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Fox's new show bears scrutiny with its uneasy mix between reality and fiction

By Scott Collura     August 07, 2001

Fox's latest "reality TV" offering, MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X
© 2001 Fox
When the Fox show MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X made its debut two weeks ago, one had to wonder how much further television could stretch the "reality TV" trend. With the ultra-popular SURVIVOR only popping up for a couple of months here or there, BIG BROTHER hardly being noticed and many other reality shows coming and going with little more interest from the audience than in an episode of THE MICHAEL RICHARDS SHOW, it's clear producers need to broaden the horizons of the format.

And that's exactly what creators George Verschoor, Robert Fisher Jr. and Gordon Cassidy claim they've done with the thriller-tinged MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X. The show, which mixes real-life contestants with actors in a weekly quest to solve an elaborately staged "murder," does indeed tread on new ground though one might also say it breaks the rules of the genre along the way with its uneasy mix of fact and fiction.

Fox may not care much about uneasy mixes, though. The MURDER premiere two Tuesdays ago marked the first time this summer that the network won that time slot, with a 3.5 rating and a 10 share of the 18-49 demographic the key group that advertisers want to attract. The show did slightly better with the 18-34 demographic. Fox had been placing fourth in these areas previously with its repeats of DARK ANGEL.

But good ratings for a much-hyped series premiere do not guarantee the successful run of the show, and one must wonder how many viewers will be returning to the program after their initial curiosity (piqued by a creepy ad campaign) has been satisfied. For example, with an actual drama like TWIN PEAKS, audience returned each week (initially anyway) to follow the quirky characters as much as to find out who killed Laura Palmer. But MURDER's contestants and characters, so far at least, are an uninteresting lot to be sure. Co-creator Cassidy disagrees.

"I think it's a rich environment, and we bring a lot of characters onstage at the beginning because that's one of the conventions of this kind of story," he says. "You want to see the field of suspects in some way, just as you do in any kind of story like this. And I think part of the fun of it is for the audience to see these 15 people out there and maybe make their own kind of snap decisions and snap judgments about who they believe is suspicious or not.

"We don't expect people to memorize 15 names right off the bat because that's too big a load. But you do want to bring them onstage at the beginning, and then in subsequent episodes, in much smaller numbers, we begin to get to know the specific suspects and see their motivations and backstories. And then the picture gradually starts to emerge."

Another potential turnoff to viewers might be their realization, upon a single viewing, that there is very little reality to this particular reality show. Whereas SURVIVOR's group at least had to eat bugs to play the game, these sleuthing MURDER contestants live in the lap of luxury a decked-out house on the water that is more millionaire's stately Wayne Manor than detective's Batcave.

When the group members first arrive

Who will be the next to go on MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X?

in their new home they "ooh" and "ahh" as though they've just won the lottery despite knowing that one of their own will be "killed" by the end of the episode. Rather than being simply voted off the show, each week a contestant is forced to investigate a crime scene where the killer waits to finish him or her off. Last week it was poor Shirley who met her end, crying at the camera to her kids (who were presumably watching at home, traumatized), "If I don't make it, Mommy loves you!" The audience knows she is never in danger - even if they are creeped out by the scene - so how could she be so frightened?

"They were in the moment," explains Verschoor. "Shirley was reacting to the situation she was put in. She was put in a terrifying situation which was the context of this show: There's a murderer on the loose in this small town, and these people actually began to believe that. And put out there alone in the middle of the dark at night, Shirley responded. In her fear she was terrified that she didn't know how she was going to be eliminated, she was heading into this ranch way out in the middle of [nowhere] completely alone. No cameraman, no assistants and in that moment, I think Shirley responded in this fear."

The producers of the show would seem to be saying that MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X is less about reality than it is a placing of real people into a carefully designed situation in order to elicit true emotions and reactions. One might say that this is the closest thing to STAR TREK's holodeck that exists today, since the entire Maine town where the show takes place was in on maintaining the illusion for the 10 contestants. This included dozens of improv actors who play townsfolk and suspects, as well real locals used as extras. This setup, however, proved a logistical nightmare for the show's makers.

"Every day [the actors] had a list of things, 'Here's what you can say and you can't say today,'" explains Verschoor. "And sometimes they would say things that didn't have anything to do with the story, and then the real people would attach themselves to that and come back and theorize all about something that was completely meaningless. And we're sitting there going, 'This has nothing to do with the story, but I guess off they go with it.'"

"The problem was you can't shoot it like a conventional drama where you're only shooting the meat of the scene, because the real people have to experience it as a natural event with a beginning and an ending, even though we know the meat of it is in the middle," says Cassidy. "So in all of that material, obviously you've got stuff you weren't planning for."

So maybe critics (this one included) have been too harsh on the show, expecting reality where very little is there in fact or intent. If that's the case, then Fox bears some of the blame as well for their persuasive advertisements for the program, which implied the "reality" aspect of MURDER would be much more predominant. Having said that, the producers insist they've done their best to portray their contestants realistically.

"My approach to this was I never want to stop these people and make them perform," concludes Verschoor. "And that's very difficult on the production because that means you constantly have to be three steps ahead of these people and have everything ready. We just wanted to keep chasing them so that they didn't suddenly go, 'Well, we're now waiting on production,' because then the people are performing."


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