One of the biggest problems of the “my TV show is really just a long movie” era of television is that it has created a common problem wherein a script’s worth of plotting is stretched out to the length of a TV season. Especially since the mid-budget movie died and so many of those projects went to TV, there’s been a glut of shows that are simply the wrong length, often spinning wheels and repeating ideas to get to a predetermined episode count. And it’s a real problem in a genre like the murder mystery, wherein the careful pacing of mysteries and reveals are essential. Imagine a 10-hour version of “Knives Out” and you have some idea why “Death and Other Details” gets so frustrating, especially after the remarkably fun series premiere. I was with the new Hulu show for a few episodes after that, only realizing by about episode four that this ship was taking on water and going in circles. It’s a three-hour tour forced to vamp for ten.
Mandy Patinkin does his best Hercule Poirot as Rufus Cotesworth, once deemed the greatest detective in the world. That’s what a young Imogene Scott (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) hoped he was when he was brought in to solve the murder of her mother, recently killed by a car bomb. When Cotesworth ended that case with only a mysterious name tied to the murder but not an actual arrest, it made a young Imogene bitter. Now a charming young woman (Violett Beane), Imogene is startled to see Cotesworth on a luxury ocean liner she’s aboard with the wealthy family that basically raised her. She’s even more shocked when an unruly passenger ends up murdered, forcing Imogene and Rufus into investigative mode together to solve both the new crime and possibly even her mother’s in the process.
Patinkin gives Rufus plenty of flavor in the classic recipe of “bumbling genius” a la Monk, Columbo or some iterations of Poirot. He takes obsessive notes, writes in code, and encourages the obviously intuitive Imogene to pay attention to the details. He also says things like, “The truth will come out sooner or later. I prefer sooner. Because I like a nap.” The wonderful actor nails the role, but the problems start with pretty much everything else on the show, and how much of a backseat Patinkin is forced to take while boring supporting characters take the wheel.
First, there’s a coterie of suspects who start off promising but never really advance beyond their most basic character descriptions. Could the killer be the power broker Lawrence Collier (David Marshall Grant) or his Lady MacBeth Katherine (Jayne Atkinson)? What about their daughter Anna (Lauren Patten), who thinks she’s taking over the family fortune any day now, if daddy would just hand over the company? (Thin allusions to “Succession” don’t help “Death and Other Details,” a show that’s too often reminding you of better things to watch like that Emmy juggernaut, “Poker Face,” or “Only Murders in the Building.”). What about Anna’s mysterious wife Leila (Pardis Saremi) or the troubled male heir Tripp (Jack Cutmore-Scott)? I haven’t even mentioned the politician, the pastor, or the potential investors. This is a crowded ship, and yet so few of these characters make any impact as the writing circles the same mysteries and reveals over and over again.
After a promising set-up, you can almost see “Death and Other Details” run out of ideas as it injects a refugee subplot and a romance between two performers with no chemistry. It’s not that any of the performers here are particularly bad. Scott feels like she could fit well in a project that didn’t force her to respond to so many of the same beats repeatedly and Rahul Kohli (a Mike Flanagan regular) is always welcome. And, again, Patinkin does no wrong. It’s just the writing here that can’t find the rhythm or the depth for ten hours of TV. Even the show’s good ideas, like a cleverly structured seventh episode, feel like they would have worked better as ten minutes of a movie instead of an hour of a season.
Maybe the real mystery is how we’re going to fix this bloated era of TV. We need a better detective than Rufus Cotesworth to solve that one.
Eight episodes screened for review. Premieres on Hulu on January 16th.