Whodunnit: all your questions answered

ABC’s Whodunnit didn’t turn out to be a new version of The Mole, but it has become an imperfect but fun summer show. Some of the things that have frustrated viewers were actually done by design, including not giving the contestant playing the murderer any information about the murders he or she supposedly committed.

I learned that and more talking with Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator of CSI, who joined the ABC reality series when it was being developed as a show called Dead Celebrity. The game wasn’t quite working, so ABC president Paul Lee brought Zuiker in to work with Cris Abrego–best known for The Surreal Life and all the VH1 Love shows–and they turned it into Whodunnit.

Zuiker remained a hands-on-producer, and wrote the companion book–though even he didn’t know the identity of the murderer. In fact, the murderer doesn’t even know how he or she committed the crimes. Ultimately, the murderer is nothing more than a device until the very end of the show; this is not The Mole where the person has to perform tasks of some kind. (Because of that, casting a murderer seems to me to be completely pointless, and I wish that one of the contestants wasn’t the murderer: it could have just been, say, the fictional, never-seen owner of the mansion.)

Here are more behind-the-scenes details about the show’s format and production:

  • The murderer. The murderer does not know how the murders were committed because “they have to be a real contestant” who works alongside other contestants to solve the crimes. And Zuiker said that the murders “are motive-less crimes …. so it is rinse and repeat in terms of crime solving week to week.” I asked Zuiker if the murderer contestant could be marked for elimination by receiving a “scared” card, since s/he did not have any information about the actual crimes and thus could fail the test. “I can’t answer that one because it may give some stuff away,” he said.
  • The murderer’s identity. Even Zuiker did not know who the murderer was, at least not until the eighth episode. “I swear to you, I said Dontae, and then I said Adrianna, and then I said Don, and then I stopped guessing. Literally had no idea,” he said. The producers who did know cast “somebody that could compete very, very hard and go through all the motions like a normal contestant and not be sniffed out by the audience.” Can we tell who the murderer is? “There are very, very subtle hints if you watch the shows very closely that may lead to a particular person, but they’re very subtle,” Zuiker said.
  • Scared/spared cards and the test contestants take. Those who receive “scared” cards are actually those who have earned “the lowest scores on the written test,” Zuiker said. Why does the show not include that exam? He said ABC reality executive “John Saade didn’t want to stop and show people taking a test…that’s just not great television. We committed to reality fiction, this new genre, and we wanted to keep people in the moment dramatically, almost like a CSI would unfold, and not break the fourth wall by stopping and showing them taking a test for a reality competition. And whether that was the best call or not, it’s a call that I made early in the show, and I’ve stood by it. … I wanted to stay in the dramatic moment.”
  • “Reality fiction” and not explaining the rules. There’s a surprising amount of confusion for a show that is so simple, but that’s because the show doesn’t explain much on screen, though confusion was not the intent. “The audience is smarter than me. We really didn’t want to overly explain the rules of the game, but really let the reality fiction of the format take over,” Zuiker said. “We wanted it to be simple and fun.”
  • Contestants lying to each other. That contestants withhold information or lie to each other was intentional: “We were definitely looking for that to happen,” Zuiker told me. However, contestants can’t figure out the crimes “with 100 percent accuracy” without knowing what the riddle challenge reveals, and what clues were at each crime scenes. As to the riddle, Zuiker said it “is designed to mop up anything we couldn’t possibly cover or give you a more on-the-nose smoking gun,” such as static electricity, which caused the death-by-fire.
  • The people who think the show really kills its contestants, like “a reality snuff film.” “I don’t really know how to wrap my head around somebody thinking that we would commit crimes on a network and kill people. I don’t know how to really process that,” Zuiker told me, attributing their strange reactions to the production design. “I think our makeup effects artist is so good that people believe that there’s actually real murders happening on the show,” Zuiker said. But he also gave those people a lot of credit: “It looks so real and we did such a good job producing it that people were really saying in jest it looks like they’re really killing people. I don’t think anybody really thinks that we would be murdering a human being on the air.” Alas, I think they do.
  • Post-show confessionals with the corpse. They were added because people watched the first episode and thought the murders were real. “I was very against that from the very beginning, but I really had no choice because apparently America was quite confused early, and we lost a 1.3 million viewers, so we had to make some adjustments to see if we could get those viewers back,” Zuiker told me.
  • CSI’s influence. “We brought everything over to Whodunnit in terms of interesting crimes, evidence that we laid out for the contestants, [and] some of them key personnel,” such as CSI’s composer, makeup effects artist, and two writers. However, the crimes and forensics were “very CSI-light,” he said, so viewers and contestants could piece together crimes. “We wanted to make sure that the everyday contestants were able to swap information and begin to construct theories.”
  • Whether or not the contestants are acting and/or in fear for their lives. Zuiker told me that he’s baffled by viewers who think the cast members are actors. “How do you possibly think people are acting? All the tears are real, they really are scared to death–not that they’re scared to lose their own lives and be killed and put in a grave … but they really are scared to get kicked off the show, and that fear of them getting kicked off is the fear of them dying.”

