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Murders Most Foul


Hot on the heels of my admittedly scathing review of Friday's ultra-campy, Scooby Doo meets The Munsters inspired episode of All My Children which culminated in the murder of Stuart (Not Adam) Chandler, I finally had the opportunity to catch up with Guiding Light, which had its own less heralded "Who Killed Edmund Winslow?" whodunit kick off.

Since I received a little bit of blow back for my harsh (and well-deserved) criticism of AMC, I'd like to take the opportunity to explain why Springfield's simultaneous murder mystery is infinitely superior to Pine Valley's.

First, let's get some semantics out of the way. While most people think a "whodunit" and a "mystery" are synonymous, within the confines of the mystery genre there are distinct differences. In a mystery, the audience is presented with all the suspects, clues, and motives necessary to (eventually) unravel the case, sometimes ahead of the fictional investigating authority. Think Agatha Christie. On the other hand, a whodunit is more of a guessing game in which the above mentioned elements of a mystery are revealed over time, as the audience is often asked to go along for the ride as the investigators themselves uncover the clues. Think Law & Order. Mysteries are not superior to whodunits and vice versa. All that matters is the quality of the story being told, whether all the pieces line up in the end without too many plot-holes upon which the whole shebang might fall apart and one's personal taste. Sue Grafton, Jeffrey Archer, Walter Mosely, Ellery Queen, Mickey Spillane, or Elizabeth Gunn. Pick your poison.

So how do daytime's newest murder mysteries add up?

AMC's "Who Killed Stuart (Not Adam) Chandler?" is in many ways a mystery in the classic mold of the genre. Despite that awful Friday show, the murder of Stuart (Not Adam) is a throwback to the sprawling tales of Agatha Christie. It is a touch of Murder on the Orient Express meets Death on the Nile with a dash of Evil Under the Sun: a baker's dozen of suspects with multiple motives, multiple opportunities and multiple weapons. Standing in stark contrast to Freaky Friday, the subsequent use of a 24-style scrolling multi-screen to show what happened that fateful night as various participants recount their whereabouts and actions has been both original for daytime and a brilliant visual flourish. This would all be high praise in the story so far if it were not marred by a liberal sprinkling of the worst by-the-numbers excesses of Murder, She Wrote and a bit of narrative clumsiness borrowed from the Keystone Cops.

From chief of police Jesse Hubbard (the usually dependable Darnell Williams occasionally tripping over his lines) accidentally shooting best friend Tad (Michael E. Knight) in the head resulting in prime suspect Dr. David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) having to perform a risky surgery that conveniently may affect parts of potential witness Tad's memory to Ryan (Cameron Mathison) leading insta-police officer Natalia (Shannon Kane) around like chickens with their heads cut off in the passageways of the Chandler mansion...well, a lot of the elements feel like unnecessary overkill (pun intended) in an already dense plot.

Making matters so much worse, there is little to zero subtext or nuance anywhere in AMC's heavily hyped story. Suspects have things to hide, secrets to keep and alibis to nurture but that's about it. While the mystery itself is turning out to be better than I expected, much of it in its short story life is mired in cliche and is far too heavy handed to give the story the kind of gravitas the death of beloved Stuart Chandler deserves.

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In stark contrast to AMC and in almost exactly the same time frame, Guiding Light has crafted an instantly engrossing whodunit that began with Remy (Lawrence Saint-Victor) and Christina's (Karla Mosely) sweet gazebo picnic. They heard muffled voices in the distance and, as Remy left, he discovered diabolical Edmund Winslow's body floating in the river while the audience slowly saw several people — Josh (Robert Newman) entering the church troubled and alone, Dinah (Gina Tognoni) taking a long and contemplative shower, Reva (Kim Zimmer) and Marina (Mandy Bruno) talking to their new babies about how safe they would now be, Shane (Jeff Branson) entering his motel room with a couple of cases of beer in hand — emerge as suspects.

