On paper, Hulu's Death and Other Details has all the makings of a great whodunit: entitled rich people living their best lives, an outsider who has infiltrated the inner circle, the working class that hates them all, and a disgraced detective trying to make a splashy comeback. So it's disappointing that, in reality, the series never quite pops.
With the resurgence of whodunits thanks to projects like Knives Out, Only Murders in the Building, and Kenneth Branagh's modernized Poirot movies, any new one has big (gum)shoes to fill. The detective at the center of the case is key to keeping the audience engaged in solving the murder. In Death and Other Details, Mandy Patinkin steps into that role as Rufus Cotesworth, the world's greatest detective.
Or at least he was, until he was unable to solve the case of a murdered woman with ties to a powerful family. Through flashbacks, we learn Cotesworth fled midway through the investigation, leaving the family and the dead woman's daughter, Imogene (played as a child by Sophia Reid-Gantzert and in the present by Violett Beane), behind.
In the present day, Cotesworth shows up on a luxury cruise ship commandeered by that same family to celebrate the retirement of its patriarch, Lawrence (David Marshall Grant). There is a colorful cast of characters aboard, including Lawrence's entitled kids, Tripp (Jack Cutmore-Scott) and Anna (Lauren Patten); the commandeering head of staff, Teddy (Angela Zhou); and Imogene, whose complicated relationship with the family leaves her straddling both worlds.
When one of the guests is suddenly murdered, Imogene and Cotesworth are thrown together to solve the case, bringing the past and present together through flashbacks, re-enactments, and interrogations set against colorful backdrops and featuring beautiful costumes.
It's got almost everything Agatha Christie could ever want from a murder mystery, but Death and Other Details lacks fun. When dealing with suspects, a show like this needs to toe the line between believable and outlandish. It needs lighter moments to balance the morbid situation at hand. Rather than lean into those moments and play up its quirks, Death goes the other way.
It's not just the characters who take themselves too seriously. Class division and wealth are the topic of way too many conversations, hitting viewers over the head rather than letting people draw their own conclusions. The ship's setup is very Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey, and the theme seems obvious enough without the constant exposition.
There are moments when the show borders on fun. A karaoke scene between siblings, a night of unbridled passion, and an ongoing storyline involving one guest broadcasting the case for his social media following are some of the standout lighter moments. The series could use more of them.
As for Cotesworth, he, too, is too serious. Patinkin easily commands a scene, but he doesn't exude the charm you want from your lead guy. His strongest scenes are those in which he's most animated, such as a talk show flashback in a later episode or his interactions with his partner at the office. On the ship, however, he's tightly wound and private, offering gruff advice to Imogene as he lets her lead the investigation.
Unfortunately, Imogene is an unsympathetic character. Finding her mother's killer is what drives her, but it often undermines the importance of solving the murder at hand (even if it may be the same killer). She's got access to money, beauty, and brains, and plenty of people on the ship seem to fall for her quickly. Given everything she has so readily accepted in life, it's hard to root for her and her hypocrisy.
As for the case itself, it's hard to tell whether a satisfying ending is in store. Hulu released eight of the ten installments to the press, and although a new suspect comes to light in each episode, it's hard to tell where the story is going. Many of the reveals come via flashbacks off the ship, retold while a present-day Imogene or Cotesworth steps back into a scene to discuss information as it unfolds.
Despite the ship's isolated nature, some passengers come and go, and it doesn't take long for the case at hand to grow into a larger conspiracy that's no longer contained. That's fine for a thriller or psychological drama. But part of the fun of whodunits is discerning the killer and making educated guesses based on the clues others may have missed, without stretching too far outward.
In other words, it's all about the Details. And while there are still two episodes for this story to come full circle, it will take a lot of pulling back and simplifying to get to that satisfactory ending.
Premieres: Tuesday, Jan. 16 with two episodes on Hulu, followed by a new episode each Tuesday
Who's in it: Violett Beane, Mandy Patinkin, Lauren Patten, Rahul Kohli, Angela Zhou
Who's behind it: Mike Weiss, Heidi Cole McAdams
For fans of: Whodunits, murder mysteries and shows that tackle class division
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 10