Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)
Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen with the Trained Cougar and the Cyanide
Concept: Wikipedia describes this as “a murder mystery reality competition television series”. Somewhere in Beverly Hills is a place called Rue Manor, staffed by a butler — “Giles”, played by Gildart Jackson, who is the series’ host — and two silent maids. A group of people is invited to Rue Manor and soon learns that they cannot leave; one among them is a killer and will continue to kill them, week by week, until there is a single winner who will earn US$250,000.
The concept that underlies the program’s structure is quite complex and I have to say that Wikipedia has done a good job of describing it in demented-fanboi-level exactitude at this link; go there if you want to know everything. I’ll try and give you the bare bones of it. At the beginning of each episode, one of the contestants is “murdered”. (S/he appears in corpse makeup at the very end to reassure credulous viewers as to their still-alive status.) The other contestants are offered the chance to investigate a single area of a number related to the crime — frequently, the last known whereabouts, the crime scene, and the morgue. There are things at each location to be learned and there are no rules about whom you tell what; some cooperate, some do not. (Teams soon formed.) After that segment there is a time to reflect, then a sort of “riddle contest” that will provide valuable and unique information to its winner. During the riddle contest, people race around the house chasing a line of clues. When someone finds the crucial clue at the end of the line, a bell rings and the contest is over.
Then there’s a period where the contestants can interact and, should they so desire, share information. Soon afterwards, the contestants are required to deliver a monologue into the camera that outlines their theory of how the murder took place. Theoretically this serves as their entry in the competition to remain in the house; in actual fact this is accomplished off-camera by a written examination that allows a more just assessment of correctness. Once this is done, the contestants have dinner. During dinner, Giles the butler announces the complete solution in detail and then announces that one person has won for the week, and is therefore spared the murderer’s attention. Everyone else has an envelope containing a card. Most cards have the word “Spared”. At least two cards have the word “Scared”; one of those people is about to be murdered. It is understood that they have achieved the lowest scores on the exam, although they don’t explain it like that.
At the very end of the program, we see a brief excerpt that shows a contestant being “murdered” (the one with the lowest score, apparently). This material forms the first portion of next week’s episode.
The numbers of contestants decrease each week, “murder” by “murder”, until the winner and murderer are revealed in the season finale. As this is being written, the Season 1 finale has not yet been broadcast; it’s due this evening.
Author: Anthony Zuiker, executive producer, who is also responsible for the CSI empire. I expect there are people employed as writers, and very talented ones too; the murder plots are complicated and subtle. However, they are not made a big deal of. It is clear that Zuiker has marshalled the considerable talents of the people who create the forensic exhibits for his programmes.
Other Data: Premiered June 23, 2013, on the CBS network in the United States; broadcast once weekly since. At the precise moment of writing this piece, the finale episode has not yet been broadcast.
About this program:
Note: This essay now reveals the solution to Whodunnit?, Season 1, which had actually not yet been broadcast at the time of writing. It also hints at the solution to an old Agatha Christie novel/film, Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None. Consider yourself warned.
My favourite television programme that I can think of is The Mole, especially the first two seasons in the United States hosted by Anderson Cooper. I don’t know how it happened, but The Mole‘s concept for a reality game show totally works. It’s satisfying, intellectually challenging, psychologically interesting — this is the pinnacle to which games like Survivor and Big Brother should aspire.
When I first heard about Whodunnit?, I thought it had potential to be a new Mole. I assured myself early on that it was not a remake of an eponymous poorly-done 80s programme from Great Britain that had actors enacting a stupid mystery story and C-listers trying to solve the crime in a hokey, jokey way. The idea that one of the contestants was secretly the murderer made me think that there was a possibility that this could be a mystery-themed Mole, and that had me wriggling with anticipation. Sadly, it fails to live up to this standard by a considerable degree, at least thus far.
The problem is that there is no real way to decide who the murderer is based on evidence with which the audience is provided. We haven’t yet seen the finale, so it may be that there is evidence I simply haven’t seen, but I’ve given each episode at least two screenings and there is just nothing there. We aren’t given any information about what the contestants are doing at the time of the murders (I think we are meant to assume that they are locked in their bedrooms) and while we are occasionally shown a fuzzy shot of a black-clad, black-gloved figure executing various murder-related deeds, it’s pretty obvious that this is a stand-in. The size and build of the individual keeps changing. In fact, there is nothing whatever available as a clue to the murderer’s identity. It’s like the murderer has been selected at random and may not even be aware that they ARE the murderer, if you know what I mean. This is the way it works in Cluedo; it’s always a surprise to find that your card is in the centre envelope. Whichever contestant is the murderer, they don’t have to DO anything. She doesn’t have to disguise her activities or her person, he doesn’t have to sneak around.
