KILLER RATINGS : 'Murder in Small Town X'

By Wren, Celia | Commonweal, September 14, 2001 | Go to article overview
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KILLER RATINGS : 'Murder in Small Town X'


Wren, Celia, Commonweal


Desperate times call for desperate measures--in television as in all other fields. As the vogue for reality programming continues to roll, juggernaut-like, across the TV landscape, the networks in particular are scrambling for safety, brandishing a newly fabricated batch of high-concept shows like white flags raised in surrender. Sheer panic, rather than inspiration, must surely have been the motivating force behind Fox's embarrassing summer offering "Murder in Small Town X," which wrapped up on September 4, after seven cringe-inducing episodes.

Fueled though it was by reality-TV tropes, "Murder" was, rather remarkably, based on sheer fiction. Admittedly, creative casting and editing inevitably set shows like NBC's "Fear Factor" or Fox's "Temptation Island" at several removes from fact, but "Murder" yoked documentary and fiction together with a violence that was downright fascinating. The premise dispatched ten ostensibly ordinary Americans--a media planner from Chicago, a bartender from Staten Island, a medical student from Fort Lauderdale, etc.--to the small town of Sunrise, Maine, to solve a brutal multiple murder by a Peeping Tom-style killer. In the tradition of the classic detective story, the isolated milieu harbored a slew of colorful suspects with elaborate backstories and motives for criminal activity--Prudence Connor, the femme-fatale owner of an auto repair shop, for example, or Hayden DeBeck, the former businessman at the head of a sinister cult.

To cover their bases, the creators of "Murder" tossed in some staples from blockbuster horror tales. The picturesque town of Sunrise, with its sailboats bobbing in the harbor, turned out, in the vein of a Stephen King horror tale, to teem with occult-flavored phenomena: a vandalized grave, a cooler filled with blood, a set of fingers that turned up in a sardine can (packed in oil and mustard, forensic tests revealed). And the cinematography (the hand-held camera sequences in seemingly overexposed black and white, the shots of wildflowers twined into hex-like Xs) stole blatantly from 1999's The Blair Witch Project, a movie whose sensational popularity has made it a template for better-safe-than-sorry pop-culture artists.

But the adherence of "Murder" to genre blueprints didn't stop there: From title sequence to closing credits, the show furnished viewers with a splendid opportunity to note how, in the course of the past year, stylistic tics from CBS's boffo "Survivor" have fossilized into reality-show convention. The candid frontal shots of individual "investigators" making catty remarks about each other copied the CBS program, as did the weekly bouts of voting that fueled resentment and rivalry by allowing participants to eliminate each other. Equally derivative was the grandstanding of "Murder" facilitator Gary Fredo, a real-life police sergeant who talked the sleuthing team through the baroque "rules" governing each episode (only slightly less complicated than the U.S. tax code, the "rules" involved cast-mates in answering the killer's quiz questions about potential clues and making nighttime forays to creepy locales, camera in hand).

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