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Tuned In: 'Murder in Small Town X' combines 'reality' TV with scripted mystery

Thursday, July 19, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- An intriguing blend of fiction and reality, "Murder in Small Town X" is the most compelling "reality" series since "Survivor." Premiering on Fox Tuesday at 9 p.m., this one-hour hybrid of unscripted reality shows and scripted dramas will appeal to mystery novel fans and reality TV junkies alike. It's "How to Host a Murder Mystery" meets "The Blair Witch Project" crossed with "Survivor."

Set in mythical Sunrise, Maine (and filmed in the real Eastport, Maine), "Murder" imports 10 contestants who act as investigators in a multiple murder. Actors portray 15 suspects in the town, including Mayor Emerson Bowden, service station owner Pru Connor and Police Chief Dudley Duncan. In some scenes, these actors mingle with real denizens of Eastport, making for an unusual mix of reality and fiction.

Gary Fredo, a real-life police sergeant from Southern California, acts as the show's lead analyst, who directs the contestant-investigators as they search for clues, interview suspects and attempt to develop theories about which suspect is the killer. Whoever solves the mystery wins $250,000.

The rules of the game are complex and confusing at first. A "Lifeguard" is chosen at random to stay behind at the investigators' home base (a less ostentatious "Real World" house that mixes L.L. Bean decor with a high-tech mission briefing room). The Lifeguard also gets to choose two people who must play "the killer's game." One person will go to the location of a clue; the other person will meet the killer and leave the game (presumably in a body bag). Neither one knows which fate awaits until he or she gets there.

The relationships among the investigators -- befriending one another in an effort to not be sent out to possible "death" -- are the only part of the game that encourages alliance building, and it seems tacked on and unnecessary. It's an incidental element in the first episode that detracts from the more compelling mystery.

"Murder" is often creepy and suspenseful, so it's not surprising contestants take it seriously. Sometimes you wonder, though. In the premiere, a woman on her way to get a clue or meet the murderer talks to her children through the camera, saying, "If I don't make it, Mommy loves you."

Doesn't she know reality shows don't actually involve murder?

At least not yet.

Executive producer Gordon Cassidy, a 1975 graduate of Lower Burrell High School, said the eight episodes of the series were shot continuously, without anyone calling "Action" or "Cut."

Cassidy worked on the San Francisco and London seasons of "Real World" and later helped executive producer George Verschoor create "Fear."

"As rewarding as those were, it seemed to us creating a fictional environment is the next step," he said.

The production took over Eastport, where 35 of 40 downtown store fronts were empty.

"We created this world and populated it with actors," Verschoor said. "[Contestants came to] believe this town really existed very quickly. They accepted this was real and all these circumstances they were going through were real."

The actors who were brought in to play suspects lived in an adjacent town and were driven to Eastport to play their roles, similar to the TV show filmed under a bubble in "The Truman Show."

"But it wasn't like the population disappeared every day at 6 p.m.," Cassidy said. "We'd stagger the actors' schedules so the town continued to be populated during the course of the day."

None of the actors knew the identity of the killer (as in most mysteries, they all have motives), and they were only given information about their characters a little bit at a time. There was no script for scenes between contestant-investigators and actor-suspects, but the actors were given specific information and clues they were expected to convey in those scenes.

"We brought the actors to town several weeks before [filming began] and they rehearsed during those weeks," Verschoor said. "They'd sit in a room getting to know about their relationships, their back-stories, what kind of car they drove, so when the real people arrived, these people had depth of character."

And they did become real to the contestant-investigators.

"They gossiped about them like they were real people," Cassidy said.

More 'Temptation'

The executive producer of Fox's upcoming "Temptation Island 2" said the show will do "more extensive background checks" to avoid the controversy of last season when a couple appeared on the series and were later revealed to be parents of a child, a violation of the show's rules.