Most importantly, it’s perfectly obvious that all the murders are being scripted by professionals. I had thought that it would be easy to tell that some of the contestants were simply too dim to be able to come up with the murderous schemes, but it simply doesn’t matter. One of the murders has the victim going into the kitchen to cook his steak. As he places the steak into a frying pan on the stove, he steps on a pressure plate which releases a cougar from a hidden compartment in the kitchen; the real cause of death, however, is a spray of cyanide gas released from the interior of the stove from a hidden mechanism. Now, think about it. The murderer has to have excellent engineering skills in order to rig the mechanism in the stove and attach the hidden compartment to the pressure plate. Also, I’m not exactly sure where I’d get a cougar, but if I were doing so in the furtherance of a murder scheme, I’d have to find a way to acquire one without leaving a trail to my identity; darn near impossible. It’s not like there’s a website called Cougars R Us or anything that will cheerfully take your MasterCard number and deliver a cougar by FedEx. Indeed, it’s pretty much impossible for any of the contestants to both invent these fantastic plots and to carry them out without the resources of, say, professional mystery writers and the production team that is responsible for CSI. It’s fairly clear that Melina, a 29-year-old flight attendant from Chicago, is not capable of wiring a tank of gaseous cyanide into the internal workings of an oven or of controlling a live, angry cougar into a small secret compartment without screaming her face off; Melina is unlikely to be able to spell “cyanide” on the first try. Yet we have to believe that it’s possible that she could be the murderer.
In fact, there are many problems here with coherence, intellectual consistency, and logic. We are told that Giles the butler has been co-opted into helping the murderer by threat of death, and the butler is shown to be wearing an ankle bracelet that somehow prevents him from merely leaving the estate. And I gather that that’s how things like cougars make it into the house and are inserted into secret compartments in the kitchen; the butler did it, or allows it to be done. What we are NOT told is why Giles feels he has to cooperate with the murderer’s plans; surely he could find a way to lead the contestants to safety, if he wanted to do that. (Giles has an ankle bracelet that does … something … but the contestants are not so encumbered.) The maids are apparently not allowed to speak or even have facial expressions. Why don’t they leave? Are they confederates? Spear-carriers? Idiots? Speaking of idiots, why don’t the contestants together storm the gates and escape nearly-certain death?
Because this is all a polite fiction, of course. The contestants know that they are not in danger of actual death, and they want to earn a quarter of a million dollars. The problem is that the production tries to have it both ways. They want the contestants to seem to be afraid of “death”, and the contestants obligingly display fear when they’re about to receive cards that may indicate their imminent “death”. But if they truly were in danger of death, they’d be trying to escape. So there is a kind of cognitive dissonance here. Everyone is playing along with a flawed premise. The producers are winking at the audience, and that reduces it to the emotional level of a game of Cluedo.
So it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm with respect to who the murderer is; literally, it could be any of the remaining contestants, and the producers would simply announce that the guilty party had done all these things and we’d have to buy into it. The only place to insert a fingernail into the fabric of the “plot” and potentially unravel it is by noting which contestants are selected to be “scared”. And opinion is sensibly split. One contestant, Cris, has never been “scared”. Does that mean she’s the murderer? Or just that she’s pretty good at figuring out the mystery plots? Other contestants have been scared and survived. Since the murderer would obviously not have been killed — perhaps (see below) — this means that some contestants think that their selection for murderer has nominated herself for death without any expectation that this would happen. A kind of double-bluff. So, ultimately, there’s just nothing that the viewer can use to figure out whodunnit. And that really destroys the reason for following along with this, which to me is sad. I had high hopes for this.
My proposed solution: I actually have two solutions to offer. One is merely my best guess as to who the murderer is, and the other is what I would have done if *I* were writing this. I very much doubt that my second solution is even remotely correct, but I’ll offer it for your amusement.
My first solution is that Cris is the murderer (and that Kam will eventually win). There’s nothing I can really point to that indicates that this is the solution; there are no clues, nothing concrete or physical. It’s just a “feeling”. Cris didn’t seem as nervous as she might have done about being “scared”, and she never has been. And that’s the only conclusion I can come to after spending hours and hours watching this program — and that’s kind of depressing. I wanted more to chew on.
