Only Murders in the Building

Only Murders in the Building – a glimpse into a world without hearing

Contributed by James Pocock

14/03/2022 00:00:00 • 5 min read

*This post may contain spoilers*

There is no audible dialogue for this episode.

This is the disclaimer that appears on the opening frame of Steve Martin’s comedy-whodunnit, Only Murders in the Building, Episode 7, “The Boy from 6B”. The key word is ‘audible’. Because while we’re not able to hear the dialogue that takes place through the eyes of Theo (played by deaf actor James Caverly), that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. By shooting many of the scenes from Theo’s point of view, we’re actually exposed to much more than just audible speech.

Firstly, there’s American Sign Language (ASL). The character of Teddy Dimas (played by Nathan Lane) and his son Theo, communicate only through sign language, as do Theo and Zoe (Olivia Reis), who claims she learnt it due to having a deaf cousin. ASL also acts an important plot point, with Zoe inadvertently showing Teddy her stolen ring as she signs to Theo. Caverly helped guide director Cherien Dabis through the ASL who admits, “When dialogue is not a factor, then you have to really think deeply about the visual storytelling.”  

Secondly, there’s lip-reading. Dabis acknowledges there has been controversy around the show’s depiction of lip-reading in the deaf community since it’s not realistic to catch every word. “The majority of people may get 30% of the conversation,” she says. “In this case, it did have to be word perfect and on camera so it was somewhat realistic that Theo could read their lips.” 

We often take for granted just how much we rely on lip-reading and other visual cues when we communicate. So much so, in fact, that in a recent OnePoll survey commissioned by Hidden Hearing, the use of face masks, ubiquitous over the last two years, were reported as being the third biggest communication barrier facing Brits today.

Finally, for the viewers’ benefit, there are subtitles. Just like when we watch a foreign film with subtitles, we find ourselves flicking between languages. Normally, we listen to the foreign dialogue and try to map it onto what we’re reading on screen. But in ‘The boy from 6B’, we find ourselves trying to match the subtitles to the actors’ lips, and to the ASL – so we’re actually being exposed to three methods of communication at once.

So what began as ‘lack’ of audibility is replaced by a richness. The concentration on the purely visual means that by the end of the 20-odd minute episode, we start to become accustomed to, and engrossed in, the world without dialogue. It isn’t until Steve Martin’s character Charles utters the only words of the episode that we’re brought back to the world of audible dialogue. We were able, for just a fleeting period, to put ourselves in Theo’s shoes. As Charles says, “We did it!”

Only Murders in the Building, Episode 7, “The Boy from 6B”, Disney+
“Behind the Scenes of the ‘Very Choreographed Ballet’ of ‘Only Murders in the Building’s’ ASL Episode,” Variety.
“Only Murders in the Building Star James Caverly Is Actually Deaf,” Men’s Health.