It isn’t just you. We’re two weeks into the new year and every show on TV has become a murder mystery.
There are reality murder mysteries (Traitors) and animated murder mysteries (Grimsburg) and British murder mysteries (Criminal Record) and occult murder mysteries (Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale). There are murder mysteries without daylight (True Detective: Night Country) and adapted recent murder mysteries (Fool Me Once) and adapted characters in original murder mysteries (Monsieur Spade).
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Those are just January premieres. So far. There’ll be at least one more new murder mystery before the end of the week (The Woman in the Wall).
It’s easy to point to the blockbuster success of the two Knives Out movies and the steady success of the Kenneth Branagh/Michael Green-steered Hercule Poirot movies as a business-driven cause.
Sociologically, it’s easy to point to a decade of distrust of institutional policing as an explanation for why so many of these murder mysteries can only be solved by individuals working outside our heavily flawed systems — or, in the cases when our detectives still have badges, why so many require the efforts of an establishment-bucking renegade. We turn to Sherlock Holmes when Scotland Yard fails, to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade when the Los Angeles and San Francisco police are at a loss, to Jack Reacher when extra-judicial beatings are required, to Jackson Lamb when flatulence is necessary.
When murder is afoot, it’s no longer enough to sit back and let proficient public servants crack the case. We sometimes require responsibilities to be handed over to protagonists whom every other character must refer to as either “the world’s greatest detective” or, at a bare minimum, a “Gen Z Sherlock Holmes.” But just as often, having honed our skills on true-crime books, podcasts and bloated TV documentaries, we believe that amateur gumshoes can take the place of experts.
Tying this recent genre explosion together with a bow is Heidi Cole McAdams and Mike Weiss’ new Hulu murder mystery Death and Other Details, featuring Mandy Patinkin as Rufus Cotesworth, repeatedly called “the world’s greatest detective.” Death and Other Details is either the most derivative series you’ll ever see or a 10-episode limited series crafted by generous creators determined to give aficionados a taste of absolutely every single thing they like about the genre, frequently at the expense of the elegant efficiency that marks its best offerings. It’s rambling and insufficiently mysterious to justify its full running time — critics were sent eight of 10 Death episodes and I doubt I’ll bother finishing — but the diverse ensemble and its aggressive eagerness to please keep things engaging, at least for a while.
A classic locked-room mystery, which you know because Rufus refers to it as “a classic locked-room mystery,” Death and Other Details takes place on the S.S. Varuna, an impeccably reproduced classic luxury cruise ship traveling from Malta to Palermo or something to that effect.
The ship has been chartered by Lawrence (David Marshall Grant) and Katherine (Jayne Atkinson) Collier, the fabulously rich industrialists behind Collier Mills. The voyage has a pair of purposes: Lawrence is hoping to get a major investment from the Chun family, led by matriarch Celia (Lisa Lu), and he’s about to announce a succession plan, naming daughter Anna (Lauren Patten) as CEO.
Guests include slimy family lawyer Llewellyn Mathers (Jere Burns); Anna’s cokehead brother, Tripp (Jack Cutmore-Scott); Anna’s ultra-paranoid wife, Leila (Pardis Seremi); and Imogene Scott (Violett Beane), Anna’s best friend and basically a member of the Collier family ever since her mother, Lawrence’s personal assistant, was blown up in a car bombing 20 years earlier. It’s a case that was never solved, even though the Colliers hired Rufus Cotesworth, whose failure rankled a young Imogene. When Imogene — an observational savant herself — discovers that Rufus is on the ship providing personal security for the Chuns, she’s very irritated.
The pilot has to spend roughly 53 minutes introducing people nonstop, because in addition to the various rich guests on the vessel, there’s an entire hospitality staff overseen by Teddy (Angela Zhou), the on-board security overseen by hunky Jules (Hugo Diego Garcia) and the ship’s owner Sunil (Rahul Kohli).
When one particularly boorish passenger — Michael Gladis’ Keith — is found harpooned in his quarters, Rufus and Imogene realize the case may have connections to the murder that brought them together decades earlier. They have to work together to figure out whodunnit before the ship docks, but Keith won’t be the last victim.
After a while, my notes on Death and Other Details stopped listing plot details and just became a string of other works that the series was directly or indirectly referencing, or simply reminding me of. It’s a list that starts with Knives Out and its sequel, but it’s not like Knives Out isn’t its own greatest hits list of references. So really the list starts with the collected works of Agatha Christie and subsequent self-aware pastiches like The Last of Sheila, before getting into obvious comparisons like the wealth-mocking hijinks of The White Lotus or the post-modern cheekiness of The Afterparty.
Everything fits so neatly into the genre conventions that it’s almost impossible for any of the red herrings or character reversals to be even slightly surprising. I ran out of things I was curious to learn. The series is oddly self-satisfied in its discovery that the genre can be used for eat-the-rich class-warfare undercurrents, as if that critique hasn’t been foundational to these stories since Sherlock Holmes and “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Hulu’s Culprits did the same thing last month with the heist genre, proudly “uncovering” its Robin Hood-y aspects.
The class critique is indeed one of the things Death and Other Details does most proudly, albeit rarely with insight. There’s more creativity to the way the series delves into the peculiarities of memory and subjectivity, as Imogene and Rufus are constantly going into and out of the other’s versions of past and present events. Sometimes the show handles these flashbacks and untrustworthy recollections in clever ways, and sometimes you can see the formal effort without quite feeling the payoff.
Visible effort but inconsistent payoff is one of the show’s most frequent states of being. The production design on the ship and the costumes for its affluent guests are generally superb, but the setting never stops feeling like a series of soundstages — and never for a second gives the impression of being a ship at sea. With its pervasive self-awareness, Death and Other Details wants to acknowledge the genre’s contrivances and artificiality, but it tries to have its feet grounded in the real world at the same time, floundering in the balance.
Leaning more in the direction of that artificiality, the performances are generally archly fun, dominated by outlandish and inexplicable accents (Patinkin’s stagey British tones and Linda Emond’s hilarious pseudo-Scandinavian cadences are the easiest to place) or theatrical stylization (Beane’s blond bob remains immaculately intact even after all-night sexual trysts, which are frequent in a show that isn’t for kids).
Production enjoys playing dress-up with Beane, and Beane enjoys getting to embody an assortment of feisty vamp archetypes. She’s better trading semi-witty barbs with Patinkin or generating steamy chemistry with both Garcia and Kohli than plumbing her character’s dramatic depths.
Going back to that uncomfortable balance of heightened and real, Beane has to make Imogene feel like a real person and struggles, whereas Patinkin just revels in the buffet of scenery-chewing that actors get to do in these “world’s greatest detective” roles. Somehow, in all of the pandering that the creators are doing to fans, they don’t contrive any excuse to have Patinkin sing, which I only mention because Patten, a Tony winner for Jagged Little Pill, is handed a gratuitous karaoke scene that she tears into magnificently.
Burns, Zhou, Gladis and especially Lu have the most memorable of the supporting performances, all benefiting from “Nobody is quite what they seem!” inevitability. Having 25 or 30 half-developed characters who each present broadly in one direction and then are pushed broadly in the opposite direction for the sake of a twist becomes exhausting in a hurry.
I’d have preferred five genuinely complex characters to two dozen attractive chess pieces, which is Death and Other Details in a nutshell. Maybe 75 percent homage and 25 percent revisionist, Death and Other Details consistently stands out for doing the most, but rarely stands out for doing the best.
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