TV Review: Whodunnit? and Siberia
Everyone knows a reality show is not necessarily non-fiction. A lot of us watching television today grew up on Laguna Beach, Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor. Hell, The Hills ended its four-year run by panning out to reveal a studio lot. It was the only way the show could wrap up without resigning itself to being the most phony occupant in the overpopulated reality show graveyard.
In a lot of ways, reality shows are dead. Audiences have become too savvy to plot twists and turns, and fatigued by the ever regurgitated cliches.
Whodunnit? which aired its second episode Sunday on ABC, and Siberia, which premiered Monday night on NBC could be two new breeds of self-aware reality shows, mixing in acknowledged fiction and other popular TV trends.
Whodunnit? essentially takes on the premise of a murder mystery party. The competitors live together in a mansion and must solve fake murders, or else they will find themselves to be the next one “dead.” The show pulls from the recent non-detective detective crime procedural, characters like Castle on Castle, Shawn Spencer on Psych, and Patrick Jane on The Mentalist. Watching a murder mystery unfold from your couch, the answers seem obvious, and the hijinks not so dangerous. These “regular folks” characters are an extension of the audience, as they solve the mysteries the trained and badged officers are too inept to unravel. Whodunnit? preys on and rewards our amateur sleuthing desires.
Of course there is an ex-cop in the mix, but just as the cops in the scripted shows, he proves himself to not be up to par. He pretend to be a football coach, but everyone sees right through it, and then he is nearly killed off in the first episode because his interpretation of the crime is so poor.
In every way besides the made up murder stories, Whodunnit? is a traditional reality competition show. Siberia, however, is anything but: It isn’t a reality show at all, but a fictional series about a reality show. The show within the show, also called Siberia, takes its competitors to the titular region with the intention of leaving them to try and survive the winter. The real audience sees into the world as the potential fake audience would, with cutaways to interviews and unframed camera work.
The initial episode runs slow and boring, for all the same reasons the first episode of an actual reality show does. Characters are stilted and one dimensional, dialogue is cheesy. But when was the last time you were able to find a captivating character on the Survivor or The Amazing Race season premieres? It is impossible to convey an initial depth of character when you are conveying it through close ups of someone listening to instructions and confessionals by people not used to being in front of cameras.
Siberia hits more reality show notes; someone isn’t there to make friends, the person from New York butts heads with the person from Boston (surprise! they have accents!), and the host wears khaki pants and sounds Australian. By the end of the episode we realize, along with the characters, as one mysteriously perishes, that there is “something more going on.”
With that it becomes an updated Lost, portraying a group of people stuck in one place, apparently dealing with the paranormal. Since Lost, however our culture has become more obsessed with documenting our entire lives. Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, et al have taken our visual world and made it into something to be edited and shared, so is it much of another step to keep the camera rolling on the demise of the contestants in Siberia? When do we stop rolling?
The final season of The Office addressed questions about the effects of constant life documentation. Its most shocking moment came when a cameraman became a part of Pam’s storyline. As Siberia continues, it will be defined by how it deals these same issues and how its characters accept their documentation. As the contestants are thrown deeper and deeper into chaos, will they continue to cutaway for interviews? Will the camera people become characters themselves?
What Siberia has right now, as the first episode of Survivor did in 2000, is a blank canvas. It has all of the potential because there is nothing else like it. The first episode may have felt forced and may have taken itself too seriously, but was all that on purpose? How can we know when there is no formula? The preview for the coming episodes was somewhat exciting, but then again, isn’t that a trick of reality shows: jump cuts of people angry, upset, and apparently injured set to dramatic music to entice the viewer into the next week? It will take another viewing to figure this one out… Dang! They got me! But, in a saturated TV landscape, not knowing the formula is perhaps the most exciting thing to come along in some time.