"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.'"
With "The Voice" on summer hiatus, NBC plans to air another singing-related contest in "The Winner Is…" with Nick Lachey as host. The series, which has a game-show twist, starts July 11.
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."
On TNT, "72 Hours" will drop nine people into remote areas with precious few provisions, including a single bottle of water, when it launches June 6. Hawaii, the South Pacific, Fiji and the Southern Rockies serve as backdrops for the action.
"The Hunt," a similarly themed wilderness competition show coming to the CW on July 31, won't give its participants any food, shelter or water. They'll have to capture what they need, including one another, to win a cash prize.
And for the ultimate in deprivation, Discovery Channel will air "Naked and Afraid," which dumps pairs of strangers in the buff into harsh environments like the Serengeti plains and the Borneo rain forest for 21 days. The series, which debuts June 23, is a follow-up of sorts to the channel's spring show, "Naked Castaway."
It wouldn't be summer without subterfuge, with CBS' perennial hit, "Big Brother," returning two weeks earlier than usual, on June 26. The "social experiment" that crams a bunch of strong-willed schemers into one house will air Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the latter being the live eviction show.
Another reliable audience pleaser, ABC's "The Bachelorette," premieres Monday, though it won't be the only relationship show on TV this summer. The CW plans "Perfect Score" on July 16, where contestants win cash and dates if they pick their ideal match.
Escapism and uplift will be part of the reality offerings, too, with NBC's "Hollywood Game Night" based on cocktail parties at actor-producer Sean Hayes' house. The series, with host Jane Lynch, starts July 11 and will allow a few regular Joes to play pop culture-based games with A-listers like Amy Poehler, Jason Bateman, Martin Short and Kristen Bell.
"It'll be fun to watch celebrities not in rehab," Galinsky said. "And since these parties were actually happening organically, this show's less likely to be a cliché of reality TV."
Classic sketch show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" gets a revival on the CW, debuting July 16, with actress-comedian Aisha Tyler stepping into shoes previously filled by Drew Carey. Improv masters Wayne Brady, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie return from the original show, with a rotating guest lineup filling out the panel.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson hosts a new reality show, "The Hero," coming June 6 to TNT, where contestants have to complete missions that will test "their brains, their brawn and even their morality." ABC's inspirational-aspirational "Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition" returns Tuesday to whittle the waistlines of the overweight.
On opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, two powerhouse cable reality shows, TLC's "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and E!'s "Keeping Up wWith the Kardashians" return this summer. The rural Georgia-set "Honey Boo Boo" may offer up a wedding — that would be Mama June and Sugar Bear — after its July 17 kickoff, and "Kardashians" will follow sister Kim's impending motherhood during a season that starts June 2.
Series like these have taken the place of sitcoms and over-the-top melodramas for many viewers, Galinsky said.
"They're not so far from what we used to watch, like 'I Dream of Jeannie' or 'The Beverly Hillbillies' or 'Knots Landing,'" Galinsky said. "Not much has changed about what people like to see on TV, the shows just manifest themselves a little differently."
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