Last year at MAGFest, I got to talking with a friend of a friend about mysteries, puzzles, and reality TV. All hopped up on caffeine, I gushed about the perfection that is The Mole, and he told me about Murder in Small Town X, which aired in late summer 2001 (shortly after The Mole season 1). It sounded great, and I found a means of watching it, but hadn’t gotten around to starting it until last week.
The basic premise of the show is that a family has been murdered in the small town of Sunrise, MD. Fifteen of the townspeople are suspects. The killer has invited ten people to Sunrise to play a “game” where they try to solve the mystery and uncover killer’s identity. At the end of each episode, the killer claims a new victim — one of the ten players.
I’m only a few episodes in and avoiding spoilers, so I can’t tell you much about the production of the show, but here is what I’ve gathered from watching. The players are living and “investigating” in a real town where actors have been hired to portray the fifteen suspects. The characters include the town mayor, local business owners, and the friends, enemies, business partners, and secret lovers of the victims. The players stay at a local cargo company building and are lead through the investigation by the host of the show, a real police investigator. Each day, they determine a number of different investigation tracks to pursue, and the group is split up among the tasks. These tracks include activities like questioning a suspect about their alibi, planting a surveillance bug on a suspect and listening in, guarding an open grave through the night, and searching a crime scene for evidence. Everything is super realistic and intense — one episode had the investigators on a stakeout in the woods for over twelve hours!
At the end of each day, the killer leaves one red envelope and one black envelope somewhere around town for the players to find. In the red envelope is a question relating to some detail the players have learned throughout their investigation. If they answer the question correctly, one of the fifteen suspects is cleared, helping their investigation. The black envelope holds two maps to the “killer clue,” and is part of the show’s elimination process, which is a little bit complicated. The “killer clue” is an important clue to the mystery planted directly by the killer. The black envelope has two maps — one leading to the killer clue, and another leading to the killer! The team must send two players, one to each location, knowing that one of them will be eliminated by the killer (they bluntly refer to this as “getting killed”). The team casts votes to choose one of the killer clue players, and a player selected as “lifeguard” (leader for the day) must choose the other. The next day’s lifeguard player is chosen via the killed player’s last will and testament video.
The killer clue search is exciting, with the players being sent to really creepy and very well-decorated locations, armed with just a flashlight and a vague idea of what they’re looking for (a cross made of flowers), all while knowing the killer might be waiting for them in the shadows instead.
So far I’ve been really impressed by this show. First of all, with fifteen characters played by improv-ready actors and a complex storyline involving the relationship between those characters, the show is extremely ambitious. The characters are colorful and interesting and interact well with the players as they investigate. Second, the setting is incredible. The players get sent to really interesting, highly detailed places that make the story feel more realistic. (One thing I can’t speak to is the post-production quality. My copy of the show is all blurry and chopped up! Unfortunate, since atmosphere and presentation are a few of the things I value most about The Mole, but hilarious because of the funny things people end up saying when the video jumps.)
The story has been fun to watch unfold so far. And it’s super Twin Peaksy, in concept and execution. You’ve got the small town full of weirdos, the local environment-based business that fuels the town’s economy (in this case, fishing), and the intense drama between the town’s residents. Some of the characters almost seem to be lifted straight from Twin Peaks, like the business partner who is meeting resistance over his new development project, or the high school girl making a move on her murdered best friend’s boyfriend. The show is even willing to take a walk on the spooky side with its “sweeper” characters — mysterious men in suits who can be seen sweeping (with brooms) at various places around town. Nobody knows who they are or what exactly they’re doing, but they seem to be everywhere.
I’ve often wondered how one could make a reality show where the players had to solve a mystery instead of doing all the normal action challenge crap in most reality shows. Murder in Small Town X seems to be raising its hand and saying “This is how.” Talk about narrative through gameplay — the players are acting out every step of solving this mystery and actively unraveling the story through their actions. They’re actually observing, learning, inquiring, finding evidence, and drawing conclusions. I can’t imagine the rush the players must get when they recognize that the pieces are coming together. The red and black envelopes are probably the most contrived element of the show, and they still feel fairly natural and well-executed.
I’m very interested in media and games that require and encourage teamwork, and Murder in Small Town X definitely fits the bill. There isn’t a ton of active teamwork, but things certainly go better when the players are getting along, leading well, and following well. There are opportunities for arguments over certain decisions, but beyond that it should really just be people enjoying solving a mystery together. Which is why it’s so frustrating to see a few specific players being antagonistic and creating drama where there shouldn’t be any. This is a game where it is clearly in your best interest to be as pleasant to work with as possible, otherwise you will be voted off. I know reality shows make a habit of casting people who have very strong personalities, but it can be painful to watch when it seems like “being right” and “being offended” are the core principals someone has adapted as their persona. Arg.
One more note, the show doesn’t really make a big deal about winning the grand prize. Probably because the prize is only $250k. Still, the intro of the show only talks about finding the killer and stopping more murders from happening, and the host of the show never seems to remind the players that any money is at stake either. It is never mentioned that the players are competing with each other over anything. I like this, it plays competition down and teamwork and narrative up.
I do have to say, it’s weird to watch a show like this and not be wondering who is lying. =) If you’re interested in this show, nfx naq lbh funyy erprvir. I might check in with a Part II once I finish the series with some spoilery thoughts!