Herein lies the beauty of GL's tale: nothing was obvious about what had happened or was going to happen or might happen next. Unlike the frequently hyperventilating folk of Pine Valley, the citizens of Springfield did not run around loudly declaring to anyone within earshot mortal vengeance against the literal dark ex-prince of San Cristobel. One minute everyone's lives are pretty much proceeding apace; two hours later, they have been mysteriously separated and Edmund is fish food.

Adding fuel to an already smoldering fire is that Edmund, who had been on the loose but completely unseen for a couple of weeks, really was a genuine danger to all of our primary suspects listed above but he had many, many more enemies that could emerge at any minute. That lengthy list includes but is not limited to Olivia (Crystal Chappell) coming back from her trip, who beat a hasty path to Jeffrey (Bradley Cole) with news of having seen Reva arguing with Edmund prior to his demise; Beth (Beth Chamberlain), Edmund's ex-wife whom Edmund had kidnapped and emotionally tortured for years; and even the investigating detective Mallet (Robert Bogue) himself, who has already been established as a hit man in his past and who would have been in the exact same boat as his wife Marina in protecting baby Henry from Edmund, Henry's grandfather! If that's the case, another three additional suspects emerge: Phillip (Grant Aleksander) could be added to the mix, having already killed Grady to protect Lizzie and would not be above doing it again if it were revealed Eddie Boy was threatening his family in some way again. What are the chances that Edmund was the person who might have assisted teen-aged James (Zack Conroy) launch his Ponzi scheme in the first place? What if Edmund was putting the screws to Alan (Ron Raines) to cover it up? The possibilities are awesome!

Where AMC's mystery has completely dispensed with subtext, GL's is drenched in it. One brilliant example: Mallet, improbably toting around baby Henry while investigating Edmund's death, saw suspect Shane and decided to question him. Mallet deftly mixed his interrogation with cooing about the joys of fatherhood, completely unaware that Shane is Henry's biological father....a fact that Shane himself knows and is keeping secret! The upshot: Shane acted incredibly jumpy, which made him look like he had something to hide. Was Shane's jumpiness, as the audience might infer from the scene, because of the fact that he's Henry's father or because Shane really knocked off Edmond? There were several scenes like this (was Reva really talking to Josh about going into remission from cancer or did she kill Edmond to protect baby Colin, whom Eddie Boy had tried to kidnap a few weeks ago?), that makes everything so much more intriguing.

Plus, there is one more thing: Having Remy find a small bag of diamonds on Edmond's body and keep them was an old-fashioned stroke of genius. Laid off from work, determined to help his father who has been ripped off in James' Ponzi-scheme and desperate to assist his wife in opening her new business, this not-so-little twist not only plays on Remy's existing story that has been building for a while now but also puts him square in the cross hairs of being one of the prime suspects in Edmund's death when the truth comes out.

The true difference between "Who Killed Stuart (Not Adam) Chandler?" and "Who Killed Edmund Winslow?" is the degree to which the writers and producers trust the intelligence of their audiences without beating them over the head with the obvious. As interesting as All My Children's mystery is turning out to be in a classical mystery sense, what is playing out on screen is more dated than classic. What is making the story palatable is an extremely clever use of split screens to recount the murder night's events. Guiding Light, on the other hand, went for what is turning out to be something more akin to the modern, understated brilliance of Veronica Mars, revealing an increasingly complicated web of suspects, motives and opportunities in subtle and sophisticated ways.

Upon reviewing this posting, I noticed that I wrote far more about the story onscreen for Guiding Light than All My Children. It struck me that the reason for this is very simple. All My Children presented a mystery and is basically telling us how things went down, essentially distilling its narrative to a whodunit. Guiding Light has taken a whodunit and is elevating it to a genuine mystery, full of suspects, motives and scenarios that are equal parts obvious and veiled but at this point completely unpredictable. Guiding Light is asking me to think; All My Children is telling me I don't have to.

I will be watching both shows over the coming weeks to see how their respective whodunits are resolved, but in these early days of this soap murder mystery cage match the clear winner is Guiding Light.