The Contestants of Whodunnit? (Source: ABC)
The Contestants of Whodunnit? (Source: ABC)

Whodunnit?: Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on ABC

I always try to start these reviews with a little bit of context in which a show can be placed. The reason I tend to do that is because I feel that it’s important to see running threads in order to get a better feel for the environment in which a show exists. Sometimes it’s a big picture macro trend (for example, serial killers being in during the latter half of the 2012-2013) TV season. Other times, like tonight, it’s a network’s recurrent use of a trope to affect the trajectory of a show’s tone, much like tonight’s show, Whodunnit?

Whodunnit? is ABC’s newest reality game show and fits neatly within a recent trend for that network to have summer game shows that to some degree fit within the dangerous game trope (other examples being 2010’s Downfall and 2011’s 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show.) It involves our contestants running around trying to piece together murder’s caused by the show’s “killer”, because failure means… MURDER (cue scare chord).

It’s in those grisly and over the top murders that Whodunnit? tries to hang it’s hat on (as shown by said murders being large parts of the show’s advertising). Our premiere offered two such crime scenes, each one with different qualities of execution. The first such crime scene, in which our former cheerleader was found on the floor, surrounded by wire and an exploded aquarium felt incredibly contrived (the morgue scene also showed the very limits of the makeup department) but our late night wake-up in which Dontae was sent running out the door aflame felt considerably more impressive.

Unfortunately, outside of the shock of these initial murders, Whodunnit? becomes incredibly boring. The mystery genre hinges in part on causing the viewer to take guesses as to whom the culprit is (for that matter, most of our greatest game shows rely on a similar dynamic with the audience). Instead, Whodunnit? tends to take the viewer in a very linear path, often breezing over any potential red herrings and leading us straight to the clues, meaning that our murder often pieces itself together by the time our final clue is revealed halfway through the episode.

With the mysteries being way too straightforward (if this were a drama using the case of the week format, it would be solved by 20 past the hour), one would hope that other aspects of the show, such as the game within the game or the contestants’ personalities would make up for the deficiencies of the game itself. Whodunnit? disappoints on that count as well. Because the game does not force the contestants to ever really find out who the killer is, there’s actually no incentive for the killer to plant misleading theories, leading to the stagnant reality show “strategy” of basic alliances (in which no one actually trusts each other) and a simple question: to share or not share information? (and even then from a pure game play perspective, it’s always correct to be open since each contestant has a very limited slice of the puzzle).

A bright spot of the show is the Butler Giles (Gildart Jackson). Giles has an almost impossible task, trying to weave outlandish exposition while keeping the game moving and hardest of all keeping a straight face. I say that because our killer’s messages are incredibly campy, which makes the contestant’s “deadly serious” cutaway shots almost laughable in comparison.

The Final Verdict: Whodunnit? throws a lot of  special effects at you, but comes up lacking when it comes to the remaining 50 minutes of the hour. The end result is a paint by numbers mystery show that leaves no real surprises, a larger game within a game that feels redundant and forced, and a group of contestants that are difficult to relate to. Normally, I feel like ABC tends to put shows like this with Wipeout to fill a summer weeknight, but its’ separation from it’s natural partner felt like a sign of foreboding doom. Skip this and wait for the inevitable YouTube murder montage, by doing so you’ll have managed to see all of the good parts.