Saturday, November 12, 2016

Webseries Review: Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party

Screenshot from Edgar Allan Poe's Murder Mystery Dinner Party, "The Bells"

A slightly spoilery review of Shipwrecked Comedy's very funny, very clever, slightly flawed murder mystery comedy. (Also contains small spoilers for And Then There Were None.)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Invite Only Casual Dinner Party/Gala-for-Friends Potluck (hereafter referred to as Poe Party) walks a tricky line. The set-up (Edgar Allan Poe invites a who’s who of literary greats to a murder mystery dinner party that turns all too real when the writers begin dying off one by one) is half Clue, half And Then There Were None, all filtered through the modern webseries fan’s obsession with classic literature. But though Clueand And Then There Were None are both great works, and though in synopsis form they sound very similar, they’re uneasy co-parents for a new story. And Then There Were None, like so many of Agatha Christie’s books, invests heavily in atmosphere, character, and theme, and attempts to make the mystery “fair”—that is, solvable to the perceptive and thoughtful reader. Clue runs on caricature and humor, and is so uninterested in fairness that it has three alternate endings; there’s no way for the viewer to guess “right,” because there’s no single right answer.

Poe Party situates itself in the unlikely confluence of these two sources. It’s a comedy, but it’s not afraid to reach for pathos; it’s a fair mystery in which clues to the logistics-heavy endgame are seeded early, but characters can pull glasses of vodka and rare peacock feathers out thin air, so long as it’s only for comedic effect; it delights in breaking up its lovingly-shot Gothic aesthetic by having Lenore the Ghost (series co-writer Sinéad Persaud) brag about being “totes literate.”

Much of the joy of Poe Party stems from these contrasts. Anyone who loves Parks and Recreation will understand why the comedy/pathos dichotomy is so compelling, and of course, it’s wonderful fun to see a cast of Serious Writers flirt and fight and flip out like the cast of, well, Clue

Poe Party excels at those balancing acts. Writers/stars Sean and Sinéad Persaud understand that in a murder mystery comedy, the difference between a funny death and a tragic one is audience empathy—so in a single episode, for instance, they swing deftly between the hilarity of the deaths of the delightful but broadly-sketched Jim and Jimmy (Jim O’Heir and Jimmy Wong) and the gut punch of the death of the beloved and warmly acted Annabel Lee (Mary Kate Wiles). They also have a detailed wealth of literary knowledge that they mostly call upon in the cattiest, pettiest ways possible (such as the run of characters insulting the simplicity of Ernest Hemingway’s work, culminating in Poe’s exquisitely well-delivered put-down: “Please, tell us more about the old man and the boat.”) Simply put, Poe Party is fun, and it makes you feel things, often at the same time.

There is one place where Poe Party’s balancing act stumbles, however, and that’s in the actual story. The mystery is reasonably fair, logistically (fans worked out about 80 percent of the solution prior to the reveal), but the story behind it—the killers’ motives—is unfocused, confusing, and poorly established. 

And the killer’s story is hardly the only important one in Poe Party. Poe and Lenore are the true stars of the series, and they have compelling parallel arcs about human connection. Poe is a shut-in who desperately wants the love of Annabel Lee and (though he might find it hard to admit) the friendship and acceptance of the world; Lenore is a ghost whose deepest human romance was cut tragically short and who now struggles to find similar connections in her afterlife. Poe’s journey, interrupted as it is by the death of Annabel, should be a gutwrenching tragedy; Lenore’s journey has the potential to be a transcendent tale of finding joy in the worst of times, as her death allows her to meet a new love in HG Wells.

But both of those stories are cut short by the denouement. The final episode of Poe Party is more focused on action and exposition than emotional resolution, and when it does slow down for a moment at the end, it wraps up Poe’s story with a somewhat out-of-nowhere “Tell-Tale Heart” homage. Poe’s guilt and paranoia at the end of the series is effective and evocative, but it has very little to do with his story up to that point. Lenore’s story isn’t touched on at all. The effect of Annabel and HG’s deaths on the rest of their (after)lives is not considered; the purpose of everything they’ve just gone through is unclear. A short (and very cute!) epilogue slightly improves matters by bringing Annabel and HG back as ghosts for a semi-happy ending, but the effect is hardly seamless, and as Poe isn’t seen, his story remains unclear.

If Poe Party were wholly Clue, this wouldn’t matter. But there’s enough Agatha Christie in its DNA to make the unfinished feeling of the story frustrating. And Then There Were None is more than a series of people dying on a creepy island; it’s a ceaseless current drawing the main character toward her inevitable demise, driven by her own past crimes, her own guilt. It’s a character piece. Poe Party isn’t as intensely psychological as that, but Poe and Lenore (and Annabel and HG) are characters that the audience cares about. They have histories and hopes, desires and demons, that Poe Party draws on to excellent effect throughout the series, and any fully satisfying ending has to contend with that.

But Poe Party has so much going for it that a lackluster ending—which could easily be fatal for another murder mystery, since the genre is generally so laser-focused on the big reveal—really is only a slight sour note. Whether your interest lies in the literary references, the wide-ranging humor, or even the logistical twists and turns of a good mystery, Poe Party delivers an extremely engaging experience.

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