My own solution is probably against the “rules” of the program. It came to me earlier this week when I was watching the second-to-last episode and there was a scene by a pool table. Earlier in the week, I had pooh-poohed a suggestion by a friend who is not expert in the ways of detective fiction but who has a wonderful grasp of theatrics. (And here I have to name-check Neil Boucher; thanks for starting my brain rolling!) He’d mentioned casually, “Is it possible they’re doing some kind of Ten Little Indians thing here? Where one of the characters fakes his own death?” “Naaaaaah,” I said. But then a couple of the suspects were playing pool, and it took me back to the various filmed versions of the Agatha Christie classic that have the climax taking place around a pool table. “Could it be?” I thought. “How would they do that?”
So here’s my proposal — this is what I would have done if I didn’t care whether the program would be renewed and I just wanted to prove that I could run a double bluff on the audience. There was a single death that didn’t end up with the victim’s corpse available on a slab in the “morgue” for up-close identification; Adrianna, whose body ended up in a tree after her golf cart exploded. During that episode, a closed-circuit television camera shows Adrianna leaving the house and speeding away in the golf cart towards freedom, then kaboom! and her corpse ends up in the crook of a tree. Deliberately difficult to examine carefully, I think. But this is exactly the same bluff that was run by the guilty party in Ten Little Indians; pretend to be dead and continue to kill people in the house. Anyway, regardless of what I took in at the time, I suggest it’s possible to have shown the audience material that would make everyone think that Adrianna was dead but that she was still alive. The CCTV has been faked, Adrianna was holding her breath, or introduced a body double — one of the maids? I wasn’t keeping careful track of them early on in the series — or whatever.
Cut to the second-last episode. After the latest mystery has been solved, the four remaining contestants are told by Giles to enter a limousine, which is then driven off the grounds and down PCH. Importantly, at least to me, the four contestants are in the vehicle together the entire time. Suddenly the car slews around and heads for home in a hurry. The contestants enter Rue Manor and see a gigantic TV screen in a main room that wasn’t there when they left. The TV reveals that Giles is somewhere in the house, tied to a chair, and surrounded by dozens of guns pointed at him with strings attached to their triggers. Then the room fills with smoke and Melina, one of the two contestants who has already received a “scare” card, vanishes. And the episode ends without revealing in the usual way that Melina has been murdered.
Now, there are two things that could have happened while the contestants were in the limousine. The first is that the murderer’s henchmen/confederates captured Giles and tied him up. The second is that Adrianna could have done so, after emerging from concealment in the house. The point is, though, that if what we have seen on camera is true, then none of the four remaining contestants can be the person who tied up Giles. I think the cheezy way to explain this is that the killer had henchmen. I think the interesting way to explain it is that Adrianna is the killer.
Melina, the vanished contestant, had been having a hard time in the house. She had had an alliance with a group of other contestants who were all killed, one by one, leaving the field to the three other players who had been playing as a group (Kam, Lindsey and Cris). Melina was desperate to exploit any finger-hold that would give her enough information to survive the next elimination; she would have made any kind of deal with anyone to survive. I’ll suggest that the simplest solution is that Melina has been abducted and later killed under cover of the smoke, possibly with her own complicity, and that the three remaining contestants will solve her murder this evening. And, as I suggest, reveal Cris as the killer and Kam as the winner.
But if you think back to Ten Little Indians — remember the character of the doctor? He was enlisted by the murderer to add verisimilitude to his supposed death, and then vanishes. Near the end of the book, his body is found on the beach and he’s been dead for days, but in the meantime other characters have been ascribing all kinds of nefarious activities to him. It made me think of Melina. Has Melina had some kind of deal with Adrianna all the time? Has she been helping Adrianna by performing little tasks that would be too dangerous for Adrianna to accomplish, for fear of being seen? And has she now been gotten rid of under cover of the smoke? Perhaps we will receive plenty of hints that Melina is alive and trying to kill the other three players, and then her hours-old corpse will be found, in parallel to Ten Little Indians.
There was an interesting shot in the “next week’s show” snippets shown at the end of the penultimate program that showed a long line of “corpses” on the staircase; apparently all the “deceased” competitors have come to visit. I don’t have access to a recording so I’m unable to check to see if Adrianna was among them; to be honest, I don’t really care. I don’t think enough of this program to entertain the idea that my solution is correct; it’s way too smart for the level they’ve been presenting so far, it’s not really fair in terms of the competition (it would almost mean that all the “competitors” are really hired as actors) and it’s not what the lumpenproletariat has been expecting, hence they will be frustrated and angry should their simple expectations be thwarted. This is, after all, on ABC — not BBC2.
