Think of ABC's summer series Whodunnit? as CSI-meets-reality TV — quite literally. The Clue-like murder-mystery show, in which 13 contestants are brought to a sprawling mansion to compete in a game to find out the identity of the killer among them, is the brainchild of reality TV veteran Cris Abrego (Rock of Love, The Surreal Life) and CSI creator Anthony Zuiker.
"It was a really unique partnership," Abrego tells TVGuide.com. "I have done all unscripted and he's only done all scripted. ... So, Anthony and his team wrote all the crimes and all the murders and all the clues. And it was a really cool partnership, because he'd basically write the scripts and then I kind of acted as the producer slash director to execute them."
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Adds Abrego: "Anthony, he's not short of any creative ideas on how to kill somebody by any means."
That creative energy results in a new intricate "death scene" each week, with contestants picked off one by one by such means as fire, electrocution and even one involving a mountain lion later on in the season. After each contestant is eliminated (aka "killed"), the remaining competitors can choose to investigate the person's last known whereabouts, the scene of the crime, or actually inspect the victim's body in the mortuary, which is located in the basement of the mansion. Again, thanks to Zuiker and his CSI team, the crime lab scenes are jarringly realistic — almost to the point of being uncomfortable for the viewer, since the murders are treated as real-life crimes.
Because of the nature of the show, Abrego says the casting team wanted to assemble a group "from all walks of life," but made it a point to cast individuals who had had some sort of experience with investigative work. "We knew that we were going to kind of deliver some pretty intense murders in terms of the murder-mystery of it all," Abrego says.
The group of contestants includes an ex-cop, a crime reporter, a Homeland Security attorney and a mom of eight. ("No one knows better than a mom with eight kids who's lying," Abrego explains. "And she ends up doing very well.") And they're guided along in the dangerous game by Giles (Gildart Jackson), the mysterious butler at Rue Manor who delivers messages and clues from the anonymous killer.
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But the contestants were kept mostly in the dark about the nature of the reality show. Initially, they were only told that they would be competing in a murder-mystery game for a $250,000 prize.
"They knew there was going to be a Clue-meets-CSI," Abrego says. "But the two biggest things they did not know was that one of them was going to be the killer, and that each week one of them was going to be killed off. After they got there, a lot of them thought that the house was going to be completely staffed and that someone on the staff would be killed every week and they would investigate it as a group. And so, when they find their first colleague killed, they're shocked."
At the end of each episode, the contestants have to present their case of how they think the murder was committed and who they believe the culprit is. Based on their responses, the competitors are designated either "spared" or "scared." One of the "scared" contestants will be the next victim.
Meet the players below:
Hometown: Oklahoma City, Okla.
Occupation: TV crime reporter
Excerpt from show application: Most embarrassing moment — "Being 8 months pregnant, on a live shot, in the middle of a train derailment — with no bathroom in sight — and I had to pee every hour. So I begged my crew not to watch or tape me — and relieved myself by popping a squat in a parking lot and a field."
Hometown: Costa Mesa, Calif.
Occupation: Ex-beauty queen
Excerpt from show application: "I am not the stereotype [of a beauty pageant contestant] in any way."
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Occupation: Cardiac nurse
Excerpt from show application: "My kids say I am OCD obsessive compulsive."
Hometown: Santa Clarita, Calif.
Occupation: Ex-homicide detective
Excerpt from show application: "I guess I still look like a cop."
Hometown: Long Beach, Calif.
Occupation: Insurance investigator
Excerpt from show application: "I can adapt like a chameleon or stand out like a lion, but I'd much rather relax like a meerkat Timon style. LOL"
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Occupation: Bar trivia host
Excerpt from show application: "I once, inadvertently, exposed myself to a bunch of women in a shoe store."
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Occupation: Homeland Security attorney
Excerpt from show application: "I'm not one to hold back my opinion on an issue or a person. Different audiences may find that refreshing or irritating."
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
Excerpt from show application: "I always thought it'd be cool if I could have the chance to solve a mystery using real clues!"
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Occupation: Flight attendant
Excerpt from show application: Most disappointing moment — "When I auditioned for American Idol & didn't make it past the first round! Did I mention I'm NOT really a singer?! HAHA."
Hometown: Kenilworth, N.J.
Occupation: Bounty hunter
Excerpt from show application: Most embarrassing moment — "Passing out at my wedding."
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Excerpt from show application: "There are a lot of stereotypes about Southerners moving at a slow pace, being uneducated and crass. I don't have a Southern accent and I am pretty worldly and well versed in a lot of things, so I think people are oftentimes surprised to learn that I grew up in an extremely small town in the South."
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Occupation: Ex-NFL cheerleader
Excerpt from show application: "Most people are shocked to learn that I went to school for criminal justice & psychology. I think b/c of my looks & demeanor I guess it doesn't seem like I'm that 'type.'"
Hometown: Mechanicsburg, Penn.
Excerpt from show application: Biggest lie he ever told — "That my wife (then girlfriend) & I had an abortion when we in fact had not. (Details upon request)"
Take a tour of the Whodunnit? mansion below:
Whodunnit? premieres Sunday at 9/8c on ABC. Will you watch?