The Absolute Fucking Tomfoolery of Murder Island

by thethreepennyguignol

If you follow me anywhere on the internet, you know that I have spent the better part of the last week whining commiserating with myself about having tonsilitis and laryngitis. Lying in a full collapse on my couch as my cats climb angrily over my sorest bits, I searched for something to distract myself with, and, in my quest, I came across Murder Island.

It’s been a while since I’ve just come on here to all-round roast a show (though, with the way those Supernatural reviews have been going, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise) but Murder Island, my sweet loves, requires me to slap my knee and have a good ol’ laugh. Well, not too loud, since my throat still hurts a bit, but you know what I mean, eh?

Murder Island is a high-concept gameshow produced by Channel Four and released late last year, and honestly, I see why this pitch got through the initial stages of production. It follows eight amateur would-be sleuths as they travel out to a remote Scottish island (being a remote Scottish island myself, or at least someone who spent quite a few windswept summer holidays on them, was part of the reason I was so interested in this, I’ll admit) to solve a small-town murder mystery. The mystery, written by one of Scotland’s endless longlist of crime writers Ian Rankin, is brought to life by a dozen or so “inhabitants” of the island, performed by various actors looking to get their first credited appearence on something that isn’t River City (I jest, all the actors are absolutely fine).

It sounds like a fun weekend away, to me- I’d pay a few hundred to go larp as Poirot on a pretty Scottish island while some actors do their best Mull of Kintyre accents while I look seriously at CSI reports like I know a fuck. I’m a true crime person who likes to think they have some level of knowledge about how all of this works, and I could imagine that it would be fun to be disabused of that idea in a week-long live-action Cluedo game, you know? Send a few members of the public to a big made-up crime scene, get them to solve it for a cash prize, bish bash bosh – what could go wrong?

Well, right from the off, the show makes the delightfully bizarre choice to have this season be narrated by the murder victim herself: it’s the kind of unhinged choice that would barely fly in a post-modern Scandi crime drama, and one that this first-season C4 reality show really cannot pull off. The show opens with Charlie narrating the discovery of her own slaughtered corpse, and it only gets more surreal and somehow less interesting from there.

The teams of would-be sleuths arrive, everything from little-old-lady next-door-neighbours to a soon-to-be married couple to a pair of lasses out on the greatest Hen night of their lives (stan Dot, honestly). Accompanying them are a few genuine retired police detectives, including the powerfully intimidating Parm Sahndu, a woman who has never, not once in her life, come to fuck around.

The characters who make up the main pool of suspects and interviewees sort of loll around the island like NPCs, waiting for the amateurs to turn up and question them or accuse them or frankly, tell them where the catering truck is, it looks like (I sincerely hope that at least one of this cast became obnoxiously method in preparing for these roles and moved in to one of the prop houses they stuck up to serve as a backdrop). And that creates this profoundly weird dichotomy of the real people interacting with fictional characters, and both sides of the equation having to approach these interactions with straight-faced seriousness to keep from blowing the suspension of disbelief right out of the water entirely. It’s like a very complex DnD game where 10% of the players are just themselves, with no engagement with any of the in-world rules or regulations, and it’s the kind of high surrealist art that I adore.

Anyway, there’s a reason that shows don’t use the victim-as-narrator storytelling conceit more, and that’s because you can’t really hold a whole lot back when you’re telling things from the victim’s point of view – and, when the entire point of this show is to follow these amateur detectives as they unfold this mystery, it’s a fucking disastrous decision. What follows is Murder Island trying to juggle this mournful, serious narration as Charlie talks about her own murder while also coyly holding back enough to try and give the audience something to guess along with – because, of course, this is about trying to solve a murder.

One of my favourite parts of Murder Island is the debriefs shared between the amateur sleuths and the retired cops as the amateurs embarrass themselves to various degrees with their lack of investigatory flair. They essentially consist of these incredibly experienced and po-faced professionals becoming more and more abjectly frustrated that these eight random people do not have decades of crime-solving experience under their belts, and I’m honestly obsessed with it. Watching this officer’s Graham MacMillan’s soul leave his body as he watches three separate people walk directly through the blood that they’ve been told not to step in is the sort of thing that my cruel little heart feeds on to live. Seeing poor, furious Parm slap down the evidence that they were meant to have found on the table in front of them while they all shuffle quietly like naughty schoolkids? This is crime television, my friends. It’s three seasoned professionals not enjoying training the new lot for six episodes straight, and they do not care who knows it.

Murder Island is the kind of stupid reality competition TV that I can never get enough of, and honestly, it might be my new favourite. Is it good? No. Is it hysterical? Endlessly. Yelling through a mouthful of pizza at Rox to CHECK if that’s a marijuana plant in the sink when I know that I fully would have been accidentally contaminating everything with my own useless fingerprints if I’d been there makes for delightfully silly viewing, and the Scottish setting gives it a bit of that local flair that makes it even more tasty for me. Should you watch it? Probably not. But God, I’m glad that I got through my tonsilitis watching this nonsense.

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(header image via Herald Scotland)