The first season of the character actor rich murder mystery was — if not a revelation — refreshing and definitely a whole lot of fun. I loved it, placing it comfortably in my top ten shows of 2022. The premise, if you missed the first season, starts off with a standard trope from the Agatha Christie vault: a body, a detective, and a collection of prime suspects. It’s main twist comes straight outta Rashomon. Each episode is spun from one suspect’s perspective, but there’s a second twist (a double-twist, if you will). The individual episode pays homage to the genre that is the prism the character sees their life through. In season one in order that was: rom-com, gritty action, musical, dark thriller, screwball teen comedy, and adult animation.
Tiffany Haddish plays our detective, Danner, her first name never mentioned. She extends proudly from the Columbo line — if not as obviously as Natasha Lyonne’s lead in Poker Face. At first, she seems muddled and ineffective, but eventually you get to see her special set of skills for sleuthery. It mostly involves a keen eye for human indiosyncrasies. And it’s an anthology so the crime, along with the rest of the cast, was to change every season. However, it was announced relatively early that Sam Richardson and Zoë Chao would be back in at least some capacity for a second season.
The end of the season gave a perfect excuse to bring back Richardson’s bumblingly adorkable hero Aniq and his love interest, Chao’s self-assured, inwardly goofy Zoë without resorting to the convoluted murder-follows-leads trope. Aniq’s knack for puzzle-solving lends itself as the perfect complement to Danner’s chaotic sociological sonar. The stage was set for Danner to team up with Aniq as a crimefighting, killer deducing duo.
Aaaaaaaand the show’s second season decides to go with the good ol’ convoluted trope of unlikely murder magnet. Our season opens with Aniq & Zoe on their way to the latter’s sister’s wedding. The two are comfortably into a relationship, to the point that Aniq is hoping to ask for her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Yeah, yeah, we know that’s antiquated and paternal, but as with the first season, the second season’s first genre is rom-com. As with Airplane! being an overall homage to disaster films, but directly parodying a 1957 movie called Zero Hour, there is one film that stands as virtual template. Given all that has been revealed, you can probably solve the mystery of the movie it’s homaging most. If not, hint: imagine Ben Stiller as Aniq and Robert DeNiro as Zoë’s father.
Zoë’s Afterparty father is perfect casting in the as-subdued-as-he-ever-is Ken Jeong (as Feng). And Aniq’s slapstick misfires begin almost immediately. He insults Feng’s industry of Taiwanese ice shavings by comparing it to its Hawaiian counterpart (Feng snarls and spits at the idea). He then mistakes Zoë’s sister Grace (Poppy Liu) tea cozy of his likeness for an “Obama Puppet.” And without missing a beat, Aniq’s blue car (left in neutral) makes a beeline for his aspirational future father-in-law’s new work truck, running over Grace’s Aniq/Obama puppet cozy along the way.
And everything Gaylord Foc… we mean Aniq Adjaye tries to do to impress Zoë’s parents fails miserably. Danner sees most of these stumbles as sequel antics, presumably on the way to an engagement by the end, although she does call out his accidental spitting of camel’s milk as “just gross.” It’s not a spoiler to say we likely will get that proposal-followed-by-a-yes at the end of the season, but for now, we’re setting up the murder and our group of eccentric suspects.
The episode opens on a brief cold open of Aniq and Zoë driving up to meet the parents. As in the first, we smash cut to the murder discovery. In this season Mr. Body, discovered by Grace, is her tech billionaire husband, played by Zach Woods. We will quickly learn that Woods plays Edgar with the same, um, let’s say awkward savantic whimsy(?), he brings to seemingly every role. However, for all Edgar’s monotone obliviousness, he’s one of the more astute and kind characters of this new bunch. At least he’s a beacon of relative kindness as Aniq stumbles through an even worse set of misunderstandings and misadventures than he did at season one’s reunion.
The prime suspect — and almost certainly not the killer — is Zoë’s delightfully peculiar sister Grace. She found the body and is clearly despised by Edgar’s mother Isabella, who instantly accuses Grace. While she’s not precisely a manic pixie dreamgirl, she’s definitely MPDG-adjacent. As we mentioned, she knits likeness cozies, and we will find out soon she surrounds herself with antiquities. Her other character trait so far is her lack of fortune in love.
