Death and Other Details, Another Murder-Mystery, This Time With Mandy Patinkin as the “World’s Greatest Detective”

Note: Only eight out of the first season’s 10 episodes were made available to review.

Thanks, in no small part, to Rian Johnson’s one-two murder-mystery punch Knives Out and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, we’re right smack in the middle of a new Golden Age for a century-old genre. Mixing ensemble-led performances, stylistic direction, and witty, sharply satirical scripts, Johnson’s contribution to the genre’s revival can’t — and shouldn’t — be underestimated. In quick succession, the genre has seen some of its best and/or most memorable contributions via film (Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot trilogy) and serialized storytelling on cable/streaming (A Murder at the End of the World, Only Murders in the Building, The White Lotus). Along with co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne, Johnson has revived old-school, Columbo-inspired mysteries with the recent Poker Face.

Describing Mike Weiss and Heidi Cole McAdams’s ten-episode murder-mystery thriller for Hulu, Death and Other Details, as either “best in class” or even “memorable” might be borderline hyperbolic. While, however, it doesn’t particularly stand out from an overcrowded field filled with similar narrative and thematic material, Death and Other Details rarely falters in delivering the surface-level thrills typical of the genre, the requisite twists, turns, and revelations stretched — sometimes admittedly too thinly — across ten sprawling, occasionally unfocused, water-treading episodes.

Death and Other Details centers on Imogene Scott (Violett Beane), an unambitious twenty-something who’s turned her near-lifelong relationship with the ultra-wealthy Collier family into a long-term gig. Orphaned as a preteen in a traumatic car explosion, the Colliers semi-adopted Imogene, the daughter of the patriarch’s executive secretary. They gave Imogene a roof over her head, clothes, and food. They also presumably provided Imogene with the best private education their guilt-ridden consciences could afford. Yet they never officially adopted Imogene and rather than bringing her into the family business fully, they’ve relegated her to a low-level marketing assistant.

All of that bitterness and resentment expresses itself in Imogene’s biting takedowns when no one’s listening and lining her pockets with trinkets or food. That bitterness and resentment also extend to Rufus Cotesworth (Mandy Patinkin), the so-called “World’s Greatest Detective,” who, despite his level-best efforts, couldn’t solve the murder of Imogene’s mother. Two decades later, Imogene sees Cotesworth as just another feckless, ultimately useless adult, promising far more than he could ever deliver, guaranteeing disappointment and disillusionment.

That’s all backstory, however, to the murder that occurs near the end of the first episode. A classic locked-room mystery aboard a Mediterranean cruise liner expressly hired by the Colliers for a ten-day vacation, only the Colliers, their various hangers-on, including Imogene, and a contingent of Chinese businessmen and businesswomen led by Celia Chun (Lisa Lu) and her granddaughter, Karoline (Eleanor Chun). They’re onboard for the final negotiations that will make the Colliers and the Chuns business partners in the former’s stateside textile company. The murder of one of the passengers, of course, complicates matters.

With 10 episodes to fill, complications are the rule, not the exception, mostly of the personal kind. Karoline just happens to be the ex of Anna Collier (Lauren Patten), the soon-to-be-minted CEO of Collier Enterprises. Anna’s wife, Leila (Pardis Saremi), an ex-journalist, appears to suffer from mental health issues, specifically of the everything-is-a-conspiracy kind. Anna’s brother, Tripp (Jack Cutmore-Scott), fits into the familiar failson category. A serial substance abuser, Tripp spends most of his time on get-rich schemes and a potentially scandalous affair with Washington’s current governor, Alexandra (Tamberlay Perry). For her part, Alexandra’s relationship with Father Toby (Danny Johnson), a “political kingmaker,” seems fraught with dubious ethics and questionable legalities.

And that doesn’t include the patriarch and matriarch of the Collier family, Lawrence (David Marshall Grant) and Katherine (Jayne Atkinson). Like the over-ambitious, do-anything-to-get-ahead Anna and the perpetually embarrassing Tripp, Lawrence and Katherine are nothing if not familiar, wealthy, self-serving, conscience-free elitists. They even have a personal lawyer/fixit character, Llewellyn Mathers (Jere Burns), to clean up their frequent personal and professional messes. (Insert “eat-the-rich” commentary here.) They’re not, however, out-and-out hissable villains, at least not initially, defined more by their obvious cluelessness to the world around them than a deliberate desire to bring harm or injury to that same world.

With so many characters with so many hidden desires, secrets, and agendas, concentration is a must for anyone on the other side of the digital screen. Weiss and McAdams, understanding the limits of attention spans in the Social Media Age, repeat key exposition to ensure maximum retention, sometimes to the point of exhaustion and or (slight) annoyance. While presumably needed for attention-scattered audiences, the same exposition and/or backstory repeated five or six times can also begin to feel like time-padding or -wasting. For just one example, Weiss and McAdams replay the death of Imogene’s mother so often that it begins to feel, if not meaningless (details are added with every iteration), then less and less resonant emotionally.

Add to that interpersonal shipboard drama, starting, but not ending with the liner’s owner, Sunil (Rahul Kohli), his right-hand woman, Teddy (Angela Zhou), her younger sister, Winnie (Annie Q. Riegel), and the enigmatic security chief, Jules (Hugo Diego Garcia), and the how Death and Other Details somehow manages to squeeze 10 hours of material into a murder-mystery that probably could have been solved in half that time becomes somewhat clearer. Laying an overarching mystery involving a potentially super-powerful, Bond-style villain, “Victor Sams” (a pseudonym, of course), it becomes increasingly obvious Weiss and McAdams erred on the side of cramming every conceivable idea — and some inconceivable ones — to fill out the running time.

Death and Other Details premieres Tuesday, January 16th, with two episodes, followed by weekly installments and a two-episode finale on March 5th.

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