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A Short History of the Reality TV Whodunnit

The CW's Killer Camp is the latest in a limited but fervently appreciated subgenre.
  • A leather jacket-clad Anderson Cooper hosted The Mole, which premiered on ABC in 2001.
    A leather jacket-clad Anderson Cooper hosted The Mole, which premiered on ABC in 2001.

    Two weeks ago, The CW premiered its new (to American audiences anyway) reality series Killer Camp. A hit when it first aired in the UK over five nights last October (ahead of Halloweeen, natch), the show is a reality-series send-up of the '80s serial-killer-at-a-summer-camp thriller. Eleven strangers are put up at a "summer camp," where one by one they're bumped off, with the survivors left to determine which among them is the "killer" before they get "murdered" themselves.

    A fun series that doesn't take itself too seriously, Killer Camp is the latest in a limited but fervently appreciated subgenre: the reality TV whodunnit. Over the years, reality competitions have run the gamut, prizing skills such as outdoors survival knowledge, fashion design, culinary exploits, and sitting around a house doing nothing all summer with some of the worst people in the country (public service announcement: Big Brother returns next week). But far too few far shows have gone the route of the whodunnit, letting the audience play along with a mystery and keeping the identity of the perpetrator secret until the last possible moment. The major drawback of the genre is that, yes, it usually involves a ton of artifice. If you've ever been to a murder-mystery party or participatory dinner theater, you know it takes special skill to sell the idea that a murder has just taken place. There's always the risk that the audience will be pulled out of the show as they struggle to suspend their disbelief. But, if handled with the proper panache, viewers can easily be swept along in the fun, and everybody can go on the same ride together.

    The modern precursor to the reality whodunnit was actually never a murder mystery at all. ABC premiered The Mole in January of 2001, seven months after Survivor kicked off the American reality competition craze. Hosted by Anderson Cooper, The Mole was a decidedly cerebral take on the genre. The premise saw contestants complete complex tasks as a team, with the knowledge that one of them, in secret, was The Mole, working to sabotage their efforts and keep them from winning prize money. A task was attempted every week, then the contestants would answer a detailed quiz about the identity of the Mole, with the lowest scorer being eliminated. Aside from the audacity of a reality TV show where the climactic event each week is a quiz, The Mole was a triumph of atmosphere, with the art direction, graphics, and music all convincingly selling a ral sense of paranoia. The show didn't exactly set the ratings on fire, but its fans were fiercely loyal, and it lasted for two regular seasons, two celebrity seasons, and then returned after a four-year hiatus for a fifth season. It remains one of the most well-regarded reality series of the early wave.

    Also in 2001, and much less heralded, was the now-forgotten Fox reality show Murder in Small Town X. This was a legitimate murder-mystery competition, where contestants were flown to a small town in Maine and asked to be investigators into the murder of a fictional local family. The murderer wasn't among the contestants, but was instead one of the locals who the players had to investigate, much like in a real murder-mystery party. Murder in Small Town X was not a major success in the ratings, perhaps due to the incredibly convoluted way the game was played, involving secret envelopes, calling out contestants to play the "Killer's Game," and more. After the first season ended on September 4, 2001, the winner, a New York City firefighter named Angel Juarbe Jr., was killed in the September 11th attacks. There was never a second season.

    The next great reality TV whodunnit series was actually called... Whodunnit. Airing in the summer of 2013 on ABC, Whodunnit went all-in on the artifice, creating a mystery game that was at once compelling and incredibly funny. The show gathered its contestants and tasked them with playing a traditional murder mystery. Thirteen guests gathered at a Beverly Hills mansion (called "Rue Manor") and were given instructions by a butler named Giles, who affected the most incredibly haughty demeanor as he hosted the show. In a template similar to the movie version of Clue, the butler led the contestants through tasks designed to help them uncover the identity of the murderer, who was also one of the competitors. Each week, the contestants were called upon to guess the identity of the killer and how they committed the murders. The lowest scoring contestant ended up dead at episode's end, in some really funny/silly/campy ways. Whodunnit was dumb, but it fully knew it, and the show's small audience was vocal in its approval.

    Whodunnit wasn't a perfect game. The eventual winner never once correctly guessed who the killer was, while the runner-up had identified the perpetrator in Week 1. The show was screaming for a second season, where tweaks to the gameplay could be made, and the show's entertaining tone could be put to more satisfying use. Alas, the summer of 2014 rolled around and Whodunnit was nowhere to be found.

    Every now and again, a new whodunnit show will crop up. 2016 saw Escape the Night, a YouTube murder mystery hosted by prominent YouTuber Joey Graceffa. The show incorporated elements of escape rooms in its concept, and with the help of Graceffa's popularity, it lasted four seasons. Likely owing to the nature of its YouTube insularity, it never broke out as a mainstream hit.

    Killer Camp's first two outings haven't exactly set the ratings on fire for The CW (although really, at this point what could?), but I'd still posit that a good reality whodunnit is exactly what we need right now. A solvable problem? Something we can put our minds to that will yield results? A fun genre pastiche without any actual consequences? Sounds killer.

    Killer Camp airs Thursday nights on The CW at 8:00 PM ET. Past episodes are available for streaming on TheCW.com

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Killer Camp, The CW, The Mole, Murder in Small Town X, Whodunnit