If there’s one thing that has become apparent over the last couple of years, it’s that the Celebrity Whodunnit is back, babies.
Whether it’s Rian Johnson’s Knives Out movies (or, for that matter, his Columbo tribute, Poker Face, which tells you whodunnit at the start of each episode and then let’s you enjoy watching Natasha Lyonne figure it out for the rest of the runtime), Lord and Miller’s The Afterparty, Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez’s overstuffed whimsagorical Only Murders in the Building, or Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to update Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, it seems as if audiences are in the mood to figure out some mysteries once again, as long as there are recognizable faces doing the detecting.
The thought occurred to me while watching the trailer for the latest entrant into the arena, Hulu’s Death and Other Details, a new Hulu series starring Mandy Patinkin as the wonderfully named Rufus Coteworth, a peerless gentleman detective helping a woman prove her innocence when a dead body turns up on a cruise liner. There’s a sense, when watching the trailer — which is perfectly acceptable and enjoyable in its own right, I hasten to add — that the show is less a story in and of itself than something assembled out of spare parts of other projects in an attempt to become more marketable and acceptable to wider audiences.
The trailer reveals the following: Violett Beane’s Imogene Scott is, as one might expect, a sassy, spunky independent woman who isn’t going to put up with the boorish behavior of those around her, as if Mabel from Only Murders in the Building was being cosplayed by a less than memorable Doctor Who assistant; that the object of her (extremely mild) revenge ends up dead is, of course, unfortunate, but at least one man wants to help her clear her name - Rufus Coteworth, who — in the trailer, at least — comes across as a genetic mix of Branagh’s Poirot and Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, with Patinkin clearly relishing the opportunity to play broad and big and damn the consequences.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of this; the show looks fun enough, if hardly groundbreaking. It’s simply that seeing so much of the DNA of other shows and movies so apparent in the trailer alone underscored the ubiquity of the genre, and the fact that a lot of these tropes have started to feel far too overfamiliar lately. If something like this can accidentally feel like it’s doing for whodunnits what Scary Movie did for horror movies in the 1990s, it’s a sign that the landscape is arguably close to being overrun, and filmmakers and programmers alike need to start looking for something different for a little bit before familiarity breeds contempt.
It's easy to see what makes projects like this attractive for those responsible: whodunnits are fun, throwaway concoctions with enough structure to make them familiar enough for audiences to grab onto easily, and there's something genuinely fun for actors and viewers alike in the opportunity they present for overacting in a wickedly amusing pantomime fashion. (Yes, even the ones played relatively straight; sorry, all.) It's just that... well, too much of a good thing really can be a problem, bluntly. Surely everyone can see that we're nearing an event horizon and needing a bit of a break, right?
As I write the above words, the universe answers in the form of an email promoting a new show from The Walking Dead network AMC: Monsieur Spade, in which Clive Owen reimagines the iconic gumshoe Sam Spade as… someone solving a series of murders in the small French village he has attempted to retire in. Think of it like the PR version of Groundhog Day: a signal that we’re headed for another 12 months of actors you know from something else grimacing while they think of just who could be responsible for such a horrible crime.
Death and Other Details starts January 16 on Hulu; Monsieur Spade starts January 14 on AMC.