the investigators have been on the case since the first day, and don’t seem particularly interested in speeding things up. One contestant said in the third episode that he wouldn’t be surprised if a certain character was killed, and sure enough, Episode Four opened with her murder. Should he be held accountable for failing to prevent her “death”? Is he supposed to care? Are we? The answer, even though earlier we saw this character cry at her husband’s grave and reminisce about their romance, is apparently no. The show depicted her terror and brutal death, then dismissed it, as if to say, “It’s only a game.” This turns both contestants and viewers into sick voyeurs.
Interactive murder mysteries can work—as long as the players (in this case, the viewers) have enough information to solve the crime. But the show makes it difficult to play along. Information is presented in a scattered way, with suspects eliminated not by deduction, but at random, by the killer (if the investigators answer the posed question correctly). The viewers don’t even get the satisfaction of eliminating suspects based on this information. At this point, one character should, in theory, be eliminated because he was in jail the night the “killer” struck. But the investigators are still treating him as a suspect, as if acknowledging that the “killers’ game” has nothing to do with the actual crime.
As incoherent as it is, Murder in Small Town X might have been enjoyable if the producers had gone the way of dinner theater, the “How to Host a Murder” games, or the movie version of Clue (one of my favorite movies), that is, if they had camped it up. Cat fights! Vows of “You’ll pay for this!” Dirty secrets! Or maybe the show could have thrown itself wholeheartedly in the other direction, in which the contestants and audience alike come to care deeply about the murder victims and the other residents of Sunrise, in which case we—contestants and audience alike—band together to decipher the clues and find the killer quickly. But a confused combination of the two reduces the show from murder mystery to horror movie: we’re kept at arm’s length from the characters even as we’re watching them scream and bleed. It’s a game, but there’s no real reason to play.