One representation of her love follies is Travis, a dorky subreddit lurker type played by the always perfect Paul Walter Hauser. We meet him as Aniq discovers he has been seated at the “losers and exes” table. He’s also hanging around at the time of the murder, either because he’s not over Grace or due to his fashioning himself a Sam Spade-y internet sleuth, fedora and all. He’s positioned to be the killer and would seem to have multiple motives (and a mysterious folder), but would this show make the goofiest goofball the muderer two years in a row? Jean Ralphio… we mean Yasper’s betrayal was a heart dagger last season.
The most obvious suspect — or at least the character we most want it to be — is the best man. The dashing charmer Sebastian (Jack Whitehall) is initially pointed out by Travis as the man he presumed to be Zoë’s boyfriend. We are introduced to him at the front table with his arm wrapped around her. He doesn’t endear himself when he antagonizes Aniq to an absolutely cruel level. In the investigation scenes, he clearly has something to hide as he persuades Isabella to delay the official inquiry until “something” is resolved.
Isabella, Edgar’s mom (Elizabeth Perkins) is, well, the absolute worst. She is mean-spirited, devious, has the knives out for Grace, and is one of many to rush to judgment of Aniq. She even entices Aniq to kick a toilet-flushing ca… we mean her small dog, slipping out when others see it, stripping the act of context. (That context is essentially that it is Isabella’s demon dog.) She also is quick to label Aniq a druggie after her daughter (“adopted daughter”) Hannah suggests with zero evidence that Aniq would be down to smoke her psychotropic centerpieces.
The “adopted” part of that is a running gag that is yet to get old, and fresh it should remain as Anna Konkle is an unsubtle delight in the role. It’s worth noting that she’s always intro’d as Edgar’s adoptive sister. Given the oddities of both siblings (“adoptive siblings”), it’s quite possible it was Edgar himself who took her in. She seems a good bet for either villain or red herring. I’d posit she can’t be both, but who knows with this show.
Then there’s the parents Aniq is meeting. Feng is Ken Jeong at his most subdued yet, which is still pretty Ken Jeong manic. So far, his major character trait, as with his wife Vivian, the always excellent Vivian Wu, is perpetual annoyance. However, as always with this show, one episode in, we’re dealing with a very unreliable narrator. And these two are bound to be the most distorted as Aniq vexes about their opinion of him. It’s hard not to feel that when we start to see them through other eyes, it will turn out there’s a lot more going on with them and Aniq’s no-good, totally-bad weekend is likely barely registering with them.
And that brings us to the wild card suspect: Funcle Ulysses, played by John Cho. Feng is clearly not overjoyed with his Indiana Jones-esque explorer brother’s return. When Aniq brings Vivian the charger, Zoë’s parents and Ulysses are clearly mid-discussion of some deep-seated wrong from the past. We likely won’t get more visibility on what’s going on in that late-night, lakeside meet up until late in the season as Ulysses’ story (surely an international action-adventure) is the first of the the bunch and that’s not until episode 7.
So, we’re set up for Danner to play Poirot with the help of her particular Hastings in Aniq. Other than — barring a shocking narrative choice — Aniq and Zoë, and probably sister prime suspect Grace, who actually dunnit could be just about anybody.
Stray Mysteries –
- Woods’ performances may be a bit one-note, but that one-note elevates every project he’s in. It’s the sort of oddball charmlessness that’s somehow disarmingly charming. With Edgar it takes a while (and remember, we’ve only seen him so far through Aniq and then Grace’s eyes), but he gradually reveals Edgar’s social cue cluelessmess does not exclude a strong sense of empathy and kindness.
- Oh, there is a second note. The Office‘s Gabe is also awkward, but goes from initially charming to absolutely charmless. Well, that’s not fair. Gabe never really had any charm.
- Speaking of oddball charm, we do get to see how as much as Aniq does not want to admit it to Travis, the sisters do have a type. Aniq is nowhere near as far aflung on the spectrum as Edgar. That said, it’s fair to say they both are smart individuals with agile, logic-fueled minds and who, at heart, care about other people.
- One thing Aniq is not, even at his worst level of people pleasing, is Brett. For all his bumbling, Aniq’s a level-headed and ultimately selfless individual. If that’s the model where her parents are starting, once the chaos of the wedding (and of course the murder) wear off, they will see Aniq for the sweet soul. They just want him to love their daughter, and how much Aniq loves Zoë is practically the whole point of the show.
- So, up next for the confessional genre choices, is Grace, who sees herself proudly, without prejudice, at the center of a Jane Austen adaptation. Be prepared for Zach Woods in fancy wigs.