    He said “the only scripted part of the show is just really the butler’s dialogue.” In addition, the cast was not prompted in any way: “We don’t tell them anything. … I know from the outside in, that’s probably how it can be perceived. When we ran the stunt double who was set on fire for Dontae at four in the morning, those people were freaked out. Those tears were real. They weren’t expecting that. They know that Dontae the real person is not dead, but they were so shocked that that’s the way he exited, it just became real to them.” He added, “I wish there was a 15-second commercial on ABC that just says, ‘Attention: Nobody’s acting. We never tell them to say one word. Nobody’s crying on purpose because we said ‘cry.'” Zuiker also said “it’s just emotionally taxing to try to solve these crimes under this kind of duress for this kind of money, and being cut off from your loved ones, it’s very, very stressful.”

  • Death scenes. The cast members were, however, asked to act out their death scenes after they were eliminated from the competition. The two or three people who had the lowest scores were separated from each other and the rest of the cast, and then the eliminated contestant was approached by Anthony Zuiker, Cris Abrego, or both. They told the contestants to “spend the next day and a half to really enjoy the experience of being killed” and Zuiker said “all of them were all for it; nobody got mad, nobody raised a stink, everybody left with grace.” Sometimes, as with last week’s death by cougar, producers would “send them back into the field where they have to keep the secret, and they have to play it out very briefly. If there’s any acting, it’s them playing out their own murder, because they have to do that, obviously.”
  • The Boston marathon bombing. Incredibly, the April 15 bombings of the Boston marathon happened on the exact same day Whodunnit filmed Adrianna’s death by golf cart explosion, an episode titled “Kaboom.” While the contestants were sequestered and cut off from the outside world, including friends and family, as is typical for reality competitions, Zuiker said, “We had to tell them” what happened. The production allowed the cast to “touch base with home,” and then re-confiscated their cell phones.
  • ABC’s The Mole and Fox’s Murder in Small Town X. Zuiker never watched either show, and said, “we had some executives at ABC who were on The Mole, and they kept us from doing things that felt like The Mole.”
  • Ratings and ABC’s support. The network “really pushed us to be aconventional in terms of our execution,” Zuiker said. However, ratings haven’t been strong. “We’ve licked our wounds … now the challenge for us is how do we get a new audience in to build upon the three million people. Those that experience the show are rabid, loyal fans. It’s a very tough summer, it’s a very tough demo, it’s very competitive. We have a heck of a challenge in front of us to try to get new viewers. ABC is so bullish on the show we’re just trying to gain more awareness. I think people are missing out; I really do,” he said.

    “If you can get past the gut reactions–oh, it’s acting; oh, it’s fakey; oh it’s hokey; and oh it’s silly–if you can get past all those things that people jumped on early and see it for what it is and realize that Anthony Zuiker, who’s done the biggest shows in the world, would never do anything hokey and silly–if they could just see that, I think they’d enjoy it like we’re enjoying it.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.