A hybrid genre is born

Fox is set to launch a murder-mystery series this summer that may raise eyebrows by combining the elements of fiction with those of such reality series as Survivor
and Temptation Island.

Murder in Small Town X
is taking the reality genre into uncharted waters this summer, pitting 10 contestants (known as investigators during the show) in a game in which they have to hunt down a fictitious serial killer in a remote New England town. The winner receives $250,000 and, after eight episodes, will have solved the mystery surrounding the death of the wealthy Flint family of Sunrise, Maine.

The hybrid reality series is the brainchild of three former producers of MTV's Real World, all
of whom have also directed and produced traditional fictional television series. They weren't above "fictionalizing" with the press and townspeople about what they were up to in Eastport, Maine, the real town where the series was shot.

Murder in Small Town X
includes a full mystery script, the help of a real police detective, and a detailed Web site. One contestant will be eliminated during each episode, and the 15 possible murder suspects (all actors) will be narrowed down until the crime is solved.

"With our background being a mixture of reality and scripted series, we thought, let's try to combine these two and do a true hybrid and have real people drop into a movie or a TV show à la The Truman Show," says executive producer/creator George Verschoor, whose Final Stretch Productions is co-producing the series with Fox TV Studios. "We thought, let's put these people into a fictional world where they can't see the edges and they don't know what's real and what isn't and see what happens."

Mike Darnell, Fox' executive vice president of alternative programming and the resident reality expert in Hollywood, likes the "eerie" feeling to the show. "To have contestants walk into a drama is just kind of creepy," Darnell says. "It's a real town, with real people in it, and they don't know who's an actor and who's not. The contestants got much more fearful than we actually expected them to get."

The 836 residents of Eastport often show up in Murder in Small Town X
playing bit parts but apparently weren't aware of the nature of the show. Producers told them they were filming a Movie of the Week.

The name of the series has also been something of a mystery for the past six months. Fox executives first announced it as Small Town X, then changed it to End Game
at about the time production began in Eastport. After production ended, Fox announced that the series will be called Murder in Small Town X. Says Verschoor, "We just wanted to keep the production undercover as we were shooting, and it apparently worked."

The first episode of the series, which debuts July 24 and will air on Tuesdays for the remainder of the summer, will set the stage for the mystery. Viewers and contestants will get to see a rough, two-minute video of the murders taking place in Sunrise. During each episode, Gary Fredo, the real-life police investigator, will help the contestants sift through different clues and send them out on various fact-finding missions.

On each episode, contestants will be forced to play the "killer's game," which is answering questions related to their investigative tacks. If the group answers correctly, one of the 15 possible suspects is eliminated. At the end of each episode, the contestants select two of their own to go alone to two locations to stake out the killer. One contestant comes back with a clue, the other becomes the next "victim."