This review of Hulu’s new murder mystery series Death and Other Details comes with a disclaimer.
As it says right there in the title, the series traffics in the finer details of an elaborate murder investigation set on board a luxury cruise liner with a vast array of filthy-rich suspects and shady motives. But by the very nature of the genre, many of those details are off limits to the critical dissection that follows. A murder mystery may be about exposing the details, but criticism is burdened with knowing what to keep buried.
Understandably, this makes reviewing the actual substance and success of a series quite tricky. Hulu only giving critics eight of the 10 episodes also poses its own challenge. But fortunately for viewers (and this reviewer), Death and Other Details has a lot more going for it than just a dead body nailed to a wall with a spearfishing rod (more on that later). If any detail is certain, it’s that creators Mike Weiss and Heidi Cole McAdams read Agatha Christie’s locale-specific library of murder mysteries cover to cover and come out the other side with one conclusion — it’s all about the detective.
Like a magnificent, bearded sun, everything in the series revolves around the one and only Mandy Patinkin. The Homeland alum and recent TikTok sensation plays Detective Rufus Cotesworth, a charming yet cocky sleuth who lives in a world where famous detectives are treated like Beatles-level celebrities. Cotesworth might not have the dagger-tipped mustache of Hercule Poirot, but Patinkin, too, did his homework in crafting an inspired take on Christie’s famous French detective. With a deliberately gravelly drawl and calm charisma, Cotesworth walks through life with an unparalleled perceptiveness that he credits to a simple aphorism: pay attention to the details.
But the world’s greatest detective — their words, not his — doesn’t have a spotless record. Eighteen years ago, he made a promise to a young girl to be her partner in finding the person who murdered her mother. Cut to the present day, when that little girl, Imogene (Violett Beane), is now a grown woman nursing a deep-seated hatred for Cotesworth, who broke his promise.
Years have passed since their last encounter when they both board the SS Varuna, a renovated cruise liner christening its second life with a private charter from Lawrence (David Marshall Grant) and Katherine Collier (Jayne Atkinson), the richer-than-God couple who raised Imogene after her mother’s death. The Colliers chartered the Varuna as a means of brokering a hail mary buyout with the Chuns, a wealthy Japanese family they’ve invited — i.e. sequestered — on board to hash out the details.
Also on the manifest are Anna (Lauren Patten), the Collier’s ascendant daughter and Imogene’s best friend; Tripp (Jack Cutmore-Scott), Anna’s frat-boy brother; Amanda (Tamberla Perry), an opportunistic governor in bed with the Colliers; Father Toby (Danny Johnson), the family’s spiritual guide; and Sunil (Rahul Kohli), the devastatingly attractive ship owner.
Perceptive yet reckless, Imogene is more like Cotesworth than she cares to admit now that they are face to face once again. But when a pompous passenger that already offended half the ship is found skewered with a harpoon in his locked room, the detective recruits his reluctant former acolyte to solve the whodunit. The catch? Imogene is implicated in the crime, meaning her foe is now her only hope in clearing her name. But is it really a coincidence that Cotesworth and Imogene find themselves on the same deadly cruise? That’s one of those details we can’t reveal.
What can be assured is that Death and Other Details nails (no pun intended) the atmospheric Agatha Christie nod it’s going for. Elegant with a touch of grimy morality, the series navigates the choppy waters of shifting agendas with an eat-the-rich sensibility and a sly sense of humor. Of course, every case has its weaknesses: The suspect list isn’t top-to-bottom compelling, and some of the tangential side quests pad the episode order rather than fortify the central mission.
But as a modern-minded take on the timeless detective crusade, it pairs nicely with the likes of Hulu’s own Only Murders in the Building and Peacock’s Poker Face. Not unlike the former, Death and Other Details’ subtly and effectively creates a real sense of place for its murder and mayhem. Despite being a distracting CG creation (not every streamer has the budget to buy a cruise liner, Netflix!), the SS Varuna becomes a living vessel for the deception its passengers stow away behind the closed doors. With Cotesworth and Imogene as its eyes and ears, the series stages the ship like a game board, with everyone serving as a piece to be placed.
Yet, the strongest thread supporting Death and Other Details is its own guiding principle that the thrill of the hunt doesn’t lie with the victim but rather with their avengers. The series never falters in its own fascination with its sleuths, sometimes to the detriment of deepening its other characters. But who can blame the show when the pair’s complicated history is as much a training ground as it is a battlefield. She’s not a willing partner, and he’s not easily bested. Cotesworth has all the arrogance of a man whose talent is undeniable and the internalized fear of someone watching their heyday slip away. In the space between those two traits exists a confident, sometimes strange comedic aptitude that Patinkin has been honing to great effect in his recent work on shows like The Good Fight.
But as fun as it is to watch the master at work, Cotesworth’s mission is never single-mindedly in search of the killer — to the viewer’s benefit. He views his gifts as an inheritance to bestow upon a worthy successor, and Imogene is his choice.
As they interrogate their way through the guest list, Cotesworth sits back and advises her on how to refine her intellect to identify those details that matter and block out the rest. As Imogene, Beane deftly holds her own against the behemoth presence that is Cotesworth — and Patinkin, for that matter. Brassy and driven, she roots Imogene in the competing identities of a sturdy survivor and a stunted party girl who still struggles to subdue the childish impulses she holds onto from a shattered youth. It’s the hurt kid in her that spars with Cotesworth over their unfinished business, while simultaneously slipping under the intoxicating rush of a good mystery.
Death and Other Details doesn’t reinvent the episodic murder mystery, but it does respect that it is, in fact, all in the details and who can spot them. Prioritizing the bond — strained or not — between its sleuths gives the series a steady anchor to ground the audience in an increasingly convoluted guessing game. Many murder mysteries are guilty of weighing themselves down with too much plot, throwing in red herrings to divert suspension from the truth too early. Death and Other Details isn’t innocent of indulging in minutiae. But at least with Cotesworth and Imogene, there’s two minds to pull it back from the edge.
Death and Other Details premieres January 16 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.