"The emphasis is on trying to anticipate all things that fall outside the parameters of accepted contestants," said executive producer Chris Cowan. "When you're dealing with the number of and the aura of reality television shows, I think you can count on the fact people will try to slip in. ... It's an interesting age of casting in America."

On "Temptation Island," unmarried but committed couples (referred to repeatedly in a Fox press conference as "knuckleheads" by TV critics) test the strength of their relationships by spending time on an island where they're tempted by eligible singles. The series was a demographic hit when it aired last spring.

Alien nation

Two sci-fi series that barely managed renewals for this fall plan to take their shows in new directions, but producers for both series were only somewhat forthcoming about future plots.

"Roswell," which moves to UPN with its season premiere Oct. 16, will continue the story arc that ended the show's run last season on The WB. With a pregnant Tess on her way to the aliens' home planet, there's room for Max (Jason Behr) and Liz (Shiri Appleby) to reunite as Max searches for his unborn son.

"Tess is somewhere out there in the cosmos, and she may return at some later date, but for now, she's gone," said series creator Jason Katims. "We're really sort of basing [stories] on character arcs and the theme of next year is change. Tess has left with their only way home, and until now the alien characters all thought [being on Earth] was a temporary situation. Now it's permanent, and they have to build lives for themselves here."

Colin Hanks left the series last season, but he'll return for an episode this year as a ghost. One new character will be added, a boyfriend for Isabel (Katherine Heigl).

The actress who plays Liz has just one request of the show's writers, including native Pittsburgher Gretchen Berg.

"I would love to see her not cry in a whole episode," Appleby said. "I'm ready for her to smile and run around and be a fun kid."

Crying is rare for Max (Jessica Alba), the lead character on Fox's "Dark Angel," which moves to 8 p.m. Fridays for its second season beginning Sept. 21.

Executive producer James Cameron said the series will return "turbocharged" with new sci-fi elements but promised no "time travel, robots or intergalactic civilizations." Max, genetically engineered with superhuman powers, will escape from the Manticore lab that recaptured her at the end of last season and discover a new strain of genetically altered people who don't look human and "couldn't walk into a 7-Eleven without creating a fuss."

Because the mutations in this new breed of genetically altered human are obvious, they're persecuted for their differences. In addition, Max discovers new villains lurking in the Manticore hierarchy.

"These are players Max was unaware of, that [her adversary] Lydecker was unaware of, and, in fact we, as the creators of the show were unaware of about this time last year," Cameron said. "That's the beauty of television. You're constantly painting yourself into a corner and then painting a door and going through it."

Alba, who is engaged to co-star Michael Weatherly (who also plays her love interest on the show), said the physical nature of her role takes its toll.

"They always save the stunts for Fridays, and it's 2 in the morning and it's 40 degrees outside and you're hanging from this wire that they say is safe, that it can hold up three cars, but have they ever tested it? Have three cars ever been hung by this one wire?" Alba said with a laugh. "But I like it. It keeps me on my toes, and I never get bored."

New BBC chat show

Tomorrow at 11 p.m., BBC America premieres the wild British import "So Graham Norton," a talk show starring the very out Irishman Graham Norton. He describes his talk show as untraditional: "No sofa, just three chairs and a pouf."

Norton is outrageous, welcoming an array of "gay icons" including Joan Collins, Ivana Trump and Boy George and celebrities such as Carrie Fisher, Bo Derek and Joan Rivers.

"The great thing about Joan is, there's no pretending," Norton said at a press conference here last week. "She talks about [her plastic surgery] quite happily, the amount of hacking that's gone on. But it's worked for her. I'm not sure how much further she can go now. I think she's probably reached a limit. There's some sort of dotted line. Some surgeon has tattooed something on her neck."

Slogan slugfest

For a number of years PBS has used the slogan "Stay Curious" to promote its programming, and now National Geographic Channel is using the similar slogan "Always Wonder." Clearly there's a slogan drought in Hollywood.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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