Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Reality Became TV

Summertime and the living is bloody. At least, it was way back in June of 2001. That’s when the first (and, to date, only) reality show that I was ever obsessed with aired.

The show was called Murder in Small Town X and it aired for eight weeks on FOX in June and July of 2001. This was right in the ascendency of the reality TV craze that began in earnest with Survivor in 1997 (sidebar, did you know that show has had 24 seasons? Yowza.) and continues until this very day. But Murder was a bit…different. Whereas every reality program at the time tried as hard as possible to convince the viewers that what you were watching was in no way scripted <snort>, Murder was abundantly clear about its reliance on script and character. It had to be.

 Murder, you say? Tell me again of this "reality" of which you speak...

The conceit was that 10 contestants would be brought to the small fishing town of Sunrise, Maine (in reality, the town is Eastport) and told that their job was to solve a crime. A murder had overrun the small, sleepy seaside town and without the contestants’ help, he or she would doubtless go free. Why the Sunrise Police Department was so inept that they needed the help of 10 actors, waitresses, firefighters and other office drones from around the country begs a few questions, but they gracefully let those slide. Maybe Jessica Fletcher was on one of her vacations that summer, I don’t know.

Where the show willingly showed its scripted stripes was in emptying out tiny Eastport and repopulating it with actors who would be playing key parts to the mystery. This means that the “reality” was restricted only to the fact that the audience would get to watch the 10 contestants try to solve the crime, but the murderer(s), victims, red herrings and other townspeople were always following a script. The immersive value of the show was actually likely felt more strongly by the contestants, knowing that each person they were talking to was an actor who never broke character than for us viewers at home who assume that everyone on TV is not as they seem.

Contestants were given a list of 15 possible suspects. Throughout each episode, the contestants would be sent out into the town to discover clues about the murderer. At some point, two envelopes would be found, one red and one black. The red envelope would contain a significant clue or puzzle that, if solved, would absolve one of the suspects. The black envelope would contain two different locations. During each episode, two contestants would be selected to go to each location. At one location would be a clue to the killer’s identity. At the other location would be the killer who would “murder” the contestant, removing him or her from the show. Contestants themselves decided on who would go to each location, but they had no idea which location would bring a colleague back or send him home. The murder was even filmed as the contestants would be sent to isolated locations on their own, in the dark, with only nightvision cameras to watch them. The “slasher-cam” set up was a little hokey, but it was always easy to see how genuinely scared the contestants on these missions were.

The emphasis of the show quickly became less on the interpersonal drama between the contestants and more on the increasingly elaborate mystery, which, naturally, broadened much bigger than just a deranged killer and quickly revealed a 60-year-old conspiracy, a secret society/cult and a series of eerie video and audio recordings made by the “Burnt Face Man”, a horrifically scarred and possible supernatural show character who’s general job was just to be creepy.

Obviously, the show was quite an undertaking and, while technically a reality show, violated the cardinal rule of most reality television by actually costing money to produce. This, plus a poor summer broadcast and lackluster promotion, all goes to explain why it never got a second season. It’s a shame though, because without all the manufactured cattiness prevalent in so many reality shows, the contestants here genuinely seemed to get along with each other and having a common goal to work toward was a legitimately interesting thing to watch.

We could vote one of us off the island, but what say we just enjoy each other's company for a while instead. That'll bring in viewers, right?

The show wasn’t without genuine heroes, either. The ultimate winner, a 35-year-old firefighter named Angel Juarbe, Jr., was sadly killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Juarbe was one of the many firefighters who ran into the Twin Towers and never made it out.

I don’t really know that I wish for more shows like Murder in Small Town X. At its best, it was just a creative distraction that made for good summer viewing. I certainly wouldn't trade it over an American Horror Story or even a Mad Men. But if reality TV could allow itself to get creative again, I may reconsider the genre.

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