"Whodunnit?" puts 13 amateur slueths' investigative… (Eric McCandless, ABC )
The classic manor house murder mystery would seem a no-brainer for reality TV, but somehow we got "Cupcake Wars" before "Whodunnit?" which premieres Sunday on ABC.
And maybe there's a reason. As simple as all those cozy mysteries may seem, the good ones are actually complex layers of character, setting, plot and clues. And complexity is not the modus operandi of reality programming.
This one, the brainchild of "CSI" co-creator Anthony E. Zuiker, appears to have ambitions beyond its genre, and possibly its budget. Introduced in voice-over by the determinedly lugubrious butler Giles (Gildart Jackson), "Whodunnit?" summons 13 contestants to Rue Manor for what they claim to know only as some sort of mystery game with a $250,000 prize.
VIDEO: Summer 2013 TV preview
While they're establishing what passes for character and clinking their Champagne flutes, Giles explains that his enigmatic employer will soon reveal all. Minutes after he sends everyone off to settle in, a loud crash brings them back to the main room, where one of the players — a former cheerleader (of course it would be the cheerleader!) — is lying "dead." Spectacularly "dead," as a matter of fact, twitching among the flopping goldfish and debris of a shattered fish tank, with shards of glass in her head.
This was no boating accident, this was "moider!" With Giles supplying prompts and direction, the remaining 12, who include a former member of the LAPD and a bounty hunter, as well as a nurse, a journalist and an ex-beauty queen, set off in search of clues. Not only does a murderer walk among them, those who don't solve the crime, or at least come close, face a similar fate.
All of which sounds much better than it plays, for a variety of reasons. First off, ol' Rue Manor is set in Beverly Hills, providing an absurd contrast to the dark 'n' stormy night mood music they've got going on, not to mention Giles, who looks and sounds like his last job was at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
RELATED: More TV reviews by The Times
Also, the marble interiors and Champagne flutes conjure both endless episodes of "The Bachelor" and the reality TV house that the callow British writers were housed in on Showtime's "Episodes." There's nothing wrong with setting a murder mystery under the laughing skies of Southern California, but you need to go more April Smith than Agatha Christie.
The cast seems no better, or worse, than any reality TV assemblage, but the clues are delivered to the group in such a way that much of the pilot is spent watching them troop, mostly en masse, from one room to the other. It's not terribly exciting.
What this show could, and should, do better than other reality competitions is make it possible for the audience to play along. With so much general explaining to do, the pilot didn't leave a lot of time for at-home deduction or competitive theories. One hopes that will change in future episodes because, unlike most reality competitions, the draw of "Whodunnit?" is as much the solution as the character drama.
Not surprisingly, considering the "CSI" pedigree, the "murders" are quite violent and a bit upsetting. By the time the premiere ends, you can see why the contestants might be legitimately scared to be tagged as the next victim.
The game is played until, presumably, there are only a few survivors, one of whom is the murderer. Although it's always possible that the butler did it.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
Real places, fake characters: TV's bars and eateries
CRITICS' PICKS: What to watch, where to go, what to eat
PHOTOS: Violence in TV shows