Whodunnit has been my guilty pleasure show all summer. It had a cool premise, 12 “guests” went to a mansion to play a murder mystery game, only to find a guest “murdered,” and be told that 1 of them is the “killer” (obviously a TV show isn’t going to actually kill people, but if you suspend the disbelief, it was a fascinating concept). It was reminiscent of another “reality” show that was also a guilty pleasure of mine, Murder in Small Town X (same basic idea, except the suspects were all a separate group of actors and not the contestants). The finale just aired not long ago, and when it was all said and done…my wife and I spent a solid hour and a half, ranting, raving, and coming up with a better version of that type of show.
How the show operated
Before I get to the part where I tell Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and show runners how to do their jobs, let me first get into how the show was set up. As mentioned above, it’s 12 people in a mansion, 1 of them is a killer, and is killing a guest a day until there’s 2 people left standing, the killer and the winner. Each week (“day” in the show’s timeline), the contestants had to solve the latest murder of 1 of their peers, but each person could only investigate 1 of a handful of places each case (it was a game, after all). After that, everyone was reunited to discuss the case and try to trade for information as best they could. Then there was a challenge, given by way of riddles, that led the way to some other clue that helped tie the whole case together. At the end of the “day”, the contestants went into a little room by themselves to “state their case” – basically give their theory of how the most recent murder was carried out and end it by naming who they think the killer was.
I’ll start with the “1 location” rule, because I think it was good equalizer. A few of the contestants were professional investigators (a PI, a former cop, and an insurance investigator). Limiting contestants to 1 relevant location forced the professional criminal investigators to rely on amateurs for the rest of the information needed to solve the crime. Professional investigators bringing their training and experience to every relevant location would make the whole show pointless for the other contestants – unless everyone who played looked into crimes professionally, which sort of ruins the fantasy of thinking you could do a fake murder mystery weekend of your own. It also leveled the playing field by adding a dimension to the game beyond looking at clues, since you now had to work both the crime scene and the other contestants. Between the trying to work out alliances and withholding information, police work wasn’t enough to be successful, you also had to have a good support structure working with you. The limitation was also something that demanded good police skills to overcome, as you had to piece together a lot of third-party accounts and corroborate it with what you observed to piece together how the crime was carried out.
What didn’t work
Now, on to the riddles, which were not nearly as enjoyable, useful, or any other term that implies that they made the show better in any shape, form, or fashion. While there’s obviously a degree of logic and deduction in working out a vague rhyme, but not nearly like you would have for piecing together clues and stories of what people found in other rooms. And the riddles had you run around the house from rhyme to rhyme until you found the magic room with the magic clue that after a few episodes was pretty much the objective of the entire case. This meant that success in the game was based not on who was the best detective, but who could play the mid-episode games the best. This mini-game bit was also the entire finale. Let me repeat this, the finale for a deductive reality television show/competition, was an hour-long mini-game.
While we’re on the whole lack of deducting in the show, the person who won the game never once correctly identified the “killer”. The third-place contestant, on the other hand, called it every episode from the premiere. As good as the “champion” was at playing games, he sucked at the “Whodunnit” (you know, the name of the TV program in question) part.
In fact, the killer’s identity left 2 possible scenarios, both of which sort of ruined the show. Either, the killer was set from the beginning of the season, in which case they basically picked a horse and rode it all the way to the championship, playing the part of the detective to the hilt, which makes everything the other contestants useless, since the killer just pushed her chosen “team” through to the end. The other possible outcome was that the killer was determined by who came in second the finale’s game. In other words, there was a never a real “Whodunnit”, and the whole premise of the show was worthless. No matter how you look at how the game played out, detecting was never really a thing for a show where detecting was the actual draw.
How to have done it right
First and foremost, riddles and any other form of game need to go. They were stupid, and broke from the main premise of the show. Instead, go all investigation, all the time. To help investigations fill more time for the episode, make determining who the “killer” was more of a part of the show other than a one-off towards the end of an episode. Identifying the killer is allegedly the point of the show, so it should be a driving point of what the contestants are doing for the entire run of the show. Nobody should be able to win by failing to identify the killer. If you get to the final chance to make an accusation about who did it and are wrong, dead. The end. Instead, you have to figure out how the killer committed the crime, which of the guests could have committed the crime, and who you think actually did it.
As for the killer, there needs to be no doubt that the killer is the same person operating over the course of the show. The killer needs to be involved in each the actual “killings”. They need to be at the scene, at the time. They need to do as many of the things the “killer” would actually do as possible, short of honest-to-goodness homicide. After all, identifying them is going to be part of the show, so you have to make sure there’s something to cause them to be identified, and not stuff planted by producers. People need to be able to see the killer near the scene, near the time of the murder. Let’s have some actual, honest-to-freaking-goodness detecting going on here. No trying to guess how the producers wrote the story, no heavily staged scenes with only the clues writers said to plant, but people trying to outwit a specific, albeit unknown person.
This setup would make elaborate death traps fairly un-doable, but that’s OK. Figuring out how the killer committed the crime of the week is only a small part of the game, and it should be something that leads to the who done it. Up-close-and-personal “killings” are more realistic anyways. While we’re at it, let the “killer” choose the “victims” every week. This adds an element of strategy to the game, not just for the players, but for the killer as well. They have to actively keep suspicion off themselves, without being blatant about it. It adds a whole new element to the game. Do you leave someone who’s been calling you out in the game, to make it look like you aren’t the killer, or do you “kill” them to shut them up? Do you “kill” somebody whose been trying to turn the contestants against your biggest rival, because they’re being a victim will support that cause?
Staging murders is tougher with the “killer” being actively involved in the setup, but simpler crimes, like a “shooting” or “stabbing” are quicker and easier to pull together on short notice. That keeps the game more authentic, and serves the emphasis on deduction over challenge games. It also makes claims about alibis, etc. more authentically false, seeing as how the killer has to lie to protect their cover. Of course, this could also raise 2 interesting outcomes of the game other than victory by 1 of the last 2 non-killer contestants – nobody guesses who the killer is, thus the killer wins, or somebody comes across conclusive, irrefutable proof of who the killer is and the game is won early. Some type of cash bonus or something could incentivize trying to win early. Some thought would have to go into figuring out what amount is needed to make teaming up to solve the case early tempting, but not so much that people won’t try to take the whole pot for themselves at the end.
Lastly, to help keep “teams” from getting too set, stating cases at the end of each episode shouldn’t be private affairs. The contestants should have to write out their own personal little affidavit about the “killings” to date, and then read them publicly, using names the whole time. No more addressing a hidden “killer”, now they’re addressing everyone, and calling out some member of the group. Being publicly accused of being the killer by people you were working with should shake up trust enough to keep permanent teams from being established, and help make the show more interesting. Since contestants are having to reconcile the current episode’s “case” with the rest of the season to make 1 coherent narrative, viewers can get a lot of evolving theories, plenty of couch detecting on their end, and can finally end the show with the “correct” story, from the killer, of how the entire show played out from their perspective.
Whodunnit was a show that started out with a tremendous amount of promise. Unfortunately, the show fell into traditional reality TV trappings rather than standing out as something new or different. In the end, that left viewers only with the sour taste of disappointment. The concept could work, but the people making the show need to be willing to say “This ain’t your typical reality show” and mean it. A reality detective show would be amazing, but to do that, first and foremost, you need actual detecting.