**Warning** This post will have some spoilers about the show. I will put spoilers in black-on-black text. (The rest should be safe enough to read, unless you want to go in completely blank.) I highly recommend watching it before you read any spoilers. It’s just 8 quick episodes. You won’t regret it!
I just finished watching the final episode of Murder in Small Town X, and I have to say that show is really something special!
When I hear the phrase “murder mystery,” I’m not sure why, but my brain goes to the most mundane of possible scenarios. Very few suspects with simple motives and boring evidence. Instead, Murder in Small Town X had fifteen suspects (and at one point I was sure that certain murders had been committed by several different people, some of whom went on to be murdered themselves and cleared from the suspect list ), each with a whole host of secrets, agendas, and strange relationships, and the story even ended up connecting to the dark history of the town itself. By the end, the players were really drawing on the clues they had picked up along the way, including many things that weren’t super obvious.
Not only was the mystery itself compelling and great, the plot was full of crazy twists and ridiculous action. I couldn’t believe some of the crazy, creepy things they had the players doing and seeing. I’m going to list all the cool things I remember, so don’t read this part if you want to enjoy the show: A house boat exploded. One player found two human fingers in a sardine can. Players had to re-assembled a shredded document from a bag full of shredded documents. One player found a sealed vault, and when it was blasted open by a demolition team, the players found 8 decomposed bodies from the 1940s inside. The actors were constantly getting into fights and getting shoved through glass windows. Two players found a sealed off room that was the long-abandoned headquarters for a secret society. Each episode, two players had to go explore a creepy location at night, knowing there was a 50/50 chance they were not alone and would be eliminated by the killer. Two players had to assimilate into a religious cult to get 5 minutes of face-time with its eccentric leader. One night, a player was in a house with two other actors, her partner stationed outside, when she heard a shot downstairs — she went down to check it out and found herself standing in blood, the back door unlocked, and one actor missing. One player thought she found a dead body in a house — he was not dead and woke up screaming. Two players had to sit out in the woods for twelve hours waiting for a certain car to drive by. Two players had to dig up a grave. That’s all I can remember off the top of my head, except for the crazy, crazy, CREEPY ending which I won’t spoil here.
This just must have been such a fun show to be a part of. I don’t think there exists another reality show that caters to the players to such an extent. This whole incredible murder mystery was just there, waiting for the players to step inside. Each set piece just waiting for them to get set on the right track, each piece of evidence waiting to be found, each character waiting to be approached about their alibi.
Sara Thacher used the term LARP (Live Action Role Play) to describe the show, and that’s probably the best description. Are there any other reality shows out there that use actors? Or that require players to role-play? (Not counting the Mole player in The Mole). Or that even have a plot-line? It’s such an interesting idea, and I’m glad it worked for this show. I really wonder how immersed the players really were in the story and the game. I feel like I would be constantly smiling and laughing at the realistic acting, or that I’d laugh instead of scream if the killer caught me. The players really did seem immersed.
It was also interesting to see how the show dealt with the logistics of trying to get a group of people to solve a mystery. The police investigator leading the team played a huge role here, basically walking the players through the steps of the investigation and prompting them to interpret the clues the correct way. I’m really curious about the way certain things maybe played out that got edited differently. What happened if players missed a key clue? Did the players really find some of those really inconspicuous pieces of evidence like a black plastic trash bag full of shredded paper , or did the producers and actors help them out a bit? There was at least one instance where they seemed to bend the rules a bit to correct a mistake by the players: When the players were setting up a camera to spy on two suspects, they ran out of time to set up the audio. “Luckily” the camera was able to pick up “some” audio anyway, which included some key clues. I can’t imagine how hard the creators of this show must have worked to keep everything moving smoothly and to make sure the players uncovered the mystery at the right pace.
(That being said, one logistical problem remains: Technically, none of the players solved the mystery. I’m not sure how I feel about that.)
The show must have been amazing to experience, but it struck me how different it was from other reality TV shows, particularly with its lack of competition. A reward was promised to the winning investigator, but it was never a focus for any of the players (or if it was, the expression of that desire was edited out). The finale was the only episode where I heard someone mention the possibility of a player withholding information from the rest of the team, and it never actually happened. Aside from general bickering between particularly volatile players, there was little tension among the team.
This is probably due to the fact that the game itself wasn’t exactly competitive. Players could only save themselves from elimination by being agreeable and appearing to be valuable to the team, and the pacing of the release of the clues meant that no player would be able to confidently identify the killer until the final episode and in fact, nobody did confidently identify the killer in the end, so one player couldn’t really mislead the rest. And the final track by the two remaining investigators was anything but fair (though it turned out alright in the end).
I’m always talking about how much I love collaboration, but in the case of Murder I feel like there was a bit of missed opportunity with the team dynamics. The players were not competing, but they weren’t exactly collaborating most of the time either. Team dynamics just seemed to be missing all together. Actually, to some extent, the game was almost bordering on a passive experience for the players. They were told where to go and what to do, and for the most part the action sort of happened around and before them. It was certainly more interactive than just watching a theatrical performance, but I think it required less direct action on the parts of the players than most reality shows. There was only one episode in particular that was interesting in this regard: Jeff and Alan were sent to DeBeck’s compound to take part in a “cleansing” ritual day. They were put through a number of grueling mental and physical challenges over the course of 8 hours. The pair expressed that they were both internally competing with each other, each not willing to give up until the other did.
Murder was also interesting in its presentation as a story, not a game or a TV show. In The Mole, the contestants frequently used their video journals to express thoughts about topics such as the stress of the game, their desire to win, or their desire to go back home. There wasn’t really a narrative purpose for the show, and players didn’t really have a character to break. The reality show/game was the only narrative frame they had. In Murder, on the other hand, the players all seemed to be fully immersed in their roles as investigators and rarely referenced the “game” (and then, only as “the killer’s game”), and never addressed the fact that they were on a TV show. I do wonder if the players ever discussed the stress of the game/show, and if it was just edited out in the end to keep the theme of the show. In short, the presentation of the show was not self-aware in any way. I think this was a smart move.
I think that’s all I have to say for now about the show. More thoughts might surface after some time has passed. It’s a shame that the show was not a commercial success. Was the story too hard to follow? Was it the lack of player action? The lack of competition? I’m looking forward to checking out the British version, The Murder Game, and seeing what it did differently (and apparently what it did wrong).
Also, if anyone who has seen the show wants to talk about how totally nutso Jeff went when he was on the killer clue tracks, I am so up for that.