The Murder Game

Saturday, April 12, 2003 by

After a shaky start where not even the contestants seemed clear what kind of game show they’d strayed into, The Murder Game has settled down into a finely judged mix of modest excitement and carefully controlled conspiracy.

At the beginning it was difficult to find much in the way of substance or, for that matter, enjoyment in the programme due to the somewhat haphazard fashion we were presented with reasons to stay watching. The viewer was pitched into the fictional location of Blackwater with virtually no explanation as to its size, population, geography or history. Even now it’s not clear whether it’s a town or a village, and each week it seems to take on some hitherto unseen feature like a power station or a tidal estuary. Sure, the setting is merely one giant prop for the purposes of the story, but its ever-changing scope has proved unsettling and continues to be a habitual distraction from other elements in the show.

The only people of Blackwater we are allowed to see comprise a teeming cast of murder suspects, alongside 10 contestants posing as visiting crime “investigators”. The manner in which we were first introduced to the latter – off-hand, cursory, almost careless – made it initially very difficult to care about any of them. While a welcome change from the kind of overlong and tedious preambles that have come to open each new series of Big Brother, this went too far the other way and fostered an air of anonymous confusion. Thankfully that sentiment has now started to fade as the number of contestants is reduced and their personalities become more defined. Tonight’s episode was the first time you really felt able to see a proper dimension to the motives of the people playing the game, and the clutter of faces pared back to a more palatable and accessible level.

In fact each episode has been an improvement on the last thanks principally to the rather clumsy but necessary way in which the jumble of characters, investigators and plotlines are streamlined. We now know that come the end of each edition one suspect and one investigator will have been removed, and this is by far the strongest quality of The Murder Game‘s format. It not only gives the show a tangible feeling of momentum and of actually going somewhere, but also enables its jumbled set-piece scenarios to reach ever-clearer resolutions.

All the same, the way the contestants are dispatched makes for a rather muted conclusion. Three quarters of the way through each programme all the action is brought to a screeching halt in order for some undignified “eviction” business to take place. After a tedious drawn-out process involving both nominations and voting, two of the investigators head off to separate locations to stumble about in the dark for a bit until one gets “killed” and the other doesn’t.

When this arrived from out of nowhere in the first edition it totally destroyed the mood, didn’t seem to make any sense, and worse of all felt utterly pointless and arbitrary. It does seem a bit more comprehensible now, given the way one of the two nominees is chosen by that week’s team “leader” and is therefore liable to being the victim of a grudge match. Even so, unless there is an element of predetermination here, with the production team deciding to send the “killer” to whichever location X contestant chooses while letting Y contestant survive, it’s a dangerously random way of giving each episode closure. It also discourages you still further from taking too much of an interest in the participants and their contrasting personalities – after all, why bother expending energy remembering their names when one of them will be dead within the hour purely on the luck of the draw?

Elsewhere, though, The Murder Game has scored a number of audacious and unexpected triumphs. First and foremost is the way in which we’re allowed to see the contestants make absolute fools of themselves. Theirs is an incompetence writ on a monumental scale. Not one of the team has so far exhibited any kind of consistent ability for addressing the task in hand, and all have committed quite memorable acts of bungling and uselessness. Bits of evidence are soiled, dropped or mislaid; suspects are allowed to wander free hither and thither; and vital clues are repeatedly overlooked or misunderstood. Of course this kind of dopey behaviour leaves you simultaneously bemused and incensed, and for the moment cannot help but end up compulsive viewing. How long the teams’ Clouseau-esque antics remain intriguing rather than irritating only time will tell, yet you’d surely think that as the field narrows and the suspects are reduced the standard of investigation would rise.

Such considerations do beg the question what happens if none of them actually work out who the murderer is – and subsequently what would be done with the £25,000 prize money? The issue of to what extent The Murder Game runs along pre-ordained lines is a pertinent one, but not so intrusive as to spoil your appreciation of the thrill of the hunt. The only real awkward moments come whenever we see footage of “professional” experts being sent to a crime scene to clear up the mess left by the contestants, and recover evidence earlier overlooked. This does kind of rob the programme of some of its innocent charm, emphasising that for matters to proceed on schedule a certain quota of information has to be amassed by the end of each episode. On the other hand, these kinds of mechanics also help the show retain that all-important dynamism. Besides, there have been plenty of incidences when the team have fouled up and their actions have been left to stand, not least the numerous occasions when suspects have simply run off and no one has bothered to give chase.

Another of the programme’s strengths resides in its unequivocally melodramatic tone. As opposed to a series like Survivor, where attempts at sensationalism were utterly undermined by pedestrian games and fussy rituals, The Murder Game has a feeling of the theatrical and grandiose running through all its constituent parts. Everything is imbued with a gothic menace that, though unsubtle in places, at least makes for a strong uniformity in style and appearance. Sweeping shots of brooding skylines fit neatly alongside intense, contemplative glimpses of the team at work, and thankfully there’s no overdose on footage of contestants badmouthing each other and droning on about their real lives. Treachery is implicit enough in the programme’s design.

Sealing the show’s appeal is the presence of real-life detective Bob Taylor. The pompous voiceovers from an out-of-sight narrator – “Is his suicide attempt the act of a grieving lover or a guilty man?” – are utterly contrasted by this man’s pointedly wooden yet strangely avuncular pronouncements. Taylor addresses the team at the start and end of each day via a sequence of epithets no doubt intended to resemble erudite and well-crafted prose, but which come out resolutely laboured and faintly hysterical. “There are enough muppets in this room to make a movie,” he croaked in an earlier episode, while this week’s highlight was the stern pronouncement, “I can see the headlines tomorrow: ‘Bungling Police Know Nothing’.” Taylor fails as either an authority figure or a mentor, but cannot help provoke fascination from the viewer for being a non-TV personality who’s ended up on TV looking like he doesn’t really know why. He’s also got an engagingly distinctive approach towards emphasising words, regularly urging the investigators “Good luck – you are going to need it.”

There’s every chance The Murder Game could turn into one of the standout programmes of the year. It’s got verve and eccentricity and a great central premise – just not much in the way of coherency or logic. The show makes absolutely no concessions to people who haven’t been watching from episode one. It suffers persistently from elements like the discovery of new evidence or another round of revelations being lobbed towards the viewer rather in the belief that quantity rather than quality will leave a residual impression. It’s also been blessed with some erratic scheduling that’s seen it shuttled around Saturday nights almost in a deliberate attempt to lose audiences. All of this could prove the show’s undoing. And despite all of its winning ingredients, at present, sadly, the omens aren’t good.


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