“Whodunnit?” Premiere: Is It “Clue” Or Just Clueless?

ABC’s new murder mystery reality series is fun, but ridiculous. Should we tune in again?

Whodunnit

ABC’s summer mystery series Whodunnit? is a reality competition that combines two sacred things: 1) The nutty ensemble mania of Clue (complete with a histrionic cast of murderous contestants), and 2) the awesome “There’s a crook among us!” suspense of The Mole, my favorite Anderson Cooper-hosted show. Take that, 360.

The problem: Whodunnit? is heavy on contrivance and near-senseless gameplay. I’ll be watching the entire season anyway thanks to my love of The Mole and the way Lesley Ann Warren brandishes a candlestick against her milky bodice, but the show needs work.

Hypothetically, the show makes total sense: 13 strangers enter a mysterious mansion, one of them is secretly a murderer, and the rest of the contestants try solving a new crime every week as the killer lurks and works in their midst. The problem is in the technicalities: Every week the contestants study a crime scene (which would be more fun if this were, say, an interactive CD-ROM game from ’97) and individually offer up a solution for how the crime occurred, complete with wild hypotheses and dramatic accusations out of a Basil Rathbone caper. Then the killer chooses to murder the contestant whose solution he/she deems least “impressive” (?!?), and that murder becomes the featured case for next week’s episode. At the end of this show, we’ll have a bunch of murdered contestants, a surviving winner, and a murderer whose identity is revealed. And of course, there are extra hints sprinkled throughout the episode so we can deduce the killer’s identity too.

Before I dig into Whodunnit?‘s other problems, let’s count up what I really liked about the episode.

1. The hokey-ass grim reaper butler

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Naturally our crew of suspects reports to an enigmatic butler named Giles (British actor Gildart Jackson), and you better believe Giles is not half-stepping the “ominous” requirement of his post. Faraway stares, cryptic clues, damning delivery — it’s all very Agatha Christie, which is just what I want in this Ten Little Indians scenario.

2. The versatile, ridiculous cast of suspects

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There’s someone for everyone to root for and against on this show. Or you can root against everyone, which is fun too. Let me shock you with my favorite: I’m into alpha-jackass and “TV Crime Reporter” Adrianna, who’s constantly reminding us that’s she’s eavesdropping, collecting information, and essentially annoying the hell out of everyone. She is Gale Weathers, and she’s going to get this story. There’s always an annoying player on these shows (namely every season of The Mole), and what I’ve found is the annoying player routinely makes it very far, though he/she is almost never the culprit. So far, I’m on her side.

3. The shocking production value

The editing, storyboarding, and endless mansion minutia make for a good-looking, swift mystery show. A billiard room! Maid costumes! A creepy morgue for some reason! Everything looks about right (I’m even OK with the ridiculous “crime scene” corn syrup blood), and that means the party game at hand is a rightfully decadent one.

Now, the stuff that needs work.

1. Less “acting” from the contestants

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We’re all well-aware that no one is actually getting murdered on this show. So why are all the contestants giving dramatic confessionals about how scared they are to die? There is nothing scary about this show, and that shouldn’t be a problem. The intrigue is the fun of Whodunnit?, so I don’t understand why every contestant from bounty hunter Ronnie to ex-homicide detective Don is quavering with fear and hyperventilating about the dangers at hand. Just play the game, dammit! We don’t need to feel like Andrew Cunanan is on the loose at Whodunnit Manor. Get your clues, throw us off the track, and win. 

2. Clarity on the rules? Are there rules? 

Sasha, a journalist and relatively low-key contestant, was deemed the most “impressive” player by the killer this week. Question: What does this mean? Was she on the right track? Was she the most thorough? Was she the most original? Did she wear the niftiest deerstalker cap? We don’t know what the hell “impressive” means, and therefore we don’t know what the killer’s standards are.

3. Harder puzzles

At the top of the debut episode, a contestant named Sheri was killed in a complicated murder near a fishtank (which the contestants spent the episode solving). OK, if I’m supposed to be invested in the drama of this game, clues need to be more difficult to find than writing on the bathroom mirror. Particularly if there’s a steam machine near that mirror, and the contestants use it to discover the message. The blunt obviousness here is less Agatha Christie and more Scooby Doo. Yikes. Or should I say, jinkies.

4. We need Ulysses in the nude

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This is one of the contestants. He has a wife for some reason, but I’m hoping he solves the mystery of my libido and strips soon.

5. Even more bizarre deaths

Without giving the ending away, last night’s episode concluded with a contestant death that was about as eye-popping and crazy as anything you’d see in a ’70s B-movie gorefest. In fact, it was slapstick-level zany. I’m hoping we see more of this mania, because then the camp factor of Whodunnit? will overwhelm the phony “We’re all going to die!” shrillness at hand. Murder mysteries are campy. Let the mystery be campy and the contestants be realistic. It doesn’t take a sleuth to see this.

Are you watching this kooky farce? I’m in, and you’re invited to my mansion too.

Whodunnit airs Sundays at 9/8c on ABC. You can catch last night’s episode online below.

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