The first three episodes of 'Only Murders in the Building' suggest that we may be watching one of the best new shows of the year -- if they can stick the landing.
- 🔪 The odd trio of Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin have great chemistry.
- 🔪 The crime at the heart of the show is surprisingly compelling.
- 🔪 The balance of New York humor and inside-baseball entertainment gags are a constant win.
- 🔪 The time-jumping is a little creaky, especially the opening surprise.
- 🔪 The use of a celebrity cameo at the end of the third episode is funny but seems to sure to sputter out.
- 🔪 It's honestly a shame we have to wait a week for a new installment.
This post contains spoilers from Only Murders in the Building.
Steve Martin and Martin Short are, separately and together, comedic geniuses. They’ve been hallmarks of American comedy for decades. Martin’s inventive stand-up act morphed into a massive career as a comic leading man and eventually an avuncular, paternal figure in films like Parenthood and Father of the Bride, though he’s largely eschewed new roles in the last decade. (He’s only appeared in two films in the last 10 years, and not in any TV shows as anything other than himself.) Short has been a mainstay of everything from Saturday Night Live to late-night comedy to the Father of the Bride series himself, and it’s equally obvious that both men are at their strongest these days when they work together, whether in their live double act, on talk shows, or in a new TV series. That latter is here now, with Hulu’s clever new mystery-comedy Only Murders in the Building.
Inspired by the spate of true-crime podcasts and shows of the last few years, Only Murders in the Building (which Martin co-created with John Hoffman) has a fun hook of a premise: what if three true-crime podcast junkies discovered a mystery worthy of its own true-crime podcast in their apartment building? Set at a swanky apartment complex in New York City called the Arconia, Only Murders in the Building features Martin as Charles, who’s best known for having starred in a network-TV procedural as a tough-as-nails detective and now spends his days doing just about nothing but listening to true-crime shows and keeping to himself. Short is Oliver, a down-on-his-luck Broadway director desperate to find a new show that will enable him to maintain his lavish lifestyle. And then there’s the wild card of the show’s trio, Selena Gomez as Mabel, a sardonic young woman living on her own in a massive condo who digs into true-crime shows and podcasts simply to keep her guard up in the Big Apple. Though the opening episode, “True Crime”, opens in medias res, with Charles and Oliver running into Mabel’s apartment to find her bloodied and sitting over an apparently dead body wearing a tie-dye hoodie (warning that what they’re seeing isn’t what it looks like), the majority of the action takes place two months earlier.
There, we see how Charles, Oliver, and Mabel first bond. After an awkward ride in the Arconia’s elevator with a snappish young man with slicked-back hair, each of them, in their respective apartments, settle in for a calm night of listening to a new episode of their favorite true-crime public-radio podcast “All is Not OK in Oklahoma”. (It’s here that we briefly see a visualization of the events of that podcast, featuring its Sarah Koenig-esque host Cinda Canning, portrayed very briefly by Tina Fey.) When the building’s fire alarm is set off, the three of them make their way to a nearby deli only to realize their joint love of the podcast. That would be enough to make odd but fast friends, but then they’re stunned to realize the reason why the fire alarm was set: the snappish young man with slicked-back hair, fellow tenant Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), has apparently committed suicide. “Apparently” is the operative word, because after the motley crew sneaks back into the building to see the cops reviewing the scene of Tim’s death, they become instantly convinced that there’s something fishy and that he was murdered.
“True Crime” makes clear that no one outside of Charles, Mabel, and Oliver believe that Tim was killed. “Goddamn true crime fuckin’ numbnuts” is how a grouchy cop (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) brands the three civilians, but they choose to follow their gut. Oliver takes it upon himself to turn this true crime into a true-crime podcast starring himself, Charles, and Mabel, soon titled “Only Murders in the Building” after Charles specifies that they should limit the scope of their would-be investigations.
But as the end of “True Crime” makes clear, there’s a lot about the three strangers-turned-sleuths that they’re hiding from each other. Oliver, we see in the final minutes, is desperately strapped for cash. He is, in fact, so desperate that he goes to New Jersey to ask his son Will (Ryan Broussard) for some money that Will is unwilling to provide...again. Charles, who delivers a monologue to Mabel about why he prefers to live alone (something he’s done for apparently nearly thirty years), is revealed to have lived with someone named Lucy (though it’s unclear who Lucy is and why she’s not there anymore). Most pressing to the investigation is what Mabel’s leaving out. After Charles describes his desire to live alone, she’s inspired to mention that her apartment is actually her aunt’s, and that some of her childhood memories here are with a friend group she dubbed the Hardy Boys. And one of those Hardy Boys? The dead man himself, Tim Kono, as a picture reveals in the final shot.
“True Crime” does an incredibly effective job of laying the foundation for Only Murders in the Building, balancing between building the spiky camaraderie between the main three characters, creating multiple mysteries that will presumably suss out by the finale (why, for instance, would Tim kill himself when he was trying to retrieve a package featuring a diamond engagement ring?), and also being funny. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the playful negging that Short and Martin get into when talking about each other in real life will enjoy the back-and-forth between Oliver and Charles, as when Oliver presumes that Charles has auditioned for him before. “Aren’t you Scott Bakula? ...Oh, no, you’re the other one,” Oliver says to a bewildered Charles early on. Or, when Charles has to say the word “Ding!” to the dull and overly chatty Oliver when the elevator lets him off, following with “Even the elevator wanted that story to end”. It’s shocking to realize that it’s been so long for either of these men in more regular roles in TV or film, and gratifying to see them slip back into form.
And Gomez is a shrewd casting choice, too, as the first episode makes clear. There’s an instant odd-couple vibe to her presence on the show, as she treads carefully between being deadpan and hiding a treasure trove of secrets. Mabel is obviously the true entry point of the mystery -- the final shot implies that the real shocker for Charles and Oliver is potentially not going to be who killed Tim (if he didn’t kill himself), but that Mabel has been keeping her connection to the deceased to herself. Gomez’s dry delivery works wonders here, as she presents Mabel as being so fiercely guarded that she’s barely willing to reveal any emotion to anyone. It’s a solid fit for her performance style.
The second of three episodes premiering on August 31, is titled with the most pertinent question of all: “Who is Tim Kono?” From Charles’ and Oliver’s perspectives, it’s pressing in terms of getting their hopeful podcast listeners hooked into the crime. For Mabel, answering that question is something even her own memories can’t truly help with. Throughout the episode, we see more of her past, as a 10-year old sketching outside of the Arconia and eventually bonding with Tim, and mutual friends Oscar (Aaron Dominguez) and Zoe (Olivia Reis). But most of those flashbacks are crucial to the mystery of Tim’s death. In one, we see Mabel and Tim arguing, with Tim unwilling to speak up for Oscar, who -- it’s revealed by the end -- has been in jail for eight years for the death of Zoe, who was pushed off the building during a fractious New Year’s party.
Oscar, though he was Zoe’s boyfriend, seems to be innocent, and while Tim saw “someone else”, he’s never said as much. Intermixed with the flashbacks, Mabel records herself talking about Tim and her life, less for the podcast and more for self-protection. The more Mabel learns about Tim, the more she realizes she knows very little about him. She, Charles, and Oliver break into Tim’s apartment the night before the cops will remove all evidence of his death for their investigation, and she’s shocked to see that Tim has countless Hardy Boys novels in his place and that those novels are simply a hiding place for jewelry of some kind. She even has a daydream of sorts where she interacts with the dead Tim, whose guard is let down slightly (in part because he’s just a fantasy from her mind). And the video recording is there “in case I’m next”, as she dubs the file.
Mabel’s also realizing how little she can trust the previously friendly Charles. Early in “Who is Tim Kono?”, she decides to watch an old episode of Brazzos, the procedural in which Charles became a celebrity. In doing so, she’s shocked to watch an interrogation scene where he says, verbatim, the exact same monologue he shared in the first episode about why he lives alone and how his father was terrible to his mother. When she confronts him, Charles swears that he wrote the monologue himself and that it was inspired by his upbringing. Considering how little Mabel is able to trust about people from her own past, it’s unsurprising that she doesn’t hold Charles in high regard after this reveal.
Elsewhere, Charles’ vanity gets a little further revealed; when the trio attends an in-memoriam ceremony for Tim, they get next to no information about how the rest of the building’s tenants saw Tim (outside of a general dislike for him). Oliver tries to get information from Ursula the building manager (Vanessa Aspillaga) about Tim, while also realizing that Charles is about as disliked in the building thanks to never tipping employees, except with an autographed photo that’s used for target practice. They’re able to get their hands on a binder full of complaints on Tim, but only after each of them pay a few hundred dollars each to buy boxes full of something called “gut milk”. Yum?
The third episode asks a question that’s equally pressing for the entire series in its title: “How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?” Focusing primarily on Oliver, the episode is as much about him trying to solve his money problems, with the fussy condo board member Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell) hounding him for his overdue building fees lest he lose his utilities. Oliver decides to bother an old investor of his, fellow tenant and deli owner Teddy (an effectively intense Nathan Lane), in the hopes of getting a sponsorship that will allow him to stay in the Arconia. While he’s hustling his way around the building, Mabel and Charles visit Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), the distraught owner of a cat who not only died the same night as Tim, but whose pawprints were found amidst the blood in Tim’s apartment. During the outing, Mabel learns a key fact about Charles -- his anxiety is so bad that his nose tends to bleed, as it does when he tries to stealthily inform Howard that he’s being recorded as he spouts anger at the deceased Tim for his grouchiness towards Howard’s cat. That anxiety fortunately doesn’t sprout up when Mabel and Charles meet Jan (Amy Ryan), a bassoonist who lives in the building, who Charles is unable to stop himself flirting with.
Although Oliver envisions the trio’s attempt to find a prime suspect as a Broadway-style audition in his fantasies, Howard is quickly eliminated in the real world: if he’s telling the truth, then he faints at the sight of blood, even a nosebleed like Charles’. (The Chorus Line-style fantasy is goofy, but it’s the kind of goofy that allows Martin Short to embrace the comic extremes that have defined his career. It’s a delightful sequence, silly as it is.) Oliver, meanwhile, eventually succeeds at swaying Teddy to sponsor the podcast. It’s an impressive feat considering the pre-title sequence set in 2005, in which we watch Oliver persuade Teddy to produce what would become his biggest flop, a musical called Splash (seemingly unconnected to the Tom Hanks film) that is known for having caused massive injuries when the stage floor failed to open and reveal an in-stage pool, instead leading to chorus boys breaking their arms and legs after jumping off a tall tower. It was disastrous enough that Oliver seemingly lost his wife Roberta (Adriane Lenox) after its massive failure. Teddy’s willingness to sponsor the podcast, which saves Oliver from his building-fee issue, is all the more impressive considering that Oliver apparently talked Teddy out of producing actual hits like Les Miserables, Hamilton, and Mamma Mia (“I didn’t like ABBA when they were ABBA” is Oliver’s defense).
Howard, for one, seems happy to see Tim go, but while he’s plenty pleased, he’s perhaps a bit too clingy to his dead cat Evelyn -- when he faints at the sight of Charles’ nose bleeding, Charles goes to get ice only to see said dead cat in Howard’s freezer. It’s a ridiculous moment, made particularly hilarious by Martin briefly turning into Lou Costello, hemming and hawing and unable to speak in confusion and horror at the sight of the DIY taxidermy.
Mabel, meanwhile, continues doing some sleuthing of her own. She visits the building super, who also happens to be the father of her old friend Oscar, whose prison sentence has coincidentally wrapped up (or is it that coincidental?) Unfortunately for her, the super refuses to let Oscar know she’s looking for him, because he needs a fresh start. Mabel’s still got a lead, though: in the pile of evidence from Tim’s apartment, she finds a note for an upcoming rendezvous with a pair of initials (“GM”), potentially leading her one step closer to finding out what happened to Tim.
Yet all seems kosher in the present until Oliver encounters a celebrity tenant of the Arconia who Charles had initially suggested as a lark may be a suspect. Why, it's legendary musician Sting, playing himself as someone who’s so grouchy about Oliver’s dog that when Oliver later returns to his apartment to find his dog poisoned and a threatening note on his door, he decides that there is a prime suspect in the murder of Tim Kono. Yes, that's right, he visualizes Sting on the same Broadway stage, singing a capella, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”.
The three-episode premiere of Only Murders in the Building has but two problems: first, all of the episodes aren’t available to binge immediately, and second, the possible fear that the eventual revelations to the various mysteries won’t be satisfying. On the former count, as frustrating as it may be for the entire season to not be binge-able now, it’s arguably fitting, as so many successful true-crime podcasts worked because they created tension week after week, as opposed to giving the audience the whole story all at once. To the latter count, we can only wonder if there will be a letdown or two to come, but enjoy the wild ride for as long as is possible.
Only Murders in the Building makes an obvious statement even more obvious: it has been far too long since Steve Martin and Martin Short worked together in a fictional environment (though their Netflix special is available to enjoy right now too). And they make for an off-kilter but very funny trio with Selena Gomez, in a show that’s off to a solid start in balancing mystery and comedy without batting a proverbial eye. Only Murders in the Building has a very strong core that hopefully holds up throughout the season.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
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