No, I think they’ll reveal that Cris is the killer and any and all inconsistencies will be explained away or ignored, which is kind of sad but predictable. I think I had a fun idea that, had it been true, would have been all over the internet for a week or so, as furious fans moaned and bitched about how they’d been cheated. (Much like I personally felt after the 2009 fiasco called Harper’s Island, where the most ridiculously impossible suspect turned out to be the murderer, for a reason that was pulled out of an unimaginative screenwriter’s ass.) And that will appeal to the lowest common denominator, who will tell their families as they watch that they knew all the time that that bitch Cris was the killer. Or whatever.
I’ve been unable to determine whether there will be a second season of this; my most reliable source, which is not reliable at all, suggests that it hasn’t actually been cancelled, which is far from confirming that it’s been picked up. I suspect it won’t be, because the game mechanism is too seriously flawed (although in an unobvious way). It needs some sort of rejigging and for the life of me, I cannot think of how to make this game work properly. Essentially, we have to have some way of seeing the contestants during the period of time when, say, the cougar is being introduced to the kitchen; did X or Y have time to slip away and lead in the cougar? And we also have to have a really clear idea of the boundaries of the game. I’m bothered by the idea, for instance, that the maids could be complicit in the crimes; we simply don’t know. The series has been skewed by the need to build it around the resources that produce CSI; there’s a lot of lingering camera work on what admittedly are realistic depictions of what would happen if you hooked a tank of liquid nitrogen into a hot tub and added a timer. But that’s not what we need to see; we need to see where Melina is an hour or so before the tank explodes. And all that expensive reconstruction is wasted. It seems likely, though, that if Mr. Zuiker realizes that the CSI resources are not useful in the context, he may well decline to produce another season.
I will look forward to tonight’s program, though, with great anticipation. I will revisit this in a day or so to bring you all up to date on what actually did happen, but I don’t intend to edit my predictions.
Postscript, after the final episode was aired: I was correct, in a sense. Cris was the killer, Kam was the winner. And I believe I am also correct that this solution is not very interesting, except perhaps for Kam, who took home $250K. There’s a set of interlocked puzzles that the contestants have to solve in order to get to the endgame; nothing to do with their knowledge of the killer, though. Melina is murdered, then Lindsey. Everyone’s alive at the end and shakes hands with Kam as he leaves with a briefcase full of money. Strangely, I wish I actually had been disappointed; I would have enjoyed being fooled. I certainly think my solution is more interesting. And I definitely think this game needs a few tweaks if and when they do season 2.
Post-postscript, a few days later: I note upon a review of the final episode that there is a third option with respect to how Giles ends up tied to a chair surrounded by guns. He said he tied himself up which, given what we saw, is pretty much ridiculous. He says later that he managed to wriggle free just in time to participate in the segment where the final three contestants run around the house solving puzzles, including one which asks them to decide whether or not Giles is the murderer.
Now, think about it. He ties himself up because he has been told to, surrounded by a dozen guns pointed at his head with wires or cords attached to their triggers. This is not something you do idly; he obviously expects some kind of fatal punishment should he not carry out instructions. This is also not something I think is actually physically possible, but let that lie unexamined; my belief has been officially suspended on this point. So for no apparent reason, he then decides to wriggle out of his bonds and participate. Why didn’t he just forego the nonsense and not tie himself up?
As noted above, the murderer is absolutely not in the house at this time — all four remaining contestants are speeding around PCH in a limousine. There’s no one watching to see that Giles ties himself up, except of course when the four return, they see Giles on TV. But it’s at this point that it’s clear that the producers just don’t care about any kind of intellectual rigour; they just want to make some fun visual images.
Is this bad? Hard to say conclusively. We’re not talking Jeopardy here, with respect to intellectual rigour; Jeopardy tries very hard to get its details right. But at the same time this cannot be logic-free entertainment like, say, the average science-fiction piece. Puzzle mysteries are focused on details and logic and internal consistency because they have to be. “If you were under observation by two witnesses at 8:34, then you can’t have committed the murder” type of thing. Whodunnit? tosses that requirement aside in small important details, and it’s just trying to entertain. As a friend remarked, it looked like they were having fun making it. I suppose I’m just grumpy because I was presented with something that looked like a puzzle mystery but that wasn’t worth the effort to try to follow along; rather like washing your hands with gloves on. The form is there but the function is useless.
Notes For the Collector:
This is currently being broadcast by ABC on Sunday evenings, to finish tonight. It’s available in my area in video-on-demand format, for free from my cable television service provider, but not for long. I don’t know if there are any plans to issue this in a boxed format; this occasionally happens. It’s also unclear at the time of writing whether this will be renewed for a second season. Probably a number of people have recorded it and you’ll be able to borrow a copy for viewing if you ask around hard enough.