Only Murders in the Building, Hulu’s 10-part whodunnit, has an immediate hook in its seemingly mismatched stars – comedy veterans Martin Short and Steve Martin, both in their 70s, and millennial superstar Selena Gomez, in her first scripted television role since Wizards of Waverly Place, the late-2000s Disney show that launched her career.
The series, created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman (a producer on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie), and produced by Dan Fogelman, creator of This Is Us, is less murder mystery than showcase for cross-generational repartee, with the added mystery of how, exactly, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez were persuaded to perform and produce a show about true crime aficionados turned amateur detectives.
That question never quite feels resolved, at least not in the eight episodes available for review, though it does lose urgency; despite a lot of gesticulating, rolling punchlines, sitcomy irreverence and inventive direction, Only Murders in the Building amounts to a whodunnit with the lull of podcast voice.
The pilot, directed by Jamie Babbit, opens in bloody medias res: Gomez’s Mabel leaning over a body, claiming to a flustered Martin and Short that “it’s not what you think”. In a narrative trick that will be familiar to viewers of HBO’s breakout summer hit The White Lotus, Only Murders then jumps back in time (two months earlier), to when its three protagonists are still strangers in their shared Upper West Side building, the Arconia.
Martin’s Charles is a former TV detective on the downward slope of fame, fond of dropping his washed-out tagline (“this sends the investigation into a whole new direction”) and keeping people at arm’s length. Short’s Oliver is a loquacious, financially strapped Broadway producer who struggles to maintain relationships (his apartment is “all I have, it’s who I am,” he tells his son). Gomez’s Mabel is a 20-something curiously living in the swanky Arconia (this is addressed) who masks a questionable past with sarcasm and Beats headphones.
Though set in a non-pandemic alternate January 2021, the show harkens to 2015 – all three are devotees of a true crime podcast called Everything is Not OK in Oklahoma hosted by the “queen of true crime”, Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), a spoof of podcast touchstone Serial and its narrator par exemplar, Sarah Koenig. Serendipitously united by their true crime enthusiasm, the trio take a too-vested interest in the shooting death of a young man in their building, which police dismissed as a suicide. They turn their haphazard, slapstick investigation – sorting through trash, light breaking and entering, generally snooping around – into their own true crime podcast, focusing on “only murders in the building”.
The investigation pings around with comic incompetency, from suspecting Sting (playing himself), to a bit involving a dead cat. The main event remains the unlikelihood of watching two comedy titans batting around with Gomez – an enjoyable enough pairing, though it never quite transcends the clear beats of the scripts. Martin and Short appear to be having an excellent time, this kind of work as familiar to them as breathing. Gomez, with her open, sensitive face, is at her best when silently conveying Mabel’s shock, pain, or disregard but her comic timing feels a hair off, likely owing to TV jitters the actor acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times.
For all the running around between Arconia floors, the series often feels pedestrian, its mild hijinks inviting multitasking with, say, a phone. The show’s comedic rhythm is that of a steep, banked turn – smooth, but never snappy. The jokes often boil down to “older person attempts to relate to millennial” that is at best mildly amusing. Still, fans of either Martin, Short or Gomez (myself included) will probably find enough to keep going.
Those who do will be rewarded by the show’s more expansive and surprising later episodes. Like High Fidelity, another half-hour Hulu series set in New York, Only Murders benefits when it shifts perspective away from its central trio – to Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s true crime wary police detective; to the adult deaf son (James Caverly) of podcast sponsor and neighbor Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), in a nearly dialogue-less episode that is easily the series’ most absorbing; to superfans of the Only Murders podcast, led by The Daily Show’s Jaboukie Young-White.
Those shifts provide enough novelty to suspend disbelief on some hanging threads – namely, a subplot involving a character wrongfully incarcerated for 10 years, which the scripts flag often but barely explore.
For a series about obsession, Only Murders in the Building has curiously shallow hold on one’s attention. Like the true crime podcasts that inspired it, the show appears to be figuring things out as it goes. Whether or not you’re along for the ride depends on one’s affinity for the performers – and how much time you’re willing to invest on a mild, moderately rewarding journey.