In case you missed it, ABC's Whodunnit was an exciting and fun (albeit campy) crime solving reality drama that debuted this summer. Each week, contestants scrambled to solve a fictional "murder," the demise of the latest eliminated contestant. Whodunnit's players were "killed off" based on how poorly they figure out the murder. Then their "murder" became the crime to be solved the following week. The objective of the game was to unmask the Killer among the contestants and be awarded $250,000 at the end. Each episode played out like CSI meets Big Brother, minus the live feeds and bawdy social drama characteristic of the latter. Contestants are stuck in a house ("Rue Manor"), alliances are formed, the overly-giggly girl could seem suspicious or harmless, and the beauty queen may not be a Mensa member, but there's something about her that propels the manor's Mensa member to align with her (and with Ms. Giggles).
"Reality Fiction" is how the show is best described, a term coined by the show's co-creator Anthony Zuiker who is also the creator of CSI. Whodunnit is the brainchild of Zuiker's collaboration with the reality TV pro that brought us shows like "The Surreal Life," "Rock of Love," "I love New York" and "Megan Wants a Millionaire" to name a few. I spoke with Zukier and that reality pro, Cris Abrego, for Huffington Post to follow up on an earlier interview I had conducted with one of Whodunnit's contestants, the Mensa member and Homeland Security attorney Kam Perez http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shira-hirschman-weiss/whodunnit-abc-tv_b_3631531.html.
Zuiker explains that he was constantly scribbling away murder solving scenarios, writing and rewriting, for a case that contestants (who are not actors) would have to crack. Being that contestants were real people from varying walks of life, some of their reactions and strategies were unpredictable to both Abrego and Zuiker, both trained to anticipate twists and turns. Zuiker says that he and Abrego expected some of the skeptical media responses and "we always had one over the press," stumping theories about the killer's identity and dismissive assertions about the show overall (ratings rose, then fell and then rose again before leveling out).
Yes, Whodunnit was supposed to be somewhat silly, according to Abrego and Zuiker, and that was as deliberate as the writing that would keep folks constantly guessing. To many viewers, Whodunnit was comparable to a group of friends gathered in a living room game of Clue. Although the contestants knew they were figuring out a fictional murder, they truly were fighting for their lives in the game. In the meantime, the Killer was playing his or her own game to outwit the other contestants, casting suspicion on fellow cast mates. For instance, Ms. Giggles and the lady who sounded (irritatingly) like Nancy Grace were easy targets. Are they murderers or just innocuous oddballs? Viewers wondered.
What was most surprising about Whodunnit was the fact that not only was the audience in the dark as to the Killer's identity, but so was Anthony Zuiker who wrote out the scenarios beforehand and was frequently revising the script to outwit contestants, viewers and cynical media. He deliberately did not want to know who Abrego had chosen to be the bad guy. At one point, Zuiker relates, he frantically approached Abrego and said "You better figure this out! Adriana is the killer and everybody knows!" It sounds impossible to stump the brains behind CSI, yet somehow the man who had steered Brett Michaels through a germ-fest of sloppy sevenths had one over the king of blood-spattered sleuthing. Zuiker didn't actually crack the case until one of the very last episodes, and "Giles," Rue Manor's butler and the show's host (played by actor Gildart Jackson), was completely in the dark until the finale.
"My job was to figure out how to give the cast the purest possible reactions," says Abrego. "They weren't clued in to how things were happening which is why the episode 'Dontae's inferno' was when the game got real for them." He reiterates what Perez told me in our interview about how the fear that you see as contestants react to someone running on fire was 100 percent genuine.
"By collaborating with Anthony Zukier, we were able to get those reactions. This really came together by using stunts and working with the people that Anthony had worked with. Melina (one of the contestants) is a real person who cries too much and seems truly scared. We also see Kam buying into the narrative..." These raw reactions, explains Abrego, were what gave Whodunnit the extra oomph that is the recipe for delicious reality TV.
Zuiker adds that despite the fact that he and Abrego were creating something akin to figuratively juggling with fire (or literally running in it): "ABC gave us complete and unconditional freedom. They trusted Cris and me." Incidentally, Dontae's stunt double, a woman, looks practically identical to Dontae which is why contestants feared that it actually was Dontae running on fire.
The two confirm (while adding "hey, we're not going to give away ALL our secrets to you!") that EMTs and fire fighters were standing by for "Dontae's Inferno." Nevertheless, contestants were terrified, not having been clued in to the behind the scenes secrets, like stunt doubles.
Abrego explains that Perez approached production and said "I'm not going to 'die' the way Dontae did! There is no way I'm going out on fire." He had to be reassured and encouraged a few times to remain on the show and in the game.
One reaction that mystified production and show fans alike was the initial response on Twitter by viewers who thought contestants were actually murdered. "Post mortem" interviews, initially intended for either website material or the cutting room floor, had to be edited in to the end of each episode so gullible viewers could see that no contestants were actually killed during the filming of this show.
When Abrego had initially pitched a looser concept of Whodunnit to ABC, before Zukier even entered the picture, "CSI" was mentioned and it was suggested that Abrego talk with Zukier. At that point in time, no one could have predicted that the serious CSI guy would agree to join forces with a man whose credits included playing cupid to an eye-lined, bandana-clad aging rocker. But Zukier loved the concept of Whodunnit, and it figures that the blueprints to a season I'm still trying to wrap my head around were mapped out in a single lunch meeting.
Will there be a Whodunnit2? For now, the party line answer is "no comment" but Zukier is always creating new mysteries. When fans expressed on Twitter how much they missed the show on Sunday nights, Zukier continued the story line by creating Twitdunnit, now rapidly joining the ranks of popular social media pastimes.
When I propose the theoretical "How would you change things for a Whodunnit2?" Zuiker says ""I don't know if I would change anything. If there was one thing, maybe to add a wrinkle in the gameplay to make it more exciting. What really worked for us was our commitment to not spoon feed the audience. If we had spelled out the A-Z of the show in the first episode, then the allure of the show might have been lost. In the end, we saw that the younger generation liked the fact that we didn't talk down to the audience."
I won't completely spoil Whodunnit for readers as episodes can be caught up on online (recommended!), but I will say that somehow, an expert crime writer provided a script with plans for a Killer. That same writer had no idea who the Killer would be...Yet somehow a reality TV titan made it all fit!
Remember Flavor Flave's quest for love on VH1? That was the 'reality TV titan', Cris Abrego. Remember when Peter Brady shacked up with the America's Next Top Model winner (My Fair Brady)? That too was Cris Abrego.
Looking back on Whodunnit, the biggest mystery is this:
How did the man behind Rock of Love outwit the creator of CSI?