PASADENA, Calif. — Fox's new series "Murder in Small Town X" is an intriguing twist on the current reality craze — sort of a cross between "Survivor," "The Blair Witch Project" and "Murder, She Wrote."
It's a video version of the role-playing murder-mystery games in which the contestants have to work together and against each other in pursuit of a $250,000 prize.
It's also a bit complicated and occasionally over-the-top stupid, which is unfortunate.
"Murder in Small Town X" takes 10 people to a small town in Maine that was taken over by the producers and populated with improvisational actors. The show, which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 13, opens with the murders of three members of a family. The contestants, or "investigators," are given a list of suspects and start investigating the crime with the help of a real-life police detective.
The killer communicates with them in each episode, and they have to play the killer's games to eliminate suspects. (It's complicated — you've got to watch the show to have any chance at all of this making sense.)
At the end of each episode, two investigators are chosen by their group (thus the "Survivor" parallel) to go to separate locations — one will find a clue, the other will be "killed" by the murderer.
Which is where the stupidity comes in. In Tuesday's premiere, given the chance to videotape a message, a contestant by the name of Shirley says, "If I don't make it, Mommy loves you!"
Which led one critic to ask, "Did Nurse Ratchett drive these people to the set?"
"In the moment, Shirley was reacting to the situation she was put in," said executive producer George Verschoor. "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."
"I think she was truly alone and was truly frightened," said executive producer Gordon Cassidy. "That was where she went in that moment. She chose to mention her children."
The producers insisted that the contestants weren't coached in any way. Which could only mean that the contestants have watched waaaay too much TV.
(And, while the producers deny it, it looks very much in the pilot as if the investigator is leading the contestants to find one particular clue.)
"They also didn't know how they were going to be eliminated," Verschoor said. "So there was that fear going into this of — well, am I going to be killed? I don't think they really expected they were going to be killed, although you never know."
The producers said that they weren't worried that somebody would figure out the answer to the mystery in, say, the third of eight episodes. Which led one critic to ask, "But what if you actually had somebody smart?"
And when the producers defended the intelligence of their contestants, it was pointed out that "They thought they were going to be killed! Come on!"
"The show is built on a certain kind of suspension of disbelief," Cassidy said.
Well, duh. It's not the suspension of disbelief that's the problem, it's not even a question of how dumb the contestants might be for acting like they're really facing death.
It's a question of disrespecting the audience — treating viewers as if they're dumb enough to believe that these contestants are about to bite the dust.
Again, it's really too bad the producers saw fit to disrespect the audience that might come to this show. As a summer series, particularly, it looks intriguing. Murder mysteries are an entertainment staple, and blending one into a reality/game show is a good idea.
Just don't expect us to believe that anyone is in actual mortal danger.