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Though it’s virtually inescapable these days, 20 years ago, reality TV was a still a relatively new genre for television — which is all the more reason why “Murder in Small Town X,” a series that aired on Fox in the summer of 2001, was groundbreaking. Not least because the show was filmed in Eastport, which stood in for the fictional town of Sunrise, Maine.
The show’s premise — 10 contestants act as amateur investigators to solve a series of fictional murders, with “suspects” played by 15 actors — was highly unusual. The fact that it was shot in Eastport, which in 2001 had not yet begun to see a revitalization of its historic waterfront and downtown district, was even more unusual.
“There were not many who believed we could land it in Eastport,” said Bud Finch, who was town manager for Eastport between 1994 and 2009, and actually appeared in an episode of the show in an uncredited role. “But I knew then they would not be able to walk away from the heart and soul the people would put into making everyone feel as if they were home.”
The show was dreamed up by TV producer George Verschoor, who was a pioneer of the reality TV genre, having created the concept for MTV’s long-running “The Real World,” which is credited as the first modern reality TV show. Though Verschoor looked at a number of small towns across the country as the setting for his new show, once Finch and other townsfolk got wind that Eastport was on the list, they worked hard to convince them to choose it.
TV crews arrived in the Washington County town in late February 2001, and spent the next six weeks transforming it into Sunrise, the fictional town where murder and mayhem would unfold over the course of eight episodes.
Finch said that while some in town were skeptical about a crew of Hollywood types setting up shop, he felt the benefits would be clear once it actually started to happen — and once those people began spending money at local businesses.
“They created movie theme storefronts in the downtown area filling in the abundant vacancies, as if the town had blossomed in the spring. It helped to provide early visitors for the businesses which were real,” Finch said. “Ultimately, in my view, this was the beginning of the rebirth of the waterfront business area.”
Though the main interactions between the contestants and the actors were on closed sets, there were several times when people could see filming — when crews staged a car crash in the middle of town, and blew up a boat in the harbor. They also erected a statue of a fisherman, which the crew later donated to the town. In 2004, Eastport residents raised money to build a permanent base for the statue, which 20 years later has become an icon.
Crews were mostly done filming by April, and the show was rapidly turned around in time for its July 24 premiere. The show eliminated one contestant on each episode, by being “murdered by the killer,” who was the ultimate bad guy of the series. In the end, the “killer” was revealed, and the winner of the show was Angel Juarbe Jr., a firefighter from The Bronx, New York, who won $250,000 and a new Jeep Liberty.
Sadly, it did not attract high viewership, and lasted for just one season. A version of the show called “The Murder Game” was made in England in 2003, but that too only lasted one season.
In a tragic twist of fate, one week after the show’s last episode aired, Juarbe Jr., a seven-year New York City Fire Department veteran, was in one of the first units to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Juarbe Jr., 35, was caught in the collapse of the Marriott Hotel adjacent to the towers. His body was not recovered until more than two months later, on Nov. 28. The fisherman statue was later dedicated in Juarbe Jr.’s memory.
The murder mystery reality competition format has had mixed results since “Murder in Small Town X” aired. In summer 2013, a series called “Whodunnit?” ran on ABC, in which contestants had to solve a different murder on each episode. And between 2016 and 2020, YouTube Premium ran “Escape the Night,” a fantasy and horror-themed mystery show featuring YouTube and social media stars as contestants.
“Murder in Small Town X” was the first time a reality TV show was taped in Washington County, but not the last. In 2004, the PBS series “Colonial House” was taped near Machias, and attempted to recreate life in a 17th-century British colony, casting people from all over the country and the United Kingdom. And in 2007, an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” was filmed in Milbridge.
Other reality shows have been set in other parts of Maine, including “American Loggers,” “North Woods Law,” “Maine Cabin Masters,” “Cold River Cash,” “Tirdy Works” and “Down East Dickering,” the latter of which, despite the name, was filmed in central and western Maine, not in Washington County.