1. Contestants aren’t actually killed — but some people think they are!
After the first episode aired, some people thought the reality show was killing people.
For the record: A reality competition on ABC, a broadcast network owned by Disney, is not actually murdering its contestants.
Whodunnit executive producer Anthony Zuiker, best known for creating CSI, told me, “I don’t really know how to wrap my head around somebody thinking that we would commit crimes on a network and kill people. I don’t know how to really process that.”
2. The dead talk so viewers won’t be confused.
After the first episode, interviews with the eliminated contestants were added to the end of each episode to ensure viewers that the cast members weren’t really dead. They’re still in the makeup used to make them look like a corpse, and talk about leaving the competition and how they felt about the specific way they had to pretend-die.
Zuiker told me he resisted the change: “I was very against that from the very beginning, but I really had no choice because apparently America was quite confused early, and we lost a 1.3 million viewers, so we had to make some adjustments to see if we could get those viewers back.”
Still, some people were still confused about whether or not Whodunnit was killing its contestants.
3. The cast is truly terrified.
While no one actually dies, the cast members talk and act as though their fellow contestants are being murdered. Their over-the-top reactions — they cry and freak out when the eliminated contestant fake-dies — have made some viewers think they are actors (they’re not).
And how would you react if you were awakened early in the morning and saw someone running through a house on fire, even if it was a stunt person?
Zuiker is frustrated that viewers think the cast is acting and the show is fake. He told me, “All the tears are real, they really are scared to death — not that they’re scared to lose their own lives and be killed and put in a grave … but they really are scared to get kicked off the show, and that fear of them getting kicked off is the fear of them dying.” He attributed their reactions in part to how “emotionally taxing” and “very, very stressful” it is to play the game while sequestered away from loved ones and real life.
4. Contestants aren’t actors, but they do act out their own murders and play dead.
After they’re eliminated from the competition, contestants aren’t finished yet. That’s because they’re the next victim, and thus spend a day or two acting out a death the show’s writers have scripted. That may involve rejoining the cast for a few minutes, as Don did before he went into the kitchen and was poisoned and mauled.
Sometimes stunt doubles are used for the actual death scene, such as Dontae’s death-by-fire, which was performed by a female stunt double who wore similar clothing. But otherwise, the non-actor contestants get to act out their own murders.
The cast members even get made up — by CSI’s makeup artist — and play dead while their former competitors examine their corpse.
5. Victims are selected based on a quiz.
Contestants are eliminated based on objective results: their performance on a quiz that tests their knowledge of how the most recent crime was committed. That’s why their investigations are very important, as is sharing information with those who investigated other locations.
It’s unclear exactly what this test includes, since it is not shown on screen. Zuiker said that is intentional; producers and network executives didn’t want to show cast members taking a test, which would break the fourth wall of their fictional universe. (Because this is a competition, ABC’s standards and practices department is on set to make sure the game is fair.) Instead, we see the contestants talking through their theory about how the crime was committed.
The contestants who get the lowest scores receive “scared” cards at dinner, and are at risk of being eliminated from the competition, which here means they will be killed off.
6. The butler didn’t do it, but he is married to Jan from The Office.
The one actor on the show is its host, Gildart Jackson, who plays the butler, Giles. Unlike other murder mysteries, the butler did not do it.
Jackson is married to Melora Hardin, who played Michael Scott’s boss and love interest Jan on The Office.
7. Who the murderer is actually doesn’t matter.
Which one of these 13 people committed the crimes? It doesn’t matter.
Yes, even though contestants and viewers try to guess who the murderer is, the “who” in Whodunnit is actually irrelevant. The person who was cast as the murderer did not know how each crime was committed, so he or she could participate in the crime-solving challenges.
Zuiker told me these are “motive-less crimes,” and even he didn’t know which of the cast members was the murderer until late in the season.
8. So yes, this is not The Mole.
Whodunnit immediately drew comparisons to two 2001 series: Fox’s Murder in Small Town X and ABC’s The Mole, which was hosted by Anderson Cooper. The Mole featured one contestant who was secretly working with producers to sabotage challenges, while the other contestants were trying to figure out the identity of that player.
Since Whodunnit’s killer doesn’t even know how the crimes are committed, the show is very different, and that’s by design. Executive producer Anthony Zuiker told me that he never saw either show, but ABC executives “kept us from doing things that felt like The Mole.”