This post contains spoilers from Only Murders in the Building.
The true crime podcast explosion took hold in 2014 when Serial debuted and has shown no signs of slowing down. Weekly installments of the investigative serialized format sent listeners down a theorizing rabbit hole, boasted a catchy theme song, and a host with a reassuring voice. The familiar plinky plonk piano and Sarah Koenig’s cadence (via a very good casting choice) is emulated in the new Hulu comedy whodunnit Only Murder in the Building, which taps into the fascination of this genre that existed long before podcasts. The three loners at the heart of the story all live in the desirable (and fictitious) Upper West Side co-op the Arconia (the Belnord stands in for the exteriors and courtyard), which boasts an impressive courtyard and plenty of square footage to escape in.
Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short), and Mabel (Selena Gomez) take refuge within the walls of this impressive pre-war building but are drawn out by a shared love in the “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma.” When a fire alarm interrupts the latest episode, they find themselves in the same bar across the street desperate to discover what happens next. The unlikely trio bond over the finer details and then discover their co-op is the scene of suicide they believe is murder. Decades separate the neighbors in age, but the generation gap is not a concern when a mystery needs solving, and part of the Only Murders in the Building charm comes from this unexpected dynamic.
Six years before Selena Gomez was born, Martin Short and Steve Martin first worked together in the 1986 comedy, Three Amigos! A partnership was born (sorry, Chevy) and their most recent project pre-Only Murders in the Building was a comedy tour that was cut short last March due to the pandemic. Unlike the cop drama former TV Charles headlined (called “Brazzos”), the Hulu series marks Martin’s first time in a continuing television role, and collaborating with Short is a no-brainer. Gomez is no stranger to the small screen and she got her big break on the Disney sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place in 2007, but this marks her big return to this medium. On paper, teaming a beloved comedy duo with a multi-hyphenate millennial with nearly 250 million Instagram followers might read as a gimmick or a ploy to draw audiences from a vast spectrum of demographics. In this crowded streaming landscape, it helps to have big stars and this does tick multiple boxes, however, names only get you so far, and chemistry matters. Gomez is the unknown ingredient in this dynamic, but she brings balance to Short’s manic theater director energy and Martin’s anxious faded TV star. Mabel is prickly and droll, she also can’t hide her amusement at the antics of the older men, and there is ease from the moment she steps foot in the bar looking for a place to listen to “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma.”
They share more than a love of true crime podcasts as each is deeply wounded by their past. Oliver covers his work failures with an air of someone still staging Broadway hits in an apartment packed with mementos of successes (and flops). Short is a ball of energy who drives the podcast recording through his character’s desire to direct the next big production, and he is also can’t help but take every opportunity to gently poke fun at Charles. Mabel’s deadpan delivery is an armor, in part because of the secret connection she shares with victim Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) and because of her past experience in the Arconia.
The group of friends she ran around with from childhood into her teens was referred to as the Hardy Boys (after the novels) and they would solve fake mysteries in the building before graduating to breaking into apartments when the owners were away and boozy New Year’s Eve parties. When the latter ended in tragedy, Mabel’s Hardy Boys were no more but the unanswered questions from that night have plagued her — and caused a falling out with Tim Kono. Mabel’s sarcastic retorts are a defense mechanism, as is her tendency to withhold information from her co-conspirators. It makes her seem aloof, which fits with the sunglasses and Beats-wearing accessories she sports when she first meets Charles and Oliver. Despite the noise-canceling headphones, she hears everything that went on in that elevator ride with Tim in the hours before his death – further adding to the idea that she wears them so no one bothers her.
Gomez has the tall task of imbuing Mabel with a charm that can break free of the sardonic bonds she has crafted as self-preservation, and it is in moments alone with Charles that these pieces start to fall into place. She is hurt when she thinks he stole what she viewed as a sincere speech and moment of vulnerability about his past from his TV character – the story is true and he wrote it for his character. She spends most of the second episode directing pointed barbs at him, which go beyond her usual dry tone, and it takes a beat for Mabel to warm to him again. The push/pull between the podcast team fuels the tension within this group and gives each member a chance to shine. Short gets a lot of the early laughs but he also gets his share of melancholy and worry (particularly regarding his dog), but he wears the mask of thriving better than his counterparts.
Despite the decades that separate them, Mabel and Charles wear a similar loner status and the rapport that develops is one akin to a father and daughter. Don’t worry, Gomez is never subject to sleazy comments from either man about her age or appearance, and romance is never a contention – though the series does feature at least one love story. While the anxiety-induced Charles reflects an essence of self-doubt that is easy to empathize with, Mabel’s connection to Tim and her troubled past adds emotionality to the proceeding. They don’t know Mabel used to be friends with the deceased, regardless, she reminds her fellow amateur detectives this isn’t a faceless victim but a real person with a real family and friends (even if everyone in the Arconia seemed to hate him). True crime often reduces the murder victim to a body to be picked over and Tim Kono is more than a cryptic puzzle to be solved or exploited.
It is scenes like Mabel’s plea to not forget the real cost of this incident that cements Gomez’s performance. It would be easy for Short and Martin to steal the spotlight or at least overshadow their co-star, but Gomez more than holds her own whether she is making fun of them for their text message sign-offs or giddily delving into trash alongside them looking for clues. Unlikely team-ups are a sleuth cornerstone whether every version of Holmes and Watson or Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) in Bones. Typically, crime-solving teams are a duo (with a group of expert associates) and while Only Murders in the Building could work with just Short and Martin, it would lose the spark.
“In real life, if I had met two older men that were into solving mysteries, I would totally bond with them in the same manner,” Gomez said in a recent interview with The New York Times while speaking about her crime-junkie predilection. It is a casting choice that shouldn’t make sense, in part because of the age gap and because Gomez has kept her acting to a few roles her name wasn’t expected – the first thing I saw her in was Spring Breakers. But after watching her in this screwball crime-solving adventure, it is clear the two foils of Gomez and Martin against Short’s comic whirlwind are a grounding force that helps the series sing.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.
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