One of last season’s best episodes of “Only Murders in the Building” was “The Boy From 6B.” Said boy was Theo Dimas (James Caverly), the Deaf son of podcast sponsor and dip entrepreneur Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane). Theo moved through the bustling world of New York not only as a deaf man, but a man with a secret. Told like a silent movie, “The Boy From 6B” was heartfelt and incredibly authentic, especially if one is a Deaf or disabled person living with parents who aren’t. Teddy and Theo’s relationship is fraught, both with their own personal demons, but also an unspoken fear of disappointing the other.
We haven’t seen the Dimases much in Season 2 but this week’s episode “Flipping the Pieces” brings Theo Dimas back to the fold, pairing him up with Mabel (Selena Gomez) as everyone continues to look for Bunny’s killer. Right away, Caverly’s presence slows the narrative — not in a negative way — but by giving the audience a chance to look at his relationship to himself and the other characters.
As showrunner John Hoffman told IndieWire in a recent phone interview, the goal was to bring Theo back and “put him now in the mix, again, with someone who would be the last person to feel immediately comfortable with.” Mabel blamed Theo for pushing her friend Zoe (Olivia Reis) off the Arconia roof and, with the help of Teddy, placed the blame on her friend Oscar (Aaron Dominguez).
What makes Theo such a compelling character is his sense of guilt and regret. Sure, Oliver (Martin Short), Charles (Steve Martin), and Mabel all have that, but Theo intensifies that because of how isolated he is. “He’s such a complex character caught between morality, loyalty, and the web of lies spun by his father,” Caverly said to IndieWire via email. He tells Mabel in the most recent episode that he can’t figure out whether he pushed Zoe or if she fell, and it’s that lack of understanding that eats away at him. “Those questions lingering for any character are painful to walk through, and that’s what he recognizes in her [Mabel],” said Hoffman.
As “The Boy From 6B” laid out, Teddy desperately loves his son but struggles to find a connection. It’s a progressive step forward that “Flipping the Pieces” transitions Theo to being wholly on his own and it is he who must craft a connection, this time with Mabel. “In Season 1, it felt pretty easy for me to tap into the feeling of being isolated from the outside world—possibly due to what I’ve experienced as a Deaf person,” said Caverly.
But this week’s episode of “Only Murders” was a chance to separate Theo from his father and show the character’s anger. In a landscape where Deaf and disabled people are generally subjects of pity, watching Theo attempt to figure out who he is separate from his father, and just be angry, is refreshing. “I caught myself wondering at times what he’s feeling because he’s a lost soul without a sense of purpose,” Caverly said.
It’s part of the reason why Theo is the MVP of the series. It’s not only that he’s a Deaf man navigating a city where he’s unseen, or that he’s struggling with a roiling sense of guilt and regret. For all the humor and hijinks of what’s going on with Oliver, Mabel, and Charles, Theo feels grounded in reality. He forces the narrative to slow down and show the loneliness of living in a big city. He shows the toil of trying to find one’s place in life. Caverly brings a sensitivity to Theo that is authentic as a person, not a character. Whether it’s seeing him play opposite Nathan Lane in “The Boy From 6B,” and witnessing his inner pain at his father’s anguish, or trying to parcel out his feelings to Mabel in “Flipping the Pieces” about what he’s done, he has a complex depth of emotion that is, at times, at odds with the heightened world espoused by our leads.
Theo also upends a lot of Deaf tropes, in this episode in particular. Here we have Mabel and Theo attempt to solve a mystery together. Mabel points out that she can’t do sign language while Theo tells her he can’t read lips. Communication is something that, when Deaf people are present on-screen, usually isn’t perceived as a problem when it is. In an article from Boston University’s School of Public Health, it’s said that even if a Deaf person can read lips, only 30 to 45 percent of what is said is actually understood. And while there are 70 million Deaf people in the world, according to Human Rights Watch, sign language remains undertaught, leaving Deaf people few avenues of equal communication.
It’s an opportunity for “Only Murders in the Building” to reflect a New York City that feels a bit closer to the real thing. It’s not to say there isn’t a fantasy element. Wheelchair user Paulette (Ali Stroker) navigates the Arconia and the Pickle Diner with no barriers, this in spite of the fact that only 25 percent of NYC restaurants were wheelchair accessible according to a 2022 study.
But to watch Caverly’s Theo navigate a world where people don’t see him and can’t communicate with him, in a city that’s already moving at a rapid pace, feels genuine to disabled and Deaf experiences. “Part of being a Deaf actor is being an advocate for the disabled community—it’s a badge that I wear,” Caverly said. He explained that he’s in constant communication with the writers to enhance the character’s experiences to be authentic to Deaf experiences.
It’s certainly an issue that continues to be present in film and television, in spite of “CODA” winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards earlier this year. Caverly said that while compared to 10 to 15 years ago Deaf representation has improved it isn’t fast enough. “There’s still a vast untapped resource of Deaf and disabled writers, actors, directors, and creators [who] are screaming for representation on-screen,” he said.
“Flipping the Pieces” should garner the same appreciation as “The Boy From 6B” did, if only for the continued presence of James Caverly. It’s not strictly about the way the series is doing representation well (though there is that). But Caverly’s presence gives the series a grounded quality it needs when things get too intense. Not to mention Caverly’s acting is so expressive, genuine, and memorable to see when it’s allowed to be center stage.
“Only Murders in the Building” streams Tuesdays on Hulu.