Who doesn’t love a good “whodunnit?”
Mysteries underpin all our procedural dramas. The key ingredients -set up, victims, suspects, red herrings, motives, detection, re-evaluation, revelation- always become writers’ breadcrumbs astutely placed along a plotline.
But it’s been many years since the “whodunnit” made an appearance in a television game show. Ian McFadyen’s Cluedo aired in 1992 on Nine, and the UK’s 1970s series Whodunnit? was an early classic.
The ABC, which has a huge track record in UK crime dramas, improvises with the magnifying glass for the mystery-comedy series, Sleuth 101.
Hosted by comedian Cal Wilson, the half hour show combines live studio improvisation with pre-recorded filmed sequences in which a murder is committed. In an impressive studio set, the crime scene is re-created, allowing celebrity detectives to hunt for clues.
In the first episode Dave O’Neill dons his best 1970s ‘Homicide-tribute’ shirt as the show’s first detective.
A number of recognisable faces appear in the week’s first crime: John Wood, the patriarchal victim, with various members of his veangeful ‘family’ played by Denise Drysdale, Robyn Butler and others.
Wilson guides O’Neill through the crime scene, rather unsubtly assisting him to collect clues, before he interrogates each of the key suspects in front of the studio audience.
Here the guest detective flies blind, given a few minutes to probe each suspect as the performers improvise their innocence in character. Despite the room for laughs it is also the most static part of the show, due to being entirely seated.
Along the way, Wilson interjects with “forensic results” from the retrieved evidence, slowly adding more hints as the plot thickens (or possibly the thick plottens). Further clips illustrate each character’s point of view for both detective and audience.
Eventually, with all his suspects assembled at the scene of the crime, O’Neill is asked to declare his murderer. Ironically, having all the actors physically standing in the crime scene, this scenario is only briefly utilised -no opportunity to re-enact, rewind, freeze frame the act. For an improvisation show, it is a curious choice.
Sleuth 101 includes musical and visual references to genre hallmarks, including James Bond, with a sense of cheek and caricature performances from its rotating ensemble. Wilson is well-suited as the not-too-serious host -but if the audience laughs were sweetened with a laugh track, it feels a little too earnest.
ABC has opted to slate the show on Friday night, as a lead in to its traditional crime dramas, rather than the obvious choice of following Spicks and Specks (the show is produced by the same team). It’s certainly nice to see something different being attempted.
It’s a light way to settle into a night of mystery, that will succeed largely on the comedic dexterity of its guest detectives.
Sleuth 101 premieres 8pm Friday on ABC1.