Death Be Not Proud

Who said reality television pandered to voyeurism? Fox's Murder in Small Town X

For any honest reality-TV viewer, an essential part of the fun (or horror) of the genre is the sheer anthropological variety it discloses: So these are all the ways to live your life. To those less charitably inclined, reality TV provides ample evidence of the public's slumping level of intellectual achievement. Allegedly, 40 percent of American high school seniors can correctly identify the U.S. on a map of North America--which, to be fair, is a healthy seven points better than they would score by random guessing. (If cultural-literacy advocate Allan Bloom weren't already dead, you can imagine him innocently flipping on UPN and immediately keeling over from despair.) But prospecting in truly dire precincts like Change of Heart and Street Smarts makes you wonder if most of us get even dumber after graduation. One passer-by on Street Smarts, asked to use the obscure word Sioux in a sentence, pondered mightily and came up with "I went to the store, but they didn't have no Soo-ix."

I thought that was the worst, but at the conclusion of the first episode of Fox's rather clever Murder in Small Town X, Shirley, a capable-looking buppie businesswoman, goes all to pieces when sent out to either find a clue or meet the "killer" and lose her chance to win $250,000. Now, I know she's not actually going to be killed. The killer, whoever he or she is, knows Shirley is not going to get killed. But there Shirley is, sent out to wander a (admittedly rather spooky) chicken ranch near midnight, chattering with fear and telling her daughter, "If I don't make it out of here...Mommy loves you." Someone should probably make sure she doesn't rent Blair Witch anytime soon without first strapping on some adult diapers.

I would love to say that Murder (8:00 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox) achieves such terror by virtue of its seamless merging of fantasy and reality, but that would be stretching things. After a (fictional) creepy triple murder documented on grainy video (an impressive effect, though I'm not sure where you buy a home camera with built-in horror filters), ten "real-life" contestants trek up to Sunrise, Maine, to solve the case. The town itself is a typical New England village, implausibly recast by Hollywood: There's an East Indian taxi driver, a black chief of police, and a black jazz-club owner with dreadlocks, to name three types who I bet don't exist much north of the Massachusetts state line. The murder itself, though carried off with all the gory trimmings that must apparently accompany the deed these days (clues so far have included pools of blood, a body discovered in the ocean, and two fingers in a sardine tin), seems to be rooted in a satisfyingly twisty set of motives. And enough red herrings have been strewn so far to keep any halfway devoted viewer interested in seeing how it all turns out.

Yet rather than standing as an enveloping real-life simulation, the show moves with the programmed pace and direction of a pretty good video game, including the pro-am acting of the suspects who "live" in town and police officer/moderator Sgt. Gary Fredo, who tells the contestants exactly what to do next. The net effect is that of an extremely expensive children's party: Instead of doing any detecting on their own, the investigators go where Sergeant Gary tells them to, look for what he tells them to seek, then come dutifully back to share their prizes. They glow visibly when he tells them that they got something right. (The good sergeant even seems to have readied PowerPoint slides that display the implications of the newest clues even before the investigators shout them out--which detracts somewhat from the intellectual excitement this show could cultivate.)

The killer entices the contestants to "play my game," which they keep finding unaccountably scary and challenging. Why that should be the case, I'm not sure, since his/her "game" is not one of those cat-and-mouse affairs that brilliantly twisted murderers are always directing at brainy-but-hurting detectives in serial-killer novels and movies. No, this "game" is quite obviously Survivor. Every three days, the investigators meet to receive a red envelope and a black one (tribal council). The red envelope asks them a question; if they answer correctly, another suspect is eliminated. Then the black envelope sends one investigator, chosen by the group ("the tribe has spoken"), and another, chosen by the lifeguard (possessor of the immunity idol), off to either find a clue or meet the killer. No element of skill is involved in this--the killer waits at one location, a clue at the other--but the variously hardy or hapless investigators fortify themselves anyway. "Mentally tough, mentally tough. Only the strong survive," vows irritating Andy, a brash Chicagoan who nonetheless meets his "death" in the second episode.

Anthropologically, then, the most interesting feature of Murder is its contestants' capacity for willing suspension of disbelief, even when the game itself seems to force them to recognize its contrivances. Rather than the eat-or-starve imperatives of Survivor, these players trundle gladly along exactly the routes they're meant to walk. So the real breakthroughs here occur in the field of ethics. There's the lip-smacking appetite for violence this show caters to, as well as its anything-goes attitude toward law enforcement. Told that one of the suspects will be out of his house for the afternoon but that they don't have a search warrant, the investigators blithely sneak in and poke around, then consider stealing the tape from his surveillance camera the minute they notice it. And this seems to be the first reality program where plot is so important that character falls by the wayside. Aside from glancing toward the inevitable frictions of strangers suddenly clumped together, Murder so far has displayed little interest in the conniving and subplots that have become genre standards. Perhaps as the contestant pool dwindles, various kinds of alliances will send one another to their deaths. But as of now, for better and worse, this show has pioneered a new genre: reality TV that might as well be played by robots.

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