"Whodunnit?" is not your granddad's game of "Clue," nor is it a fusty version of an Agatha Christie novel.
"CSI" creator Anthony E. Zuiker, for his first foray into unscripted TV, has come up with a show he's dubbed a "cinematic murder mystery of tomorrow" that's a bit sinister but still "fun and digestible."
It may also be the first of its kind in a new subgenre that Zuiker called "reality fiction," which puts its participants into made-up crime scenarios and captures their in-the-moment reactions.
The nine-episode series, launching June 23 on ABC, tosses 13 amateur gumshoes into one stately mansion to solve staged murders for a $250,000 payday. The killer is among the contestant pool, which includes an ex-cop, a soccer mom, a former Miss Nevada, a nurse, a TV reporter and a private investigator.
Unlike the gizmo-heavy "CSI," the participants on "Whodunnit?" will have to use their powers of perception and maybe a magnifying glass to parse clues and point fingers.
"It's a roll-up-your-sleeves game," said Zuiker, who's partnering with reality-show maven Cris Abrego ("The Surreal Life," "Next Action Star") to produce "Whodunnit?" "It relies on common sense, wit and mettle."
A proper British butler named Giles, played by actor Gildart Jackson, will help propel the action by delivering information and clues at Rue Manor. The crimes themselves, unlike the knife-in-the-back of old mystery books, will be "big and promotable," involving explosions and fires, but won't push the envelope with cable-TV levels of blood and gore, Zuiker said.
Zuiker's experience on the "CSI" franchise taught him that TV viewers love to play armchair sleuth, whether they see themselves as Ted Danson or Jorja Fox. On "Whodunnit?" they can go step by step with regular folks.
"These are everyday people being put to the test," Zuiker said. "For those fans who want to live vicariously in solving murders, there's a shorter distance between them and this cast."
Since crime procedurals are all the rage in scripted TV, with Zuiker at the forefront of that trend, he's not sure why few producers have tried to adapt the format into reality series. (Fox's eight-episode "Murder in Small Town X" is one of the only examples.) He thinks "Whodunnit?" may be premiering at a good time, though, with most network dramas in repeats for the warm-weather months.
Not into gunshot residue, hair fibers and homicide? There's an array of reality programming, both new and returning, headed for the small screen this summer that features at-home cooks, globe-trotting adventurers, improvisational comedians, would-be superstars and back-stabbing housemates.
"America's Got Talent," a well-watched NBC staple, will introduce an expanded panel of judges, with Heidi Klum and Spice Girl Mel B. taking over for Sharon Osbourne when the show returns for its eighth season June 4. Host Nick Cannon will be back, along with judges Howard Stern and Howie Mandel, though the venue will switch to New York's storied Radio City Music Hall.
Perhaps one of the broadest-based reality shows on network TV, "America's Got Talent" fulfills that "sense of wonder and discovery" that audiences crave, said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, which trains reality TV hopefuls to be camera ready.
"These talent shows will never go away because they're part of the American dream," Galinsky said. "They're the symbol of, 'Work hard, take a chance, and you can make it.'"
A sweet-treat talent show that centers on skilled amateur cooks premieres May 29 on CBS. Based on a British hit, "The American Baking Competition" will try to dish up the funny alongside the cookies and tarts with comedian Jeff Foxworthy ("American Bible Challenge," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?") as host.
There's an adventure and exotic-locale trend brewing across network and cable. "Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls," shot in New Zealand and coming to NBC on July 8, will have the former "Man vs. Wild" host leading 10 teams of two contestants on a "non-stop extreme